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Follow these 5 tips for buying used cars

By Craig Clough, Staff writer
Published On: May 23 2011 01:08:27 PM CDT
Updated On: Dec 28 2012 09:07:17 AM CST
car buying

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For those who are not automobile experts, buying a used car can be a nerve-racking experience. Knowing what questions to ask and what avenues to investigate can be difficult.

Very few people actually enjoy the process of buying a car. Sure, we all like to have shiny, new-to-us rides to show off to our friends and family, but the actual act of walking the car lots and dealing with the stereotypical cheesy car salesman is another story all together.

In fact, more than one poll asking people to rank their least favorite place to visit has seen the car dealership land a top-three spot, usually with the dentist and a lawyer's office also in the mix.

But fear no more. Ashby Carter, general manager of seven Car X auto shops in the Minneapolis, Minn., area, said there are several things an auto novice can do to help ensure that a used car buyer is getting the best deal possible.

lineup of Ford pickup trucks on car dealership lot

No. 5: Check models for common problems

Certain automobiles are known to have problems common to that particular make and model. This is where a trusted mechanic can be invaluable.

"(Buyers) can get information best by picking up the phone and talking with a mechanic and saying, 'I am looking at a Ford Focus-- what do you think about the Ford Focus?' and he can tell the buyer what the common things to look for," Carter said.

Also, knowing how new a certain model is can help a buyer avoid a car with common mechanical problems.

"If you are looking at a car that is the first model year of that vehicle, I don't buy those because the manufacturers don't have the bugs worked out of them," Carter said. "It is more likely just to have some inherent unusual engineering issues. I'm looking for second- or third-year models on the vehicle just to work out the things in the manufacturing process."

car shopping online computer keyboard

No. 4: Compare prices online

With so many websites selling used cars, it is much easier now than in the past for a buyer to get a good idea of what the market value is for a certain used car with a certain amount of miles on it.

There is the Kelly Blue Book website plus AutoTrader.com, Carsoup.com, craigslist.com, and many other websites that can help a buyer get a good idea of what a certain automobile should sell for.

Lisa Cafferty of St. Paul, Minn., said she failed to check car prices and overpaid for her Volkswagen Jetta.

"After I bought my Jetta, I went on several websites just to see what they were going for -- I saw similar cars with fewer miles on them -- for almost $1,000 less than I paid at the dealer," Cafferty said.

crash damaged car

No. 3: Investigate the vehicle's history

Websites like Carfax.com can help a buyer find out the vehicle's history of accidents by entering the vehicle's identification number.

If there is no history available, look for evidence that the car has been in a major accident, and always look at the car in the daylight, not at night. Check out the chrome trim and windshield areas for signs of overspray from a recent paint job. Also, look for chrome parts that don't match. If the chrome on the front is all brand new, but rusted in the back, that can be an indicator it has been in a wreck.

A vehicle that has been in a major accident can cause problems if the frame was bent and not properly straightened.

"You take a car that's been in a bad accident, and it's had to have been put on a frame straightener, it takes a very good body man to get that vehicle square again, with the frame straight and the car going down the toad straight," said Carter.

auto mechanic using laptop in front of car repair

No. 2: Ask a trusted mechanic

Before you buy a used car, be sure to first have a mechanic check out the vehicle and give his or her opinion on its reliability.

"You're looking for a willingness for (the seller) to let you take an extended test drive, with or without them, and a willingness to have an independent expert take a look at the vehicle. We do a fair number of car inspections for folks," Carter said.

Carter also said a novice should already have found a trusted mechanic before looking at automobiles.

"A mechanic ought to be like a doctor," Carter said. "I go to this doctor because I trust him. I go to this mechanic because I like him, and he may not always be the cheapest guy in town, but I know he always does good work and he always stands by his work."

car speedometer odometer dashboard

No. 1: Check for odometer tampering

The No. 1 thing to look out for is evidence that the odometer has been tampered with to make the car appear that it has less miles on the road, Carter said.

"You're going to want to match tires to mileage," Carter said. "If you've got an odometer that says the vehicle's got 30,000 miles on it, then you should probably still have the original set of tires on that vehicle. If you don't have, then you might want to question whether the mileage on the vehicle is accurate."

Checking out the brake pedals and the rest of the interior can help determine if the car has more miles on it that advertised.

"If you've got an odometer that reads 40 or 50 thousand miles, but you see huge wear marks on a brake pedal or accelerator pedal, that's an indication that the mileage on the odometer is not accurate."

Carter said odometer tampering is less common these days, but that it is still happens more than people would think.

"You hear reports that 10 percent of the cars sold have had odometers tampered with," Carter said. "It's not as easy to do these days because you've got electronic odometers as opposed to mechanical. But those are sort of the numbers that have floated around the industry for a long time."

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