Buying a Used Car: How Not To Get Burned

Next to your home, a car is probably the most expensive pre-owned purchase you will ever make. There’s a good reason finance companies ask you to perform a pre-purchase inspection on a home: a lot of secrets can hide behind new paint and shingles. The same is true of a used car; a lot of problems could be lurking under that shiny new paint job and steam-cleaned engine.

Research that VIN

The VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) visible through the windshield on the driver’s side of the dashboard is like your car’s social security number. In the right hands, it can provide all kinds of information about your car’s history. You can try to get your local department of motor vehicles to help you out for free, but considering the workload of most motor vehicle departments, you might seek another route. Your best bet is often to use a service like CarFax on the web at

By researching the car’s VIN, CarFax can tell you if the car has ever been totaled, flood damaged, salvaged or bought back in a “lemon buyback” program by the manufacturer. It provides a history of the car, including when and where the vehicle was first titled, and also whether there is an inconsistency in the vehicle’s mileage. CarFax reports are very reasonable: for just under $20 you can access vehicle histories on any number of vehicles, for up to two months. For $14.95, CarFax will run a full history on a single car.

Read the Body

What a CarFax report won’t tell you is if the car has been in an accident that was not serious enough to constitute a total loss. With average new car prices pushing through the $20,000 barrier, insurance companies are much more likely to order a car fixed than totaled. Most new cars are unit-body (or monocoque) constructed, meaning that the car body provides the strengthening members of the frame, making it very difficult to straighten the frame following serious impact. An average used car buyer is never going to be able to detect that kind damage. Also, substandard parts may have been used to save a few dollars when damaged parts were replaced.

A knowledgeable body repair facility should be able to tell you if a car you’re interested in has been seriously damaged. Repaint jobs are easy for trained pros to detect, and a spray job after just a couple of years points to catastrophic damage. Paint on rubber parts, glass, tires and underbody components also point to a quickie repair job, and should point you toward another car. A body shop should be able to inspect your car for around $75.

Where to find a good used car

Manufacturers have been running certified pre-owned programs for several years now. They trust their dealers to comb over the car and put their stamp of approval on it, based on a 100-point (or greater) checklist. Your odds are better of finding a good used car through such a program, but it’s still worth having it checked.

Private sellers also can offer decent used cars at lower than expected prices. Do your best to find a car that’s had one owner through its history, and one that has complete service records. While not a replacement for having a pro look over the car, service records show that the owner took good care of the machine.

Each used car is different. Fully examine each before deciding to purchase it. Finding a good used car takes patience and perseverance, but it pays off in the end when your new-to-you car runs and drives as it’s supposed to.

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