5 On Your Side

Car buyers: Take these steps to avoid scams, vehicle defects

Posted July 31

— Used cars have been flying off the lots lately, but the mechanical issues that often appear later make the seemingly good deals less valuable.

Americans bought a record number of used cars last year, and the growth is expected to continue. The problem is, once bought, the cars are essentially the customer's responsibility.

Unlike new cars, used cars are not protected by the "lemon law," which requires manufacturers to repair defects that affect the use, value or safety of a new motor vehicle within the first 24 months.

"Understand going in that salesmen will try to take advantage of information you give them -- like how much you can afford or if you're in a rush to buy," said Jon Linkov, an auto editor at Consumer Reports. "So never reveal anything."

It's also important to do your research and search for reliability ratings through sources like Consumer Reports' used-car marketplace. There, you can find true value of the car you want to buy by checking condition, mileage, age and equipment levels.

Don't rely on dealers for that information, experts say. Get a car report through CarFax or Autocheck, which are online tools that can help alert you to issues like possible odometer fraud or damage and if a rebuilt or salvage title was ever issued. To make sure no fraud or crime is associated with the car, run its VIN number through the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Experts also caution buyers to check for recalls which will tell you if there are any safety-related defects or problems.

"Once you've done your homework, state your price," said Linkov. "If the seller won't budge, don't be afraid to walk away. You'll see how quickly you'll be given a price you can live with."

Before you sign anything, take the car to a certified mechanic, not just an oil change shop, officials say. It's worth shelling out the $100 dollars or so it'll cost for an inspection.

If the inspections reveals the car needs repairs, but you still want it, don't be afraid to demand the seller deduct the price of repairs from your offer.

It sounds tedious, but taking these steps ensures you don't get stuck with a used car that has lots of problems. For more advice, you can turn to Consumer Reports' car buying guide.

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