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New car sales crash; used-car dealers speed through

Edmunds' data shows that 27 percent of people who intended to buy a new car in February changed their mind and chose a used vehicle at the dealership. Finding a trouble-free used car is not hard if you do a little research.

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CARY, N.C. — Offers of huge rebates and tempting low-interest loans haven't been enough to entice car buyers out of their bunkers. U.S. auto sales in February hovered near historic lows. Those who are buying are more often opting for a used car or truck.

Edmunds' data shows that 27 percent of people who intended to buy a new car in February changed their mind and chose a used vehicle at the dealership.

“I'm just in the process of looking for a new car,” Tom Dupree said. “I could probably go with a 2-year-old used car and not take as big of a hit on depreciation."

New car sales have taken a hit at Crossroads Ford in Cary. However, used cars sales are up there 15 percent from last year – with the tough economy driving the interest.

“They're looking to spend less money. It's as simple as that,” Eric Kaplan, sales manager for Crossroads Ford.

Finding a trouble-free used car is not hard if you do a little research.

Consumer Reports recommends:

  • Select models with a good reliability record.
  • Read the window sticker. It will tell you whether the vehicle is being sold "as is" or with a warranty. "As is" means the dealer makes no guarantees as to the condition of the vehicle.
  • Check out the exterior. Dents, chipped paint, mismatched body panels or parts. This could be a sign of body-panel repair.
  • Look for prematurely worn pedals or a slumped driver's seat which could be signs of high mileage. An air bag warning light that stays lit may mean a bag has deployed and may be improperly replaced. Discolored carpeting could be a sign of flood damage.
  • The engine, radiator and battery should be for the most part grease-free and have little corrosion. Wet spots could mean leaking oil or fluids. Melted wires and tubes could be signs of overheating.
  • Tire wear should be even across the width of the tread and the same on the left and right sides
  • Check the steering when the car is idle. Turn the wheel right and left to be sure there isn't any slack or noise which could indicate a worn steering gear.
  • Check the suspension by pushing down hard on each fender. The car should rebound softly, and more than two rough rebounds could indicate worn shock absorbers. A bouncy ride could mean a damaged suspension.
  • Check the tailpipe for black smoke which could indicate a dirty air filter. Blue smoke often means oil burning – and an expensive repair. Billowing white smoke could mean a blown head gasket and damaged cylinder head – also expensive repairs.
  • Drive the car to see if the engine revs excessively before it accelerates. This could mean a worn-out clutch, or damaged automatic transmission.
  • Check to see if any recalls were issued and if recall service was performed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists all official recalls.
  • Check the vehicle's history at CarFax or Experian Automotive. A report will alert you to damage.
  • Before you buy a used vehicle, have it inspected by a qualified mechanic.

“If you go to a place where they won't let you get a pre-inspection, then I would not purchase that car,” said Donnie McLamb, with the AAA Car Care Center.

Only new cars get protection under North Carolina's Lemon Law. With used cars, “once you drive off the lot, it's yours," McLamb said.

The Lemon Law requires that car manufacturers repurchase or replace a vehicle that has not been properly repaired within four attempts, or if the car has been out of service for 20 or more business days during a 12-month warranty period.

Car shopper Dupree plans to make sure the car he buys – whether used or new – is lemon-free.

“I would absolutely take it to a mechanic to go get it looked at,” he said.

Overall auto sales were down 41 percent from February 2008, but up 5 percent from January, according to Autodata Corp. and Ward's AutoInfoBank. January marked the industry's worst monthly performance since December 1981.

North Carolina's 675 auto dealerships represent about 18 percent of the state's retail sales. About 35 dealerships have closed in the past two years, according to the North Carolina Automobile Dealer's Association.


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