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6 tips for buying a used car

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There are lots of good reasons for buying a used car instead of a new one, but for me, it’s that I covet cars I can’t afford to buy new. So I buy a 3- or 4-year-old car with low mileage and a few months left on the original bumper-to-bumper warranty. The previous owner takes the big hit on depreciation, I have any problems my mechanic discovers repaired before the warranty expires, and I get a car I love.

But many people hesitate to buy used because they’re worried about “buying somebody else’s problems.” Here are tips for buying a used car that many experts, including AAA and the Federal Trade Commission, agree on that can minimize that possibility:

1. Insist on a prepurchase inspection

A mechanic or body shop of your choice can discover possible collision damage or mechanical or electronic problems. For less than $100, a AAA Approved Auto Repair (AAR) shop will perform an 86-point inspection. And remember, an auto dealer’s certified preowned (CPO) inspection is no substitute for an independent inspection. Always drive and look over any car before you buy it.

2. Research a car’s history

Use the vehicle identification number (VIN) to get reports from CarFax, Experian Automotive, the Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau that may alert you to odometer fraud, past flood or accident damage, or a salvage title. But reports sometimes miss things, another reason for a prepurchase inspection. Also, check for open recalls (items yet to be fixed) on the car at

3. Find out if there is a safety issue

Think twice before buying a car with a serious safety problem, such as a faulty Takata airbag. It may take months before parts are available to fix it. And be sure to review maintenance records. Conscientious private sellers will have them, and new-car dealers can access computer-based records for dealer-provided service.

4. Choose where you buy carefully

Private sellers are fine if you’re certain they’re who they say they are. “Curbstoners”—unlicensed dealers who pretend to be private owners selling questionable cars—are a huge problem. That’s why it’s a good idea to buy used cars only from franchised new-car dealers or used-car superstores. Doing that gives you a better chance of legal recourse if you run into problems. In some states, AAA can recommend dealers through its Car Buying Service. Should a dispute arise, AAA will help resolve it.

5. Remember: If you buy it, you own it

As a general rule, there’s no legally mandated cooling-off period for used-car sales that allows you to change your mind once you make a purchase.

6. Get warranties in writing

If you buy from a dealer, be sure you understand the terms regarding any applicable warranties (including a CPO warranty) or any promises regarding items needing repair that were discovered in a prepurchase inspection. Get this information in writing before you drive off in your “new” used car.

Basically, it comes down to this: Gather as much information as possible about any vehicle you’re thinking of purchasing. With proper due diligence, you should be able to find an excellent used-car value with few (if any) hassles.

Veteran automotive journalist Peter Bohr has been writing about cars for more than four decades.

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