Feature Story

HOW-TO: SHOPPING FOR A USED CAR

by Bob Hagin

September 26, 1997

We get lots of letters directed to our automotive question and answer team that are heart-breakers, and they usually involve a used car deal that's gone wrong. The vehicle purchased doesn't fill the needs of the buyer or perhaps the payments have turned out to be too high. The condition of the car or truck was misrepresented or promised repairs were never made. Our usual recommendation in situations like this is to treat it as a learning experience, since the deal is already done. The only recourse left for our hapless correspondent is through the courts and not being lawyers, we can't give legal advise.

In hopes that other readers won't get caught in the same types of dilemmas in which our forlorn letter-writers have found themselves, we've put together a list of suggestions to follow before and during an automotive shopping trip:

SETTLE ON AN APPROPRIATE TYPE OF VEHICLE - Some people like sitting down with the family and analyzing what type of vehicle is going to best serve the needs of the group while others would rather buy on urge and impulse. Sport/utility vehicles are very "in" right now and because of this, they go at a premium, so a minivan may be a wiser choice. A sports coupe makes a flashy "commuter" second car but high-mileage corporate four-door sedans are cheap, reliable and low-profile "targets" for car thieves. Pick a second-hand vehicle with your head and not your heart.

SET A PRICE OR PAYMENT RANGE THAT'S REASONABLE - Not many people enjoy living within a budget but it makes life easier. If that second-hand Mustang you've got your heart set on leads to beans for dinner three nights a week, it's attraction is soon going to fade. It might also increase your annual insurance premium which could lead to beans every night.

EVALUATE SUITABLE BRANDS AND LOCAL ACCESSIBILITY - As much as we may like the idea of having an Upscale European Turbocharged Sports Sedan, your local franchise holder for that brand may change hands overnight or disappear entirely. And although you've bought the car second-hand, it may mean that your local source of service and/or parts has dried up. Pick a vehicle that's popular, locally-represented and doesn't require the services of a bi-lingual mechanic.

OBTAIN EDUCATION ON THE VARIOUS MAKES AND MODELS YOU'VE SELECTED - Cars are like wine: some years a brand and/or model is good and some years it's bad. The only way to determine if you should buy a '94 or a '95 version of a particular machine is to ask a multitude of current owners (hard to do unless you flag them down) or consult a source like the annual April issue of Consumers Reports that publishes a list of stars and duds that goes back for five or six years.

CHECK ON FINANCING LIMITS BEFORE SELECTING VEHICLE - Make your financing arrangements before you hit the streets. This does three things: It encourages you to "shop" for the best lending rates (your credit union traditionally charges less than a bank you've never dealt with), it helps keep you from overspending when you buy a used vehicle and it alleviates you of the frustration of scratching around for a lender once you've found the machine you want.

PLAN TO SHOP FOR SEVERAL DAYS - The first used car or truck you check out may look good but you might find a better one at your next stop. Take your time and buy right: you may have to live with your purchase a long time so don't buy something you may hate the morning after. Buying a used car isn't like buying a pair of pants or a dress from a department store. The seller of a used car or truck is reluctant to take it back if the color doesn't bring out your skin tones.

DON'T BE RUSHED INTO PURCHASE - "I've got a couple of other people looking at this car, so you'd better buy it now if you want it." I've used that line myself in selling used cars and sometimes it was even true - but not always. If the "other people" are looking into other cars to purchase, maybe you should too.

SELECT A PARTICULAR VEHICLE THEN PRECEDE TO A PHYSICAL EXAMINATION - Once you've settled on a particular vehicle, either have a thorough examination done on it or do one yourself. Its hard to completely cover flaws (like a car or truck that was caught in a flood), but it can take time to find them. Check it out yourself first (even if you don't know exactly what you're looking for), then take it to a qualified technician to give it a professional once-over. In many places, your auto club provides this service and it's worth the money you'll spend to save yourself major headaches in the future.

KEEP YOUR OLD VEHICLE UNTIL DEAL IS MADE - If you're trading off your old car in order to buy your next one, don't give it up until the keys to your new mount are securely in your pocket. In some areas, being "de-horsed" is akin to being shackled. Without any transportation at all, you could be forced into making a bad "panic" choice, so keep your old wheels until the bitter end.

Thoroughly digesting all the necessary steps in buying a "new" used car may have one other advantage over buying on impulse: It may make your old machine look good enough to keep.

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