Getting a good deal means both a quality car and a good price. When negotiating price, aim to pay close to the wholesale value of the car. Of course, the seller will be pushing for the retail value. In most cases, you'll probably settle somewhere in between, depending on the condition of the car, your negotiating skills, and the seller's negotiating skills.
To make sure the car is reliable, take the following steps:
- Get an inspection. Have the car checked out by a mechanic you trust, or have the car inspected by a diagnostic center.
- Get copies of the maintenance records. A dealer usually won't have these, but a private owner may. Look for evidence of regular oil changes, scheduled services, and unusual repairs.
- Get the vehicle's history. From your state motor vehicle department, get the following information: how many prior owners there were, the mileage each time the car has been sold, and all other states where the car has been registered.Many cars now have this information listed on CarFax (at www.carfax.com). Plug in the VIN and you will get this information and in some cases even the maintenance history.
- Get copies of the title. You should get copies of the car title from each state's motor vehicle registry where the car has been registered. Or, for a small fee, you can use a computerized service that will do this for you. One to try: Carfax www.carfax.com or 800-346-3846). As a general rule, if the title search reveals that the car has ever been declared a salvage vehicle, don't buy it. (See "Look Out for Used Car Scams," below.)
- Give it a once-over. Do your own visual inspection and look for oddities that might indicate damage or repairs (such as scratches, rust, or new paint, which always fades faster than factory paint).
- Check the VIN plate. Check the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the lower left hand side of the front windshield. If it shows any signs of tampering, the car may be stolen.
- Review the "Buyer's Guide." Federal law requires dealers (but not most private sellers) to post a Buyer's Guide in every used car for sale. If the sale is negotiated in Spanish, the Buyer's Guide must also be provided in Spanish. The Buyer's Guide gives you a great deal of information including whether the car is being sold "as is" or comes with a warranty (for more on warranties, see Nolo's article Car Warranties: The Basics), what percentage of the repair costs a dealer will pay under the warranty, and what major mechanical and electrical systems are on the car.
- Stay calm. If you're thinking about buying from a dealer, know what you want before you walk into the dealership, resist the urge to buy more car than you can afford, and don't buy in a hurry. Check out the tips in "How to Negotiate With the Dealer" in Nolo's article Buying a New Car. Many of those tips also apply to the purchase of a used car from a dealer.
- Hold back a trade-in. Don't discuss the possibility of trading in your old car before you agree to a price for the car you want. (For more information on trading in your old car, see "Trading in Your Old Car" in Nolo's article Buying a New Car.)
- Be certain before you sign. Be absolutely sure you are getting the car you want at the price you want before you sign any papers. In most cases, if you change your mind later (even ten minutes later), the seller doesn't have to give you a refund.
Look Out for Used Car Scams
Unscrupulous used car dealers and sellers have come up with countless ways to rip you off. Some common scams to look out for include:
- Odometer rollbacks. The most common type of odometer fraud involves tampering with an odometer so that its reading is less than the car's actual mileage.
- Salvage fraud. A car is "salvaged" if an insurance company declares it a total loss because of a collision, flood, fire, or other serious physical accident. Many unscrupulous dealers buy these cars cheap at auction, patch them up, and sell them to unsuspecting customers. If the car's salvage history is disclosed and you are still interested, you should certainly have it professionally inspected.
- Repair fraud. Unscrupulous repair shops have been known to assemble the parts of several wrecked cars into one car. In one infamous California case, the driver's seatbelt anchors were attached to different halves of two wrecked cars that had been welded together. In another, there was no floor under the rear carpet. If anything about the car doesn't look right, have it checked out by an expert.
- Lemon laundering. This occurs when a manufacturer buys back a lemon from a consumer, then passes that car to another consumer without disclosing its lemon history. (For more on "lemons," see Nolo's article Lemon Law for Used Cars.)
- The seller doesn't own the car. If you're buying a car from a private party (as opposed to a car dealer), make sure the person selling the car actually holds title. Ask to see the seller's driver's license (or other photo ID) and the title certificate for the car. (But sometimes even honest people lose the title document and have to order another.)
- Financing scams. Many used car scams occur in the financing phase. Take all finance and loan documents home before you sign them. Read them there, without pushy salespeople breathing down your neck. Better yet, get someone else to look at them too.
To learn more about leasing and buying used and new cars, as well as other helpful information for other consumer transactions, get Nolos Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, by Shae Irving and the editors of Nolo.
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