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Buying a Used Car: Before You Buy

Buying a Used Car: Before You Buy

Before you start shopping for a car, you'll need to do some homework. Spending time now may save you serious money later. Think about your driving habits, your needs and your budget. You can learn about car models, options, and prices by reading newspaper ads, both display and classified. There is a wealth of information about used cars on the Internet: enter "used car" as the keywords and you'll find additional information on how to buy a used car, detailed instructions for conducting a pre-purchase inspection and ads for cars available for sale, among other information.

Libraries and bookstores also have publications that compare car models, options and costs, and offer information about frequency-of-repair records, safety tests and mileage. Many of these publications have details on the dos and don'ts of buying a used car.

Whether you buy a used car from a dealer, a co-worker or a neighbor, follow these tips to learn as much as you can about the car:

  • Examine the car yourself using an inspection checklist. You can find a checklist in many of the magazine articles, books and Internet sites that deal with buying a used car.
  • Test-drive the car under varied road conditions — on hills, highways and in stop-and-go traffic.
  • Ask for the car's maintenance record. If the owner doesn't have copies, contact the dealership or repair shop where most of the work was done. They may share their files with you.
  • Talk to the previous owner, especially if the present owner is unfamiliar with the car's history.
  • Have the car inspected by a mechanic you hire.
  • Research the frequency of repair and maintenance costs on the models in auto-related consumer magazines. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Vehicle Safety Hotline (1-888-327-4236) and website (www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov) give information on recalls.
  • Check a trusted database service that gathers information from state and local authorities, salvage yards and insurance companies for an independent and efficient review of a vehicle’s history. For example, the Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) is an online system that offers accurate information about a vehicle’s title, odometer data and certain damage history. Expect to pay up to $4 per report. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) maintains a free database that includes flood damage and other information, so people can investigate a car’s history by its vehicle identification number (VIN).

Buying a Used Car: Dealer Sales
Buying a Used Car: Private Sales
Buying a Used Car: Payment Options
Buying a Used Car: Warranties and Service Contracts
Buying a Used Car: If You Have Problems

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