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How to Buy a Used Car Online
EBay. Craigslist. Used-car dealers with websites. Buying a used car today is a whole new ballgame. It’s bad enough shopping at a used-car lot, bargaining with an oleaginous salesman in a cheap bow tie—but buying a major investment sight unseen from a thousand miles away? Scary. Here are 21 tips on how not to get burned.
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* Don’t get auction fever and agree to pay too much because you’re excited.
* Be skeptical. (Duh.) Any deal too good to be true probably is.
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* Get a CarFax report. This paper is not perfect, but it is better than nothing. Be sure the mileages on the CarFax agree with the service records, odometer records and common sense.
* Never buy a vehicle with a salvage title, unless you’re looking for a frame-up rebuild. The car had better be exceedingly rare if the title isn’t clean.
* Oh, yeah. The title has to be clean, with no liens, notarized signatures, or whatever legal hurdles your local state DMV needs hopped. Often, it’s better to transfer the title in the seller’s state to your name first. Then your local DMV can’t suddenly burn you by asking for something you can’t supply, like a notarized bill of sale. Yes, you can probably get a title in the seller’s state when you show up with an out-of-state address. But just to be sure, call the seller’s DMV and check first.
* Get an independent mechanical report. Arrange to get a trustworthy local mechanic or knowledgeable car guy to inspect the vehicle. If the seller won’t permit that, or better yet, arrange to transport the vehicle to the mechanic’s shop, the deal is off. A mechanical issue isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it should figure into the price. If you don’t have someone local, try checking on enthusiast websites. There might be someone local willing to take an afternoon and check out your ride, or at least recommend a trustworthy shop.
* Inspect it yourself. Be prepared to look at your prospective purchase. Bring coveralls and be prepared to get dirty poking around underneath. Ask the seller to have a floor jack, some jackstands or at least a pair of ramps available.
* Be prepared to turn around and go home if the vehicle isn’t exactly as described.
* Consider trailering the vehicle home unless it’s in primo daily driven condition.
* Discuss insurance with your agent ahead of time, lest you find that you can’t afford usurious rates on that high-horsepower ride.
* Damage. Is the bodywork straight? Sight down the fenders and doors for ripples. Look in the doorframes and underhood and in the trunk for evidence of crash damage.
* Paint. Dull paint can usually be buffed out, but peeling paint will have to be sanded down, maybe to bare metal, and then resprayed. Not a deal-breaker, but roll it into the price.
* Mileage. A well-maintained car can often go 150,000 or 200,000 miles, so don’t be afraid of a high-mileage car if everything else is fine. On the other hand, mileage significantly lower or higher than the national average of 14,000 per year is a red flag. Low mileage may mean one of two things: a garage queen or station car that got driven rarely. And that’s not good, that’s bad. Sludge and carbon may have affected the engine. Or the odometer may have rolled over one more time than the seller is letting on. Check that the driver’s seat and pedals reflect the mileage on the odometer. A worn brake-pedal rubber cover means lots of aggressive city miles. A brand-new brake pedal may mean the seller has replaced it to cover up the worn older one.
* Tires and wheels. When I was an independent foreign-car mechanic, I once inspected a used Porsche for an out-of-town customer. Walking around the vehicle, I saw that it had three slightly different styles of wheels and two different tires, suggesting that the driver had trouble with curbs. I didn’t need any more info I just walked away and suggested to my customer that he look elsewhere, saving us all a lot of wasted time and effort.
* Engine. Obviously, you need a vehicle that starts readily, runs cleanly and doesn’t leak. If the seller has maintenance records, peruse them carefully. A steady progression of oil-change appointments is a great sign.
* Tires. Worn-out tires are an easy fix, just figure it into the offering price. But check the tire-tread wear for signs of misalignment. A front end that’s out of line may mean that the suspension is worn out.
* Suspension and shocks. Add the cost of a set of good shocks if the ones on the car are sacked out but be prepared for additional suspension work necessitated by a lot of mileage with the shocks worn out.
* Check for water damage. Check for mud in the trunk or under the seats. If the owner’s manual is papier-m ch or the interior smells moldy, you may have a car that’s been underwater. Never buy a flood car these are often reclaimed by insurance companies, rinsed off and sold at auction.
* One last bit of advice: Bargain. Never pay the asking price.