Buying a used car: How to avoid getting ripped off

Buying a used car can be a cost-effective way to get new wheels, but the maxim “buyer beware” applies. So what’s the best way to avoid getting ripped off?

Government protections
The Federal Trade Commission requires dealers to post a Buyers Guide in used cars that discloses things such as whether the car is being sold “as is” or with a warranty, how the warranty works and some problems you should look out for with the major mechanical and electrical systems.

You should get a copy of the Buyers Guide if you buy the used car. If the box next to “as is” is checked but the dealer makes promises about repairs, make sure that promise is in writing in the Buyers Guide. Otherwise, the FTC warns, you might have a hard time getting the dealer to live up to his promise. If you’re buying a used car that comes with a warranty, ask to see it and read it carefully.

Check out the dealer’s reputation
Before buying a used car from a dealer, the FTC also advises that you consider calling the Better Business Bureau, your state attorney general or your local consumer protection agency to see if the dealer has any unresolved consumer complaints.

Also check to see whether the dealer has a written “buyer’s remorse” policy allowing you to bring the car back within three days if you’re not satisfied.

Private sales
If you’re buying a used car from a private owner, you should question the owner carefully about the vehicle’s service history and ask to see documents. Be wary if the owner says he doesn’t have the service records. When buying a used car, you should also be wary if the seller hasn’t owned the car long; ask detailed questions about why he is selling, and request the name and phone number of the previous owner.

Have an expert check it out
Whether you’re buying a used car from a dealer or a private owner, experts advise getting a mechanical inspection from an independent mechanic. In addition to alerting you to mechanical problems that could cost you money down the line, the mechanic’s report also could help you negotiate a better deal – either a lower price, or an agreement by the seller to fix major problems before you buy the used car.

Learn more about the vehicle
Get a vehicle history report when you’re contemplating buying a used car. It will show who has owned the car and whether it has undergone any major repairs. You can obtain the report from a number of online resources (including by using the car’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN. The VIN is engraved on a metal plate at the bottom of the windshield on the driver’s side.

You can further protect yourself when you’re buying a used car by verifying the seller’s name, address and phone number before handing over any money.

Arm yourself with information
And finally, do your homework before you take a test drive. You’re less likely to be ripped off when buying a used car if you know what the car should cost and the type of service problems commonly reported for that type of car.

Remember: If a used car deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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