Looking for a used car? Be careful your dream car was not someone else’s nightmare!

January 15, 2007
By: Robert Silverman

Happy new year–Hope you and yours enjoyed a festive holiday season. At the beginning of every year, we see a large batch of drivers who are itching to get behind the wheel of a new car. They may visit the local car shows, or be enticed by all the incentives being offered by both manufacturers and local dealerships. Perhaps, they just want a change of pace to welcome in 2007. Whatever the case may be, we certainly see an increase on the 1-800-LEMON-LAW hotline from folks who just purchased their cars and are already having problems. A significant number of these callers have just purchased used cars, and now want to know how to go about returning the car.

Unfortunately, you can not return a car in the same way you would return a shirt or a popcorn popper you received for the holiday. It is a common misconception that there is a 3-day rule, where you have three days to return a car if you are not satisfied with it. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the rule only applies to items that are sold to you at your home, much like the encyclopedia salesmen from years gone by.

And while it pains me to add salt to the wound, in most states, used cars are NOT covered under the lemon law. Folks, there is nothing worse than hearing a long pause on the other line after I share this information with someone who just put their life savings into a four-year old car that is already stalling. So does that mean that you should not look into used cars as a cost-effective way to get behind the wheel of a different vehicle? On the contrary, buying a used car is a wonderful option for someone who is looking to save a few dollars, but you need to be careful. If you don’t follow the right path, you could end spending more for a used car than you would for a new automobile.

So, how can you go about buying your used dream car without purchasing someone else’s nightmare? First things first, do not rush! I know you may be anxious to drive the car off the lot, sign the papers and be on your way, but slow down. First, you want to write down the VIN number, and get the year, make, and model of the vehicle and the cost in writing. Also, if they are willing to offer you money for your trade in, get that figure in writing as well. Finally, ask if you are able to have an outside mechanic check the car out prior to purchase (if they say no, look at it as a red light to STOP and look elsewhere.) Then, you want to excuse yourself. Take the salesman’s card and tell them you will call them. DO NOT BE FORCED INTO BUYING THAT CAR THAT DAY WITHOUT DOING YOUR HOMEWORK!!! If the car is sold from under you, it was not meant to be.

Next step: Go home or to your local library and jump onto the world wide web. Visit Kelly Blue Book Online and confirm that the price they are selling the car for is a reasonable one. You can also check to make sure they are offering you a fair amount for your trade-in if applicable. Then, it’s time to visit carfax and run a vehicle history report using the VIN#. It’s going to cost you $19.99 for one report, or $24.99 for a full-month of unlimited reports. DO NOT SETTLE FOR THE FREE REPORT–it does not provide all the information you need. A carfax report will tell you if the car has a lemon, salvage or flood history; if the odometer has rolled back; if the car was a rental in past life; if the car has been auctioned off, etc. Plus, they guarantee their information. The report is truly worth its weight in gold.

If everything adds up so far (KBB shows you are getting a good deal, the car has a clean carfax report, etc.), then it’s time to arrange for a mechanic to check out the car. Ask friends and family to recommend someone or look in your local yellow pages. It should cost you roughly $100 to have a mechanic check a car out for you and make sure that if you are paying, they put their findings in writing and they have some sort of guarantee. In other words, if a mechanic says the car is in perfect working order, you buy the car based on their findings, and then the tranny goes bad a week later, that mechanic has to be held responsible.

Now I know what you are saying…”The whole purpose of buying a used car is to save money. I have not even purchased a car yet and already I am spending a large amount of money.” Trust me when I tell you that this is a small price to pay to insure that the bright shiny car on the lot is not a lemon in disguise.

Once your used car receives a clean bill of health from the mechanic, it is time to pay a return trip to the dealership. But before you go, print out our Lemon Dodger worksheet. It provides a list of questions for you to ask the dealer. You need to find out if your car has a warranty and if that warranty is backed by the manufacturer (recommended)or by a third party (not recommended). Plus, even if the car has a clean carfax report, you should ask the dealer if the car has been in accident. Sometimes, these accidents fall under the radar of both carfax and the mechanic and when it comes to accident history, if you don’t ask, the dealer does not have to tell.

Lastly, always remember our rule of thumb when it comes to buying any car, new or used. “Try it before you buy it.” Before you sign on the dotted line, take the car on a good, long test drive, make sure you try out every feature and understand how everything works Do not settle for any IOU’s. This is your one chance to demand perfection so take advantage of it.

If you are in the Boston area, catch our story on used cars Tuesday night, January 16 at 5:55pm on Channel 4 News, WBZ TV. For those who live outside of MA, the story should be available on the station’s website by Wednesday morning. Click on the consumer section. Safe driving!

If you live in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, or Ohio, feel free to call us at 1-800-LEMON LAW (1-800-536-6652), and we’ll be happy to answer your questions, address your concerns, and – if applicable – file a claim on your behalf. If we are able to help, there is no cost to you at any time!

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