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Buying a used car can be a challenge. Understanding all the variables even may seem impossible. Too often used-car buyers make crucial mistakes that cause them to fall victim to the many pitfalls that line the car-buying process. They think they've bought a reliable car, only to have it break down just months later.
       While there never are any guarantees, typically a car will tell you what shape it's in--if you pay attention. In fact, if you know what to look for in a used car, you'll have the upper hand when you deal with a seller, limiting your complaints--and regrets--after the sale.
       Here's a list of mistakes used-car buyers most often make, and advice about how to avoid making them, according to Mike Murphy, president of Florida Used Car Inspection Service in Largo, Fla.

Mistake No. 1 Not test-driving the car.
Believe it or not, Murphy says this is the biggest mistake most used-car buyers make. Yet, he adds, this is the first--and most important--thing to do.
       Test-drive the car--at a variety of speeds--for at least five miles. Note any noises, vibrations, pulsations, or other problems--such as the steering wheel pulling in either direction--before you consider buying a car (used or new). Don't just take this opportunity to see how well the stereo works. Listen carefully to the car. Each little defect you notice while on the test-drive will give you more bargaining leverage. If something doesn't sound or feel right, it probably isn't. And, Murphy says, if the seller doesn't want you to test-drive the car, walk away.
Test-drive the car--at a variety of speeds--for at least five miles.

Mistake No. 2 Not considering inconsistencies on the car's body to be serious.
If a car has slightly different colored paint on separate panels, the panels don't match up perfectly, or if the body appears to have been welded together, don't dismiss it as merely diminishing the car's aesthetic appeal. The car probably underwent major restructuring. This can lead to problems and expenses down the road, including costly alignment, suspension, or frame work.
       Inspect the body thoroughly. Most newer cars have vehicle identification numbers (VINs) behind each panel of the car. If these numbers differ from one another, the auto likely was rebuilt, and you should be leery, Murphy says.
       The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) reports the selling of rebuilt vehicles as undamaged used cars costs consumers more than $4 billion every year (see title branding bill sidebar). So contact your local licensing bureau to find out if it has any information about the car having been totaled or otherwise seriously damaged. Murphy suggests you steer clear of a car with such a history, unless the seller is willing to lower the price by $1,000 to $2,000, and your inspection indicates the vehicle is sound.
       Contacting your local licensing bureau--whether the VINs match up or not--is a good idea. Industry experts estimate that 15% of vehicles have some sort of title problem. The licensing bureau also has information about whether the car was ever stolen: information a seller may want to withold from you because, with it, you're less likely to buy.

Mistake No. 3 Not having the car inspected by a mechanic or an independent company.
"We [Florida Used Car Inspection Service] alone have saved customers a total of a quarter of a million dollars in potential repairs," Murphy estimates. And he advises that any car worth more than a couple hundred dollars deserves a professional once-over. A Pacific Community Credit Union loan officer can help you determine a reasonable ballpark price tag for cars you're considering.
       Use anything that you, or a mechanic, find wrong with the car to your bargaining advantage. Most things wrong with used cars are normal maintenance items, but, Murphy says, whether the problems are major or not you should ask the seller to lower the asking price so you can afford to pay for the repairs. If a major problem (transmission, engine) exists, Murphy says, you're entitled to upwards of $2,000 being knocked off the purchase price.

Mistake No. 4 Not considering the interior's condition to be representative of the rest of the car.
Excessive wear on the interior is a good indication that a car has experienced significant wear and tear throughout. Murphy says that noticeable wear begins at about 50,000 miles.
       So question a low-mileage car showing high-mileage wear. If the vehicle's condition doesn't seem to correspond with the mileage reading, the Bureau of Consumer Protection, Madison, Wis., says that could indicate odometer tampering. The title should indicate whether the miles are actual, meaning the odometer always has worked properly and recorded all miles the vehicle has traveled; not actual, meaning the odometer was replaced and set at zero, stopped working and the car was driven for more than 30 miles before repair, or the odometer numbers were turned back; or in excess of mechanical limits, meaning the odometer went from 99,999 miles to zero, instead of to 100,000. This is another good reason to contact your local licensing bureau and check the title when considering the purchase of a used vehicle.
Excessive wear on the interior is a good indication that a car has experienced significant wear and tear throughout.

Mistake No. 5 Paying for the car without receiving the title.
When you buy a car, the title should come with it. Without it, you have little proof that the car is legally yours--and it might not be.
       Check the title before the purchase. Make sure that the seller is indeed the owner. If the seller isn't the owner, he or she probably isn't entitled to sell the car, and you aren't entitled to purchase it.
       In addition, take into consideration whether the seller is a dealer or not. There are differences between buying a car from an individual and from a dealer. Depending on the car and the demand, you may pay anywhere from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars less to a private seller than you would to a dealership. Along with the better price you might receive, the odds increase greatly that an individual seller will have accurate maintenance records and know the history of the car.
       However, your chances of getting a warranty (typically 36 months to 90 months) are better when you buy from a dealer, Murphy says. And licensed used-car dealers face both state and federal regulations, leaving an unsatisfied customer some recourse. For example, last year, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Dealer Section returned more than $1.4 million to 1,699 complainants (resolving 28% of the complaints made that year).
       When you buy a vehicle from a private individual, the car is sold as-is. You would have to deal with those complaints in civil court.

Obviously there's no guarantee anytime you buy, well, just about anything. But by avoiding these common mistakes you'll be in a better buying position, and less likely a victim of someone looking to unload their old, problematic car.

The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) is backing the National Salvage Motor Vehicle Safety and Consumer Protection Act, a federal bill that would protect consumers and dealers by enacting uniform definitions and procedures for determining title designations for significantly damaged vehicles.
       Most states already have laws requiring the branding of damaged vehicles, but definitions regarding the level of damage that require branding vary widely from state to state. This allows some rebuilders to avoid branding requirements by sending salvage titles to contacts in other states that don't have salvage branding requirements to sell the cars with clean titles.
       The bill's provisions would require: Any vehicle with damage exceeding 75% of its preaccident value be designated as a salvaged vehicle; that a permanent decal be affixed to the door jamb indicating that status; and that a rebuilt salvage window label be attached by a state inspector that can be removed only by the first retail purchaser.
       NADA also recommends that a definition of "flood vehicle" be included in the legislation, because these vehicles often don't sustain much visible damage.

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