Lemon or Cherry? How to pick the best used car

There are excellent reasons for choosing to buy a used car (the euphemism these days is "pre-owned vehicle" it sounds classier but let's stick to basics here). If saving money is the goal, not only do they cost less than new vehicles, but you also save on licensing and registration fees, and insurance.

When you consider that the average new vehicle depreciates from 3 percent to 5 percent a year, buying a vehicle that's a few years old for a much lower price than a new one is definitely a bargain. Even if money isn't an issue but you care about the environment, what better way to practice recycling than to give a good set a wheels a longer life on the road once the original owner no longer loves it? And speaking of love, perhaps the car of your dreams is was built years ago. Here's the chance to find one and make it your own.

To pick a used car in "cherry shape" instead of getting stuck with a lemon you need to know where and how to look for one, what to avoid, how to check out the ones that attract you, and how to negotiate the lowest price for it.

Choose your dealer
The very best deals on used vehicles these days are Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles, or CPO's. They may cost a little more than un-certified cars, but you'll benefit in the long run. These vehicles have been returned to a dealership after being leased for two or three years or traded in for newer models. They are then thoroughly inspected and repaired and warrantied as though they were new.

The best are factory-certified, which means the original automaker will stand behind them at no cost to you. Dealer-certified vehicles often require you to buy an extended warranty from the dealer. Be sure you know which type of CPO you are buying.

You can buy uncertified vehicles from used-car lots, private parties, or on-line. Used-car lots definitely have a "pecking order." When a vehicle is traded in at a dealership, they usually keep the best ones for CPO programs, or for sale on their own lots. The next best go to used-car lots that sell better vehicles. The worst go to bottom-of-the barrel lots that are a step away from wrecking yards. Some end up at auctions, which are automotive minefields for all but savvy professionals.

Private sales require caution
Private parties usually have the lowest prices, but you'll be buying a vehicle in "as-is" condition, backed only by the seller's word, so it's important to be cautious. Test-driving and a cursory inspection may not reveal major problems so be extremely firm about having a mechanic check it out before you buy. Even if the seller is a mechanic, you still need a second opinion.

If the sellers are reluctant to let the vehicle out of sight, invite them to accompany you or meet you with the vehicle at the shop, or offer a decent deposit to be returned if, for any reason, you don't want to buy the car and be sure to get a receipt that makes those terms very clear. Be prepared to pay in cash, and check to be sure the vehicle hasn't been stolen.

If you're calling a private party, be sure to ask these questions:
- What's the mileage? (The national average is about 12,000 to 15,000 miles a year. Do the math.)
- Are you the original owner?
- Is it still under warranty?
- Do you have the service records for the vehicle? If it's been through many hands, there are no records of what it's been through, or whether it's been properly maintained, and it's not under warranty, it's not a good choice.
- Does it have an out-of-state registration? If so, be careful.
- Why do you want to sell it?
- What would you fix if you decided to keep it?
- Does it need any other work that you know of?
- Will you allow me to have it checked by my mechanic?
- Has it ever been in an accident?
- Has it been garaged?
- What sort of driving conditions has it seen?
- And, of course, Is the price negotiable?

Start your search on the Internet
Buying online is probably best way to get started. Even if you don't end up purchasing your vehicle that way, the websites you'll visit can help you decide what vehicles suit you and what they are going for in your vicinity. There are also links to a wide variety of valuable information that can help you get the best deal from any type of seller.

The grand-daddy of them all is the Kelly Blue Book site and I'd advise you to visit it because it provides the trade-in value, private party value, and suggested retail value of each model. Because there are so many other sites, if you want to buy on-line, I suggest you Google "used car finder" and compare some of the websites that come up by typing in the same make, model, year and your zip code in each of them and comparing the number of vehicles that come up, and the asking prices for them.

Vehicles You Don't Want to Consider
- Former rental cars, police cars, fleet vehicles and taxis. Although they may have been refurbished, they've probably been driven into the ground.
- Vehicles that have been in a wreck or salvaged. You may think they're good as new, but others may not agree when you want to sell them.
- Very new used vehicles. Unless they are CPOs, they may be lemons or have been wrecked and cosmetically repaired.
- Old vehicles with suspiciously low mileage. The speedometer may have been tampered with.
- Cars that have been recalled. Check with the DOT hotline (800-424-9393).
- Vehicles that have been discontinued. Parts may be difficult or impossible to obtain.
- Cars with major modifications. "Souped-up" engines can strain transmissions and operate poorly at lower speeds.
- Foreign vehicles that don't meet DOT and EPA emission and safety standards. You may be denied insurance, or the car can be impounded.
- Possibly stolen vehicles. Have the DMV search the title by owner and VIN (Vehicle Identification Number).

Once you've located the vehicles that interest you, visit each of them and check them out. Take your time and cover everything on this checklist, Download it, print copies, and take them with you when you visit prospective used vehicles. For full instructions on how to inspect each of the items on it, read my book Buying a Car for Dummies (WILEY).

Enjoy your new set of wheels! And take pride in knowing that you've not only saved a bunch of bucks, you've done the environment a favor by recycling in a big way. As someone once said, "I'd rather be the second owner of a really good car, than the first one to own a mediocre one!"

*Deanna Sclar is the author of Buying A Car for Dummies and Auto Repair for Dummies. *

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