published Friday, July 18th, 2014

Biz Bulletin: What to watch out for when shopping for used cars

By Jim Winsett

Q: Our family is looking to get a used car soon. Does the BBB have any tips to consider before making a purchase?

A: Searching for a used car can be challenging, as anyone who has ever had to do so knows all too well. There are numerous stories out there of car buyers who have been disappointed, deliberately scammed and infuriated by sellers who, once they have your money, have no more time for you. Better Business Bureau receives complaints from consumers who found out too late that a used car was a lemon and the seller was a bad apple. Here is some information that can make your search more fruitful in the right ways.

No Lemon Law protections

Lemon Laws typically apply to new cars only. When you purchase a used car, it is up to the seller to either offer a three-day right to cancel or not. There is no automatic grace period when a used car is purchased. Good dealers will offer one in a warranty but they are not obligated to do so. Basically, absent any such warranty or agreement, once you sign the papers for the purchase of the vehicle, that vehicle is yours. This means that you, the buyer, need to take steps toward protecting yourself from bad deals at the very beginning of your car search. After the deal is done it is too late. BBB Auto Line was created to assist consumers who suspect they may have bought a lemon vehicle. Visit http://go.bbb.org/W7V6TX for more information.

Do your homework

• If there is a specific car within your sights, research the make and model by finding its value in Kelley Blue Book at kbb.com. Also, the National Automobile Association's NADA Guide at nadaguides.com can help you learn the value of the car. Another helpful site is edmunds.com.

• Check a particular car's history (if you know its vehicle identification number or VIN) at sites like carfax.com or autocheck.com. These sites can tell you about accidents that the car was involved in, whether the mileage on the odometer is correct, incidents reported to insurance companies and auction history, if any. You may also want to double-check if the car has had any recalls.

• Get a trusted mechanic to look the car over before you sign anything. This step alone can save you thousands of dollars.

• Test-drive the car under varying conditions. Never buy a car you have not been allowed to test drive.

• Ask for the previous owner's name and give them a call. Find out why they sold the car and any history they can give you.

Dealers vs. individual sellers

The FTC requires dealers to post a Buyer's Guide with every car for sale. It should inform you if there is a warranty, how much repair cost the dealer will pay during the warranty period and it should tell you of any major mechanical or electrical system problems.

Get any promises in writing. Oral assurance is worthless. Sometimes a dealer will offer a service contract for extra payment. Be sure it states in writing:

• Whether it covers repairs beyond the warranty's time limit.

• See that it specifies the repairs covered and don't trust "bumper to bumper" coverage. That can mean anything or very little.

• See if a deductible is required and whether it covers towing and car rental.

Individual sellers do not have to show a Buyer's Guide. The deal is considered "as is." Though the risk is there that the warranty-less vehicle could be problematic, the attraction of buying from an individual and cutting out any middleman is a strong one. Many times a more affordable deal results when you purchase directly from the owner.

Avoid any seller who asks that you pay through MoneyGram, Western Union or Green Dot cards, or who will not meet you face-to-face. Watch out for emotionally charged stories from sellers about hardship and such.

The search for a used car can be a winding, challenging road. Just be sure the seller is dealing straight.

Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau of Chattanooga.

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