Protect yourself when buying used car

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By M.J. Subiria Arauz


Local residents looking to purchase a used vehicle may be in for more than they've bargained, because of the common pitfalls that be can associated with such transactions.

But, wary consumers should be able to buy with confidence, by following several tips provided by the watch-dog organization, the Better Business Bureau Serving Metro Atlanta, Athens and Northeast Georgia, Inc., according to Dottie Callina, a BBB spokesperson.

"It's important, because in the state of Georgia, used cars are sold in two ways," said Callina, with a warranty, or "as is."

If a vehicle is purchased with a warranty, a dealership is still only responsible for repairs and labor clearly stated in the warranty agreement, she said. If a person purchases a vehicle "as is," then, he or she is responsible for all repairs the vehicle may need, once a contract is signed.

"Potential buyers should make sure anything promised, verbally, is included in the contract or written agreement," she said.

Callina stressed that if a person purchases a car, and does not have it checked out by a mechanic or an automobile expert, the consumer is practically "stuck" with the vehicle's condition -- whatever it turns out to be.

Consumers can file a complaint by contacting the Governor's Office of Consumer Protection, at (404) 651-8600, she said. But even then, there are no guarantees.

According to the Office of Consumer Protection's web site -- http://consumer.georgia.gov -- the types of complaints handled by the office must meet certain requirements, including that they be consumer transactions, that the issue affects the public good, and that there be an ongoing pattern of the improper behavior.

Callina said that it is important for people to know how long they plan to keep the car, and what they can afford, as well as the color, size and features they desire. "Talk to people who have a car like you are considering buying," she said.

In the state of Georgia, consumers are allowed to get two free credit reports annually, she said. Potential buyers should obtain their credit report and make sure the information on it is up to par. Then, they should figure out the payments they can afford per month, to avoid getting stuck in a deal that overburdens them financially.

It is also important to stick to your guns about what you actually need and you can handle comfortably. Callina gave an example of how a buyer can be led astray: A customer may have determined that they can afford a $20,000 vehicle, she said, but the dealer may convince them that they can buy a $30,000 car, due to their good credit score.

"Do not be swayed by people who say you can afford" a more expensive car, she said. "Check out the dealer's reputation with the Better Business Bureau, [at] www.bbb.org," she added.

People can conduct additional research on the make and model of the vehicle of interest, by using resources such as Edmunds, Inc., www.edmunds.com; Consumer Reports, www.consumerreports.org; and the Monthly Kelly Blue Book, www.kbb.com, she advised.

Callina said these resources will give consumers a good idea of the worth of a vehicle, given its condition. This is important, she said, because in Georgia, sellers can set any price on a vehicle. "There are no price laws," she said. "They can price whatever they want."

Once a budget is determined, she continued, a person may need an automobile loan from a bank or credit union. The consumer should choose a loan that allows him or her to pay off the vehicle in the shortest amount of time, with a low interest rate.

Consumers should also obtain a CARFAX vehicle history report from the dealer, on the used car they are interested in, she said. A potential buyer should also ask the dealer for the previous owner's contact information.

If a buyer is purchasing the vehicle from a private owner, he or she should ask for the car's maintenance and repair records, and check the title to see if the seller is the legal owner, Callina said.

Sometimes, she said, consumers could find a better deal on a used vehicle by purchasing repossessed cars from banks and credit unions, or help pay off defaulted loans, she said. "Banks have repossessed these cars, and they don't want them," said Callina. "You might get a good deal."

Callina said people who buy from government, private or online vehicle auctions should be prepared to pay immediately. Those interested in buying through government or private auctions should have a mechanic or a car expert handy, she explained.

Online auctions, she warned, may be a risk to a consumer. "If you are not there to see a vehicle in person ... they can tell you anything they want about it. .. Until you see the vehicle, you don't know what you're getting. If you don't feel comfortable about it, then, it's best to walk away," she said.

In addition, she said, purchasers should inspect the vehicle in daylight hours and in good weather. When conducting a road test, drive on various roads and check everything on the dashboard, including lights, radio, windshield wipers, the heater and brakes. "Look for warning signs, such as touch-up paint and a poor-fitting door--either could mean the car has been wrecked," she said.

People should see if there is uneven wear on the front tires, because it could signal a bad alignment or suspension damage, said Callina.

Make sure the odometer has not been tampered with, she said. White lines between numbers that don't line up, or vibrations of the one mile, to 10 mile section while the vehicle is in movement, are indications of tampering, she explained.

"Buying a used car can be a great way to save money," she added, but only "if you do your homework before you buy."