Are certified used cars a good deal?

2012 Ford Fusion
Ford Motor Co.

(MoneyWatch) Along with booming new car sales, more shoppers are choosing certified used cars as an alternative. Sales of these certified vehicles rose 12.5 percent in the first half of the year even as overall used car sales declined 3.4 percent, according to a recent report by auto information site Edmunds.com.

Certified cars typically get a thorough inspection and repair of defects at a dealership, along with an additional warranty. Buying a certified 2012 car could save you 15 percent or more compared with the same model as a new 2013 car, says Joe Spina, director of used car analysis for Edmunds. In addition, two- or three-year-old vehicles just returned from a new-car lease can be good candidates for a certified used car.

Savings can be especially big if the current model has been redesigned. For instance, the midsize 2013 Ford Fusion SE sells for $23,085, according to Kelley Blue Book. But a 2012 certified Fusion with a four-cylinder engine and 15,000 miles is priced at $17,534 -- a savings of $4,551.

Of course, as Spina points out, you are still buying a used car with more potential problems than a new one. So double-checking you warranty coverage is especially important. The best value is a certified program sponsored by the manufacturer, which will also set requirements on which parts of the car must be inspected and repaired if needed.

"Look for vehicles that are backed by the manufacturer, giving you extra peace of mind," Spina says.

To make sure you are getting the best deal on a certified car,follow these steps:

  • Avoid independent used car lots and go to a franchised dealer that also sells new cars.
  • Even at franchised dealers, make sure your warranty is backed by the manufacturer. If it is a Ford warranty, for instance, you should be able to get covered repairs done at any Ford dealer.
  • Ask to see the vehicle history. A good certified offering should include a report from Carfax or a competitor showing the previous owners and whether the car has ever been in a major accident.
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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.