Buying a used car? Don't make these wrong turns

Used-car buyers always need to be wary. The Federal Trade Commission gets 90,000 complaints a year regarding these deals. Now, online car seller Vroom has put out a list of danger signs that may especially spell trouble for the careless buyer.

The safest route to used-car buying is to get one that’s “certified” from a dealership that’s offering the vehicle with a manufacturer-backed warranty. But certified cars are mostly late models. If you need something less expensive, you may need to shop used-car dealers -- where caution is essential.

Vroom itself reconditions used cars and sells them online, delivering them nationwide. But if you’re not buying one of its cars, Vroom suggests you watch for these telltale red flags:

  • Don’t let the salesperson brush off concerns you have about the vehicle -- whether it’s rust spots, run-down tires or evidence of repairs. Ask for a record of work done to the car.
  • Don’t ignore dashboard warning lights. If the “check engine” light is on, it could signal expensive repairs. The average cost of a repair prompted by this warning light is nearly $400. It’s best to pass on any car with “check engine” flashing.
  • Take notice if that price seems TOO good. Check with kbb.com to see what similar models are selling for in your area. A startlingly low price may be masking very high interest rates or other charges in the contract you’re being offered. In any case, go over any contract with care and question anything that looks questionable.

That’s all sound advice, and here are a few more used-car tips from my book, “Car Shopping Made Easy.”

  • Get a history of the car. A CarFax report should show how many owners the car has had and any reports of repairs done after an accident. You can get a report on one car for $39.99 or unlimited  reports over 60 days for $69.99.
  • Watch out for flood damage. With Hurricane Matthew and tropical storms having flooded large areas in the Southeast, unscrupulous dealers may try to palm off flooded cars as undamaged used cars. They can sometimes bypass CarFax and other car-history companies by taking a refurbished car to another state and getting a fresh title.  
  • Look for signs that the odometer isn’t truthful. Brake pedals that seem too worn for the mileage listed on the odometer and oil change stickers that don’t seem to match the mileage numbers can be tip-offs. If a three-year-old car with 30,000 miles on the odometer has worn brake pedals, pass on it. Upholstery worn beyond what’s natural for the alleged mileage also can be a trouble signal.

Used cars can be a smart economic choice. But to make that decision work out, you have to be alert for trouble signs in any vehicle you consider.

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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.