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How to Buy a Used Car

Want new wheels but can't afford a brand new car?

Used - now also of course now known as "previously owned" - may be the way to go.

But the process can be confusing one and take you down a bumpy road, filled with salesman you're not sure you should trust.

On "The Early Show" Tuesday, "The Car Coach," Lauren Fix, mapped out pothole-free routes for you.

Fix, author of Lauren Fix's Guide to Loving Your Car: Everything You Need to Know to Take Charge of Your Car and Get On with Your Life," noted that there are numerous avenues offering used vehicles, and each has its pluses and minuses, such as price range, selection, and warranties. There are different ways to start: Web sites (such as Craigslist and eBay, local newspapers, private or small dealers, car dealerships and online auto stores, to name a few. To me, the Internet is the best place to do your homework and compare options and what the car is selling for in your area

WHAT DO WE NEED TO BE AWARE OF WHEN SHOPPING ONLINE?

The Internet is a vast marketplace for buying and selling automobiles. The benefits? If you're a buyer, your car choices are immense. If you're a seller, your marketplace of potential buyers is huge. Although websites such as eBay, Autotrader, and Craigslist are very popular, I advise caution when buying and selling long-distance. Scams are very common. You certainly don't want to buy a car without seeing it first and giving it a thorough inspection.

USED CARS ARE OFTEN ADVERTISED BY DEALERS AS "CERTIFIED." WHAT EXACTLY DOES THAT TERM MEAN?

Certified basically means that the auto is covered under some type of warranty that extends beyond the vehicle's initial coverage. The original manufacturer of the vehicle is using one of its dealerships to inspect the vehicle. The dealer uses a checklist to determine if the vehicle is worth certifying. If it meets certain criteria, it will earn an extended warranty. But not all certified used car programs are the same, so you should review the various manufacturer certification programs to see which one offers the most complete coverage.

THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF CERTIFICATION: FACTORY-CERTIFIED AND DEALER-CERTIFIED. WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

With dealer certification, the dealer inspects a preset number of areas of the vehicle, fixes any problems found, then usually provides a limited warranty on that vehicle for a specified period (typically no more than 90 days), during which that same dealer will make repairs under the terms of the limited warranty. Factory certification means the manufacturer decides which areas of the vehicle are inspected and oversees the inspection and the repairs. Some factory-certified limited warranties extend for months rather than years; others can be the original factory warranty. Some include roadside assistance and free loaner vehicles when warranty repairs are needed.

REGARDLESS OF WHAT YOU CHOOSE, YOU SAY TO GET AN INDEPENDENT INSPECTION REPORT BEFORE MAKING A PURCHASE. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

Get the vehicle identification number (VIN) and invest in an independent inspection report to make sure the vehicle hasn't been in a major collision or flood-damaged. Look for an independent shop that offers a multi-point visual courtesy check, looking inside, outside, under the hood and under the vehicle, then offering a written report. There may be a fee, but it will save you money and frustration down the road.

WHEN BUYING A USED CAR/EXAMINE EXTERIOR FOR DAMAGE

Walk around the car looking for rust and damage. Do you notice any dings or paint missing? Doing this will give you an idea of how the car was maintained and how much in the way of repairs or paint work it may need. Look for poor previous repair work -- that could range from sloppy bodywork to improper repairs.

WHAT CAN YOU TELL ABOUT A USED CAR BY LOOKING AT ITS TIRES?

Take a close look at the tires. Are they s well-known, reputable brand such as Michelin, Goodyear or Bridgestone, or s "no-name" kind of product? Are they all the same or different? Look at the tread wear. Note tire damage, tread depth, and look at the wear pattern: Irregular wear when one side is worn more than the other could mean alignment or suspension problems.

YOU HEAR STORIES ABOUT SELLERS TAMPERING WITH THE ODOMETER TO TAKE MILES OFF THE CAR. IS THERE ANYTHING INSIDE THAT CAR THAT MIGHT SUGGEST A CAR HAS HIGH MILEAGE?

The condition of the vehicle interior is another good indicator of how the vehicle was taken care of. Look at the driver's seat: is it excessively worn out? Are the seat materials mismatched? Are the gas and brake pedals worn? If this stuff looks worn, use caution. It probably means the car hasn't been well taken care of.

CARS THAT HAVE BEEN AFFECTED BY FLOODS ARE EVERYWHERE, NOT JUST IN FLOOD ZONES. WHAT SHOULD YOU LOOK FOR THAT MIGHT INDICATE THIS KIND OF DAMAGE?

Flood-damaged vehicles are in all 50 states and Canada; don't be tricked by hearing that a car is from up North. Any car can change hands, be title-washed, or have been in a local flood. Most of us don't think about flood-damaged cars. While they are often judged "total loss claims," many aren't destroyed by insurance companies. Many are filthy and are filled with bacteria and mold from sewage and water. Again, give the car a thorough inspection and be especially mindful of a musty or moldy odor. Check the trunk, glove compartment, dashboard and below the seats for signs of water damage such as silt, mud or rust. Examine the upholstery and carpeting closely; if it doesn't match the interior or fits loosely, it may have been replaced.

FLOOD DAMAGED VEHICLES CAN BE A REAL HEADACHE. IF YOU BUY ONE, ARE YOU PROTECTED IN ANY WAY?

If you buy one of these cars, there is unfortunately no warranty from the manufacturer related to water damage. These cars are a complete waste of money, and they're not safe on the roads (they have electrical problems, air bags may not deploy, seat belts don't function properly, anti-lock brakes don't work). Because of natural disasters in recent years, as many as 650,000 cars were damaged.

DON'T BE AFRAID TO SIMPLY WALK AWAY

DO NOT be afraid to walk away if something -- even if it's minor -- seems out of place. There are hundreds of cars available and the right one is out there for you. I have a rule for car shopping: "If it's meant to be, you'll find it." So don't settle for an "almost"!



To read a related excerpt of "Lauren Fix's Guide to Loving Your Car," click here.
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