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Used Car-Buying Do's And Dont's

Is your high school or college-bound kid nagging you for a new car this fall?

Well, according to David Champion, the director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, a quality used car can be a smart and affordable alternative for a new driver — or for anyone, especially in a tough economy.

On The Early Show Saturday, Champion offered pointers to make sure you don't get taken for a ride when buying a used car.

You'll benefit most by buying a model that's reliable, in good condition, and reasonably priced. Here's what to do, and look for — first, tips from the magazine, then, from Champion:

Think safety

Look for a model with critical safety features, such as electronic stability control, side and curtain air bags, and antilock brakes. To see how a model has performed in government and insurance industry safety tests, go to www.safercar.gov and www.hwysafety.org. Free videos of insurance industry crash tests are available on ConsumerReports.org and safety ratings are available to the Web site's subscribers.

Check the car's reliability and worth

Reduce the risk of purchasing a trouble-prone vehicle by selecting models with a good reliability record. In Consumer Reports' used-car reliability history charts, you'll find detailed ratings for 17 trouble areas over 10 model years, so you can see the areas in which a model has had problems. The ratings are included in the April issue and special Consumer Reports Cars publications, and are available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers.

A car's value depends on its age, mileage, condition, features, and local demand. You can get a car's overall retail value for free from online auto pricing Web sites or from a Consumer Reports Used Car Price Report ($12), which also includes reliability ratings. Then, to help gauge how much money sellers are asking for a model in your area, check out the classified ads in local newspapers and other publications. Also check online car-buying sites such as Autotrader.com, Cars.com, and eBay.

A nice feature of eBay is that you can see how much cars have sold for. Usually you'll get a lower price from a private seller than from a dealership, but it might take more effort to assess the vehicle and complete the transaction.

Do a thorough inspection and test drive

Check inside and out. Walk around the car and look for dents, rust, and mismatched body panels. Check for paint overspray on exterior trim or on wheel wells, which is a sign of repair work. Make sure all interior components are in good condition. Frayed safety belts or belts with melted fibers might indicate a frontal crash above 15 mph.

Stay away from any vehicle with lighted warning lights. A mildew smell, discolored carpeting, silt in the trunk, or electrical problems are indicators of flood damage.

Wear on tires should be even across the width of the tread and the same on both sides of the car. Heavy wear on the outside shoulder near the sidewall indicates that the vehicle has been driven hard.

All components under the hood should be relatively grease- and corrosion-free. Belts and hoses should be pliable and unworn. Look for damp areas in the engine compartment and under the vehicle, which might point to fluid leaks. Melted or burned areas might be signs of overheating or even an engine fire. Check that all fluids are at the proper levels. The transmission fluid should be checked after the car is warmed up. Motor oil should be brown and not gritty, frothy, or gelatinous.

Take a test drive: Drive a vehicle for at least 30 minutes on a variety of roads. Make sure the car takes off briskly, shifts smoothly in all gears, and brakes without pulling right or left. On the highway, note whether the car is tracking straight or pulling notably to one side. Once warm, there should be no tailpipe smoke. Try every button, switch, and control, and note any that don't work.

Ask a trusted mechanic

When you've found a vehicle you're interested in, take it to an independent, certified mechanic for a diagnostic checkup. That inspection, which usually costs about $100 to $150, is well worth the investment.

Do a background check

While far from foolproof, a vehicle history report from CarFax (www.carfax.com) or Experian Automotive (www.autocheck.com) might alert you to possible odometer fraud or past fire, flood, or crash damage. To get one, you'll need the vehicle identification number, or VIN. Reports usually cost $25. Also check with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.dot.gov; 800-424-9393) to see whether any safety recalls were issued for the model. If so, ask the seller or a franchised dealer for documentation that the recall service was performed.

OVERALL TIPS, FROM CHAMPION

(There's some repetition here, but it's well-worth reading!)

When beginning your search for a new car, head to the Web first. A lot of used cars are for sale online, and search capabilities make it easy to quickly track down the features you want in a vehicle. Of course, the classified section of a newspaper is always a good option as well.

What's the best place to buy a used car? It doesn't matter — you just need to find the car you want. You'll probably get the best deal if you buy from an individual. But if you buy from a dealership, you have more recourse — if something's wrong with the vehicle, you can take it back to the dealership.

Many people like the comfort of buying a "certified" used car. Typically, "certified" means the car has been checked over by a dealer and deemed to be in good shape. Dealers sell a variety of used cars, but the certified are the cream of the crop. They come with a warranty AND a higher price tag. They can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars more than non-certified vehicles.

Consumers should be aware that the term "certified" has no legal definition, and any used-car dealer can legally call their cars "certified." So, don't take it for granted that you're getting a car that's in top shape just because it's labeled "certified."

Once you've found the car you want to buy and made an initial phone call to cover basics such as the color, mileage, maintenance record, why the owner is selling, etc, it's time for a physical inspection. Most people will automatically see if the seats are comfortable, if the sightlines are good, if there are any big scratches or dents.

But there are a few things the average car buyer might fail to check.

When you're inspecting a car, you want to make sure the seller isn't lying about the mileage, telling you it's low when actually it's quite high, or the car's accident record.

Here are some things to look for.

EXTERIOR
Take a walk around the car and closely examine all body panels. They should each be exactly the same color and have the same finish. Any variations indicate the panels have been replaced or repaired. Also, if a car has been repainted, you can check for "overspray" — paint that's adhered to the rubber seals around the hood and trunk lids.

TRUNK
When you open the trunk to look for overspray, lift the carpet and look at the trunk's floor. The condition of the floor will indicate if the car has been rear-ended or suffered another type of rear impact.

TIRES
You can tell a lot by looking at a car's tires. You want to make sure all of the tires are the same, and appear to be the same age. A tire's tread should wear evenly across the tire itself and on both sides of the car. Aggressive drivers tend to put heavy wear on the outside shoulder of the front tires, at the edge of the sidewall. Assume that a car has been driven hard if that area is badly worn relative to the rest of the tire. Also, be wary of a car with relatively low miles and brand-new tires — a sign the odometer may have been rolled back.

INTERIOR
Another way to check for hard driving and high mileage: Take a look at the gas and clutch pedals. If the pedal rubber appears quite worn, it indicates high miles. While you're inside the vehicle, be sure to check all the electronic aspects — all the automatic windows, stereo buttons, etc. Consumer Reports studies show that these electronics are the parts of a used car most likely to break, and they're quite expensive to fix.

Finally, nobody wants to buy a car that's been damaged in a flood, and consumers in the South may be the most vulnerable to vehicles in this condition over the following months. For starters, get a car's vehicle identification number — a 17-digit number that's stamped in several places on a car, including where the windshield meets the dashboard. Using this number, you can investigate the car's history at www.carfax.com. The Web site compiles info from motor vehicle records, police departments and other sources.

Luckily for consumers, cleaning all of the muck out of a flooded car is difficult. Look under car carpets and in other nooks and crannies for mold or mud. The small crack where the interior front and back panels meet is a good place to look for mud and other debris.

Of course, you should always have a car inspected by an independent mechanic before you buy. In addition to finding problems you can't spot yourself, this also gives you some negotiating power. If a repair is required, you should approach the seller and ask that some money be knocked off the price.