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There's a lot to consider in used car

| Saturday, July 30, 2011

Q: Is there a way to tell for sure if a used car is a good one to buy• When I look at the used cars at several car dealerships, they all look so nice, but I wonder how they were taken care of or what problems may be concealed. Any suggestions you have would be appreciated.

-- Myra Rollins

A: Buying a used car is always a bit of a gamble, but with the right inspection tools, the odds of buying a bad one can be reduced. A certified pre-owned vehicle found at a dealership seems a safe avenue, as these cars are closely inspected and carry a warranty. This added level of protection does come at a price, and when you compare the true cost of ownership, including financing rates and new-vehicle incentives, and the high resale value of some popular models, one may find it makes more sense to buy a new one. A 4- or 5-year-old certified pre-owned vehicle -- near the age limit for most programs -- that has incurred steeper price depreciation makes the most sense to me.

A CARFAX report detailing vehicle history and Kelley Blue Book value are good tools, if offered by the seller or undertaken by the buyer for a vehicle being considered. As remarkable as this report may be in uncovering past issues -- such as sales transactions, insurance claims and odometer irregularities, as well as other history -- it cannot be guaranteed to be 100 percent complete or accurate. I'd view this as a good way to discredit a bad vehicle, but only one of several methods needed to qualify a good vehicle.

A comprehensive vehicle inspection, such as that offered by AAA, or a diverse services repair shop is the next tool. A thorough inspection will verify many aspects of mechanical condition, trouble code and emissions monitor status, and hopefully a skilled eye for damage, abuse, and the level of wear and tear. I prefer to see a vehicle prior to it being professionally detailed, as one can get a better feel for the previous owner's level of care. If vehicle maintenance records have been kept and are available, that's a big plus.

Next is the visual/functional inspection and road test, preferably after a cold engine start. Is the engine quiet at all times• Does the transmission shift smoothly, yet firm• Does the vehicle wander, clunk, rattle or squeak when driving across irregular pavement• Are the gauges within preferred ranges and indicators known to work, yet remain off• How do the doors open and close, and do the windows operate smoothly• Are there odd odors or condition details pertaining to upholstery or paint• Any signs of body-part misalignment, repainting or repairs?

How are the under-hood fluids -- are they clean and fully filled• Do they smell good• How about fluid leakage from beneath the vehicle and at the passenger side floor, body rust, looseness of mechanisms such as the gear shift, doors, windows• With greater age, one must accept a progression of minor faults -- comparing one vehicle to the next is a good idea to determine what is acceptable versus irregular. If needed, bring a friend who has an eye for these things.

Two final checks: A clear title (not salvaged), and a tour of used car values at Kelley Blue Book's website, kbb.com. I'd prefer a high-mileage car in excellent condition over a somewhat rougher one with lower mileage.

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