auto quest

How to Buy a Used Car

  • Learn what rights you have when buying a used car. Contact your state or local consumer protection office.
  • Find out in advance what paperwork you will need to register a vehicle. Contact your state's motor vehicle department.
  • Check prices of similar models using the NADA Official Used Car Guide ( published by the National Automobile Dealer Association or the Kelly Blue Book ( These guides are usually available at local libraries as well.
  • Research the vehicle's history. Ask the seller for details concerning past owners, use, and maintenance. Next, find out whether the car has been damaged in a flood, involved in a crash, been labeled a lemon or had its odometer rolled back. The vehicle identification number (VIN) will help you do this.
    • Your state motor vehicle department can research the car's title history. Inspect the title for "salvage," "rebuilt," or similar notations.
    • The websites and sell information on the history of vehicles gathered from state motor vehicle departments and other sources. These reports are helpful but incomplete-they do not guarantee that a vehicle is accident-free.
    • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( lists VINs of its crash-test vehicles and will let you search an online database of manufacturer service bulletins.
    • The Center for Auto Safety provides information on safety defects, recalls, and lemons, as well as service bulletins.
    • Visit for a free online search of its database of lemons registered by previous owners.
    • Make sure any mileage disclosures match the odometer reading on the car.
  • Check the warranty. If a manufacturer's warranty is still in effect, contact the manufacturer to make sure you can use the coverage. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires dealers to post a Buyers Guide on all used cars and trucks for sale. This Guide specifies whether the vehicle is being sold "as is" or with a warranty, and what percentage of repair costs a dealer will pay under the warranty. Keep in mind that private sellers generally have less responsibility than dealers for defects or other problems. Private sellers generally don't have to post information.
  • Ask about the dealer's return policy. Get it in writing and read it carefully.
  • Have the car inspected by your mechanic. Agree in advance with the seller that you'll pay for the examination if the car passes inspection, and the seller will pay if significant problems are discovered. A qualified mechanic should check the vehicle's frame, tire wear, air bags and undercarriage as well as the engine.
  • Examine dealer documents carefully. Make sure you are buying, not leasing, the vehicle. A balloon payment and "base mileage" disclosures are warning signs you may have a lease.
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