Tribune senior correspondent
5:20 PM EST, February 7, 2011
For most of us, buying a car — yes, even a used car — is one of the biggest purchases we'll ever make.
Sure, a shiny new vehicle is the dream. But the reality often is a dinged pre-owned ride bought with the hope that it will not turn into a nightmare of won't start, needs a new timing belt, wipers not working and warning lights all aglow.
Of course, there's no way to be 100 percent sure that you won't have trouble as soon as you drive off the lot. However, there are steps that will reduce your risk and make the whole transaction less scary.
The Internet has made it easy to do your homework in deciding on a year, make and model and figuring out market value — a key number when you're negotiating a price.
Websites to help research choices and locate available cars include autotrader.com, edmunds.com, kelleybluebook.com and cars.com (which is partly-owned by Tribune Co., publisher of this newspaper).
Pay special attention to the reliability rating for the year and model of car you're thinking about.
The Chicago Tribune's retired veteran auto columnist Jim Mateja, cars.com editor-in-chief Patrick Olsen and Brett Berk, who writes about cars for Vanity Fair agree on basic precautions before you buy.
Have it checked out by a mechanic you trust
"If you give him $100 he might save you $10,000," says Mateja. (Mechanics generally charge $25 to $100 to check out a vehicle.) "This is a must. If the seller refuses to allow this, don't buy," says Berk.
Also a must: You, not the seller, choose the mechanic.
If problems are found, use that information in negotiating a price. But, "Don't be discouraged if somebody finds some problems. After all, it's a used car. Find out how serious the problems are and how fixable, and how much they'll cost," Mateja says.
"Better than just saying this and this and this is wrong," says Olsen, "Say, 'New tires are going to cost me $600. Can you meet me half way?'"
"With the radio off, listen to what it sounds like. Are there squeaks and ticks?" asks Olsen. Press, pull, yank, turn every knob, button and gauge. "Make sure they work because once you buy it, it's too late," says Mateja.
"Is it slow to brake? Difficult to turn? Turning too quickly or slowly? Is there smoke coming out of the exhaust?" asks Mateja.
Also examine the body in daylight for rust, scrapes and scratches. Shopping on a clear winter day? Don't forget to test wipers and air conditioning. Even in summer, turn on the heat. Put in a CD or tape to make sure the audio system is OK and that all the speakers work.
Check the trunk for a jack and a functioning spare and any signs of mildew or water damage.
Ask for a Carfax report
Although they're not foolproof, a report by carfax.com is likely to reveal whether the car has been wrecked, flooded or salvaged, and other red flags. If the dealership won't provide one, get the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and order one yourself for $34.99.
Based on condition, mileage and Kelley Blue Book, offering 20 percent below asking is a good starting point. "This is the thing everyone fears but the worst a person can say is 'no,'" Mateja says. There's nothing wrong with a lowball offer, he says. "If they're asking $8,800, I might start at $6,500 or $7,000."
On the other hand, "If anyone jumps on your 20 percent (below asking price), I'd make sure my mechanic had seen it," says Olsen. That old maxim is operative here: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Can't stand the bargaining process? Choose a dealer like CarMax which promotes a no-haggle policy that eliminates the stress and confusion of the negotiating process.
Be prepared to walk away
Don't fall in love. There are plenty of other used cars out there.
•Buy at the end of the month. Especially at larger dealerships, sales staff are rated on whether they meet monthly sales quotas so they're especially eager to make a deal at month's end, says Olsen.
•No title in hand? No deal! "Don't go with, 'I'll give it to you later,'" warns Olsen.
•Buying from an individual seller who "you'll never see again" can leave you with little recourse if the car is a lemon, says Mateja.
•Certified used cars are often more expensive but less risky.
•Handing over actual cash is never a good idea and a cashier's check from the bank is as good as cash. You probably can get a better deal by offering to pay that way instead of financing, says Berk.
Not sure about the dealership? Check your local Better Business Bureau for complaints and whether they were resolved satisfactorily.