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The market has never been better for devotees of used cars. Dealer incentives on new cars have brought buyers into the market sooner than they may have otherwise entered it (that means a glut of high-quality used cars to pick from). The overstock at used car dealerships, low interest rates, and easy credit spell a great deal for savvy used car buyers. Thanks to market dynamics and the overall economy, used cars sold by new car dealers are actually selling for less than the levels reached in 2001.
If you are in the market, choose the car type you want (SUV, wagon, compact, hybrid, etc.), then focus on reliability and safety and crash test performance. You can find a list of top-recommended cars—as well used cars to avoid—in Consumer Reports' Used Car Buying Guide.
When you visit your used car dealer (which may well be the local new car dealer as well), how do you know you're getting a truly reliable car? Aside from giving a car the obligatory kick in the tires, you should plan to take the car for a meaningful test drive under the same conditions you will most often be driving in. The following things are signs of trouble:
• Jiggling or rattling sounds
• Squealing brakes
• Warning lights lit on the instrument panel
• Pinging noises coming from the engine
• Clicking noises when making hard turns
Even if the car seems perfect, your best bet is to get a Carfax vehicle history report using the car's vehicle identification number (VIN) from Carfax.com. You should also have your own mechanic check the car from bumper to bumper.
There is a large part of the car-buying population who won't even consider buying a new car. In fact, used car sales outnumber new car sales three to one. Before you go to your local used car dealer, however, figure out which type of car best suits your needs and then research it well either online or at the library.
You can check safety and crash test ratings at several Web sites (including Hwysafety.org and Safercar.gov). You can find information on owner satisfaction at J.D. Power & Associates' Web site. You can also find information on ownership costs at Edmunds.com and Intellichoice.com.
If you want to avoid the possibility of buying someone else's mechanically compromised used car, auto dealers have an solution for you: certified pre-owned cars. Dealers have so many top-notch pre-owned cars coming off lease in like-new condition that they created a certification program.
Certified used cars have been inspected and reconditioned, have generally low mileage, and are still under manufacturer's warranty. In short, they are the cream of the used car crop. You are likely to pay more for a certified car (from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars more).
If you are considering buying a certified pre-owned vehicle, ask for specific details and evidence about which checks were done and what kind of reconditioning took place. You should also ask about a statement of warranty.
*Any dealer anywhere can "certify" a car, since there are no legal requirements or government oversight of pre-owned vehicle certification standards.
Let's say you have your eye on a used 2002 Volkswagen Passat, it passes the visual inspection, and your mechanic gave it a clean bill of health. Can you be sure it's not a lemon?
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains a free, searchable database of automobile recalls. You can simply enter the year, make, and model and you will be able to view a report listing any recalls that apply to the car. You can also check for recalls on car safety equipment while you're at it (including child safety seats).
Now let's say, according to the database, that your dream Passat had two recalls, one for tires and one for a problem with the fuel tank. Does that mean you shouldn't buy the car? Nah! Take the NHTSA recall report back to the dealer, make sure the dealer fixes these items if they haven't already been fixed, and by all means by the car if you want to.