Peters, Eric, Consumers' Research Magazine
Reliable transport doesn't have to be new. There are many alternatives to the showroom floor that will get you where you need to go for less than the $20,000 average new-car selling price.
When buying a used car, it's important to size up the market carefully, and evaluate your needs and what you can spend before kicking any tires.
Start by settling on a specific type of car. Do you want a sedan or coupe? Compact or full-sized? How important are such things as performance, fuel efficiency, ease-of-maintenance, and so on, to you?
Dig into back issues of used car guides for information about quality, reliability, insurance costs, and so on. Research will help you to converse intelligently with salespeople and to evaluate the relative merits/weak points of otherwise comparable cars. For example, if you've done your homework, you'd know that the Ford Aspire comes as a 2-door coupe only, while the Honda Civic and Toyota Tercel are available as four-door sedans.
In addition to used car lots and the newspaper classifieds, "Auto Trader" publications sold in convenience stores are excellent sources for locating the car you're after. There are also buying services that will locate a specific car for you.
When it gets to the nitty gritty of shopping for a car, there are several general rules that will help keep you out of trouble. The first and most important Of these is always to ascertain the car's history to the fullest extent possible -- whether you're buying a used car sold by a private party or a dealer. You should try and find out the following:
1) Is the seller the first or second (or third) owner? The fewer owners a car has had, the better. Multiple-owners cars suggest a vehicle that was not especially well liked by the people who drove it.
2) Are maintenance records available? If they are, this is a good sign. You can easily see how well the car was maintained, whether it has had unusual problems, and so on. Conversely, buying a used car with no service records is like buying a pig in a poke -- you really have no way of knowing what to expect.
3) Has it ever been in an accident? This is important. On today's unit-bodies cars (integral frames and bodies that are welded together), accident damage can be difficult to repair; sometimes, a car that's been in a serious accident "will never be quite the same" -- it may leak, squeak, and have alignment problems. …