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Buying a Used Car? Steer Clear of Bad Deals

A woman bought a two-year-old used car that had low mileage and was supposed to have three years left on its manufacturer warranty. Shortly afterward, the air conditioning quit. When she took it in for repairs, she found out that the warranty was canceled because the car had been "totaled" for flood damage in another state.

If you're shopping for a used car, there are a number of things you can do to prevent getting stuck with a problem car.

Look for a reliable model. You can look up car models' repair records, maintenance costs, and safety ratings in consumer magazines or online. You can also check for safety defect recalls by calling the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration toll-free 1-888-327-4236 or visiting www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

Decide where you want to buy your car. Buying from a private party, a new car dealer or a used car dealer each has advantages and disadvantages. For example, you may get a lower price from an individual, but you'll almost certainly not receive a written warranty.

Watch out for "curbstoners"–people who get cars from private parties, dealers or auctions, pose as the original owners, and sell to unsuspecting consumers. They sell cars from the roadside or shopping center lots, and often sell cars with rolled-back odometers.

Ask the seller about the car's condition and history. Was it in any accidents? If the seller isn't the original owner, from whom did he or she buy the car? Ask to see maintenance records.

Examine the car carefully. You can find helpful checklists in books or Web sites that deal with buying a used car. Look for signs of accident damage: body paint that doesn't match or is rippled; doors, a hood or a trunk that won't close tightly; or a frame that's out of alignment. Make sure all the lights work, as well as windows, seatbelts, and the heater and air conditioner.

Take the car for a thorough test drive. Drive on both highway and city streets to see how it handles.

Ask to see the car's inspection certificate. Maryland law requires the seller of a used car to present the buyer with a Maryland Safety Inspection Certificate, which is valid for 90 days. Check that the car's vehicle identification number (VIN) matches the one on the certificate.

Have the car evaluated by a mechanic you select. The state safety inspection does not check for all mechanical problems. A car that has "passed inspection" could still have major problems.

Ask for a written estimate of repair costs if the mechanic finds problems. You may be able to use the estimate to negotiate a lower price if you decide to make an offer for the car. If a seller won't let you take the car to a mechanic, you may be able to find a mechanic or mobile inspection service that will come to where the car is. If not, ask the seller to have the car inspected at a facility you designate.

Check the car's history. Get the car's VIN and call the Motor Vehicle Administration (1-800-950-1MVA) to request the history of the vehicle. This will show the car's odometer reading when it previously changed hands in Maryland, and whether it has been branded as a "salvage" vehicle. Because used cars can come from other states, you may also want to request a vehicle history report from www.carfax.com or other companies found on the Internet. For a fee, these companies can trace a car's history in a national database and reveal whether it was totaled in an accident, flood-damaged, sold at auction, had its odometer rolled back, or was bought back by a manufacturer under a lemon law.

Be wary if a history report shows that a car was sold across state lines through an auction. Many unscrupulous auto brokers sell rebuilt wrecks or cars with rolled-back odometers through auctions.

Ask to see the title. Don't accept explanations from sellers who say they can't show it to you. In a private party sale, the name on the title should be the seller's name.

Find out if the car is sold "as is," or with a warranty. If you buy a car "as is," the seller has no responsibility for anything that goes wrong after the sale. Almost all private party sales are "as is."

If you're looking at a car offered by a dealer, look for the "Buyer's Guide" sticker on the car required by federal law. It will state whether the car is offered "as is" or with a warranty. A used car dealer in Maryland may only sell a car "as is" if it is more than six years old and has more than 60,000 miles. All other used cars sold by the dealer come with an implied warranty, which is like an unspoken promise that the car will function for a reasonable period of time. If it doesn't, you may be able to make the dealer pay for repairs if you can prove that the defect existed at the time of the sale.

The dealer may also offer a written warranty. The Buyer's Guide will indicate what specific parts and systems of the car are covered, what percentage of repair costs the dealer will pay, and the duration of the warranty (for example, 90 days or 3,000 miles).

A late-model used car may still have its manufacturer warranty in effect. If the seller tells you this, get the car's VIN and call the manufacturer to verify.

Get details about service contracts. Before deciding to buy a service contract, find out whether it would duplicate any warranty coverage you will already have; what parts and service are covered ("bumper to bumper" may not mean what you think); whether a deductible is required; and who backs the contract. Many service contracts sold by dealers are backed by third-party companies. Find out whether that company is reputable.

Remember, there is no automatic "three day right to cancel" when you buy any car, new or used. Be certain you want the car before you sign the dotted line! If you are having a dispute with a used car dealer, contact the Consumer Protection Division for help.


Maryland Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division
Consumer hotline: (410) 528-8662 or 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free


Attorney General of Maryland 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free / TDD: (410) 576-6372
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