EBay. Craigslist. Used-car dealers with websites. Buying a used car today is a whole new ballgame. It's bad enough shopping at a used-car lot, bargaining with an oleaginous salesman in a cheap bow tie—but buying a major investment sight unseen from a thousand miles away? Scary. Here are 21 tips on how not to get burned.
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* Don't get auction fever and agree to pay too much because you're excited.
* Be skeptical. (Duh.) Any deal too good to be true probably is.
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* Get a CarFax report. This paper is not perfect, but it is better than nothing. Be sure the mileages on the CarFax agree with the service records, odometer records and common sense.
* Never buy a vehicle with a salvage title, unless you're looking for a frame-up rebuild. The car had better be exceedingly rare if the title isn't clean.
* Oh, yeah. The title has to be clean, with no liens, notarized signatures, or whatever legal hurdles your local state DMV needs hopped. Often, it's better to transfer the title in the seller's state to your name first. Then your local DMV can't suddenly burn you by asking for something you can't supply, like a notarized bill of sale. Yes,
you can probably get a title in the seller's state when you show up with an out-of-state address. But just to be sure, call the seller's DMV and check first.
* Get an independent mechanical report. Arrange to get a trustworthy local mechanic or knowledgeable car guy to inspect the vehicle. If the seller won't permit that, or better yet, arrange to transport the vehicle to the mechanic's shop, the deal is off. A mechanical issue isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, but it should figure into the price. If you don't have someone local, try checking on enthusiast websites. There might be someone local willing to take an afternoon and check out your ride, or at least recommend a trustworthy shop.
* Inspect it yourself. Be prepared to look at your prospective purchase. Bring coveralls and be prepared to get dirty poking around underneath. Ask the seller to have a floor jack, some jackstands or at least a pair of ramps available.
* Be prepared to turn around and go home if the vehicle isn't exactly as described.
* Consider trailering the vehicle home unless it's in primo daily driven condition.
* Discuss insurance with your agent ahead of time, lest you find that you can't afford usurious rates on that high-horsepower ride.