THE BLOG

3 Steps To Take Before Buying a Used Car

06/04/2015 04:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

When you're buying a used vehicle, you're taking a chance buying somebody's problems. But having said that, cars are made so much better today than they were a generation ago.

Here are three things to do before you purchase a used vehicle.

1. Have a certified mechanic inspect a used car before purchase

I was recently reminded of the dangers of used car buying when an unfortunate motorist broke down and had to pull into my driveway! Can you imagine the irony? I spend a lot of my days warning people not to buy used car lemons and here I have just such a drama playing out in front of my eyes.

In this particular instance, the motorist was a member of the U.S. Air Force who bought the used car from a Craigslist seller. The airman had just picked up the car and didn't even make it home before the vehicle broke down.

I bring this story up to show you that all used cars are sold "as is," whether by a private seller or a licensed dealer -- unless they come with a written warranty. Worse yet, the seller is not required by law to be honest about the condition of the vehicle. Whatever representations they make about the car can be false.

On my radio show, I talk to so many people who are duped when buying a used car. We call them "razor blade calls" because they're so painful to hear. There's usually nothing I can do to help them.

Here's my key rule of used car buying: Have the car inspected by a certified diagnostic mechanic of your choosing as a condition of purchase. You can leave a deposit if you wish, but specify in writing that the money must be returned to you if the car doesn't check out. You can eliminate nine out of 10 used car buying disasters this way.

You want an ASE-certified (Automotive Service Excellence) mechanic. Garages that participate in the Blue Seal program typically feature the most highly trained ASE-certified mechanics. Visit ASE.com to find one near you.

2. Vet out the problem cars online

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I gave warnings about flood cars entering the used car market. At that time, hundreds of thousands of vehicles were rebuilt and had their titles "washed." But this is really a recurring problem that happens anytime we have a major hurricane season or flooding.

Dishonest people take flooded vehicles into certain states where they can easily wash titles. That action removes any evidence that the vehicle was ever in a flood. Cars with washed titles can then be sold to any dealership across the country that either doesn't know or doesn't care that they're buying a flood vehicle.

These cars often end up in the hands of "curb stoners," which are illegal dealers who run ads in the paper. They pretend they're selling their sister's car or their mother's car and they hope you don't know what they know. About 20 percent of these cars go to unsuspecting people overseas. The other 80 stay right here at home.

To the naked eye, there's no telling that anything is amiss with these cars. But you'll know you've got a flood car when you encounter failed electrical systems throughout the vehicle.

A lot of people will pay CarFax.com $35 to run the vehicle identification number (VIN) and check for any title problems, liens, odometer rollback, salvage history and more. That's a good idea. But I want you to be doubly sure and also run the VIN through a free database operated by the National Insurance Crime Bureau at NICB.org.

Even if the car checks out in both databases, you still want to have the vehicle inspected by a diagnostic mechanic before you buy (as I explain above). If the used car you want checks out in CarFax and NICB and it passes a diagnostic inspection, you can be confident it is a good car.

3. Check a Car's Repair Record Before Buying

Buying a used car involves a little more risk than buying a new car because you never know how the previous owner treated that vehicle. One way to minimize that risk is to buy used car models that have proven to be reliable.

The best place to get that information is in Consumer Reports. The magazine publishes its Annual Auto Issue every April, containing a rundown of all its top picks for the new model year. But near the back of the April issue, you'll also find detailed information on used cars.

The Auto Issue lays out Consumer Reports' top used car picks by price category. There are also detailed reliability ratings for the past six model years on every possible nameplate, which are compiled from reports about 17 common trouble spots in more than a million cars on the road. This latter feature gives you a great vantage point on long-term reliability.

Another helpful feature is the magazine's list of "Used Cars to Avoid" and a companion tally called the "Worst of the Worst" list. You never want to buy one of the stinkers on these lists!

If you stick to Consumer Reports' list of recommended used vehicles, odds are good that you won't have any major problems. You shouldn't have to buy an extended warranty.

Visit ConsumerReports.org to purchase one-time access or read the April issue for free at your local library.

For more money-saving tips, visit ClarkHoward.com. Money in Your Pocket. Advice You Can Trust.