How to Sniff Out a Lemon

Photo by Andrew Comings, Flickr.

Photo by Andrew Comings, Flickr.

Excited about the value that a used car offers, but worried about inheriting someone else’s headaches? It is important to realize that buying a reliable car that won’t let you down has less to do with luck and more to do with research. Any time you buy a used car, regardless of whether it was from a dealer or out of the classified ads, it is up to you to do a little a background work.

The good news is that you don’t have to be an auto mechanic to separate the reliable cars from the lemons. A few of the following time-tested strategies can help you determine whether the used car you have been thinking about buying is a potential package of trouble.

Check the Sticker

If you are buying the car from the dealership, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires the dealer to include a buyer’s guide with every used car they are selling. The information listed in this guide must include:

  • Whether the vehicle is being sold “As Is” (meaning the dealer makes no guarantees as to the condition of the vehicle) or with a warranty
  • The percentage of the repair costs a dealer will pay under the warranty
  • All the major mechanical and electrical systems on the car, including potential problems with those systems

Note: When you buy a used car from a dealer, make sure you receive a copy of the original buyer’s guide that was posted in the vehicle. Because this guide is part of your sales contract and will override and contrary provisions, it must note any negotiated changes in warranty coverage.

Inspect The Exterior

Don’t just give it a look; spend some time examining the car closely. By conducting a thorough inspection of the exterior of the car, you will be able to tell if the vehicle has undergone any major body work. Mismatched body panels, uneven gaps between doors, and paint over-sprays are sure signs that parts from the original vehicle have been replaced. You can also use a magnet to detect body filler. If the magnet does not stick to certain parts of the car, this may mean that filler was used to cover up dents or rust spots.

Other points to check include the doors, hood, trunk, locks and windows. If these do not operate properly, it may be a sign that the vehicle’s exterior integrity has been altered.  You may also want to measure the distance between each wheel and the body of the car.  If there is a difference in distance from one wheel to the next, this may be an indication that repairs were made following a major collision.

Ask for the CARFAX®

Never buy a vehicle until you have requested a vehicle history report from a credible source. Reports from services like CARFAX.com or VehicleHistory.Gov will include details on past fire, flood, and accident damage, as well as vehicle odometer information. At UsedCars.com, we have partnered with CARFAX to help you more easily receive this information. Our premium listings will include a free Carfax History Report  For those that don’t include this listing, we offer an option to quickly purchase the report from CARFAX.

Visit Your Mechanic

A quick inspection of the car’s engine may not reveal everything that is wrong. For this reason, it is advisable to have the used car inspected by an auto mechanic. Look for a qualified third-party mechanic that routinely does automotive diagnostic work. These types of services generally cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100.

The dealer or private seller should have no issues with any of the previous actions or requests. If they do, do not hesitate to walk away and continue your shopping elsewhere.

Four Great Used Hatchbacks

With today’s rising gas prices, why not shop for a hatchback?  Not only are these stylishly designed compact rides great in terms of fuel efficiency, but with their innovative seating design and trendy – and sometimes fun and funky – exterior styling, these little road warriors are able to offer both practicality and flair.

If you need help narrowing down your search, UsedCars.com is here to help. The following is a list of used hatchbacks that offer the perfect combination of style, affordability and practicality.

2009 – 2012 Honda Fit

It’s true – the Honda Fit is technically considered a subcompact. However, this should not imply that this peppy little five-door hatchback has a cramped interior. On the contrary, the Fit has continually impressed critics with a roomy interior, comparable to many of the larger and less fuel efficient compacts on the market today. With its innovative interior seating design and surprisingly responsive steering and handling, this little hatchback is able to create a dynamic driving experience.

Test Scores for the Honda Fit include

  • Consumer Reports Overall Score for the 2011 Model: 76/100
  • NTHSA 2010 Average Crash Rating: 4.5/5
  • JD Power and Associates Predicted Reliability Score (2011 Model): 4/5

2007 – 2011 Dodge Caliber

Designed to offer the driving practicality of a sedan combined with the sleek styling and room of a crossover, the Dodge Caliber offers some very distinctive appeal. This is no ordinary five-door hatchback. Larger than most other hatchbacks used car market, the economically priced used Caliber is engineered to meet the needs of growing families on the hunt for a vehicle that offers a stylish design.

Test scores for the 2011 model year include:

  • Consumer Reports Overall Score: 49/100
  • NTHSA Average Crash Rating: 3/5
  • JD Power and Associates Predicted Reliability Score: 3/5

2010 – 2012 Volkswagen Golf

Since the 1970s, the Volkswagen Golf and its predecessor, the Rabbit, have been consistent choices among budget-minded car buyers searching for a family car to match their versatile needs. And while this modern day hatchback bears little resemblance to its ancestors from the ‘70s, one thing remains true today: The Golf is a reliably made car that offers the rare combination of practicality and style.

Test scores for the 2010 model year include: 

  • Consumer Reports Overall Score: 84/100
  • NTHSA Average Crash Rating: 4.4/5
  • JD Power and Associates Predicted Reliability Score: 2/5

2010 – 2012 Kia Soul

In an attempt to inject a little bit of flair and soul into their lineup of practically priced and styled cars and crossovers, Kia created the Soul. The economically driven car buyer will be happy to note that, in keeping in with Kia’s long tradition of creating affordably priced automobiles, the Soul is definitely designed with economy in mind. However, the car’s funky swept-back exterior design, along with its interesting angles and vibrant colors, creates a sense of energy, fun and funk that had previously been lacking from the Kia brand

Test scores for the 2011 model year include:

  • Consumer Reports Overall Score: 68/100
  • NTHSA Average Crash Rating: 2.5/5
  • JD Power and Associates Predicted Reliability Score: 4/5

Understanding Your Used Car Insurance Policy

Are you overpaying for your car insurance? If you have not shopped around in over two years, the answer may be an emphatic “yes.” In fact, a recent Consumer Reports Survey  found that about fourteen percent of their subscribers would save on their premiums by switching policies – and a number of these respondents were paying nearly two times too much on their rates.

Insurance Rates Are Changing, So Change Along with Them

If you want to avoid overpaying for car insurance, the key is to shop around. Auto insurance rates and premiums are in constant flux, with rates increasing rapidly one year and then leveling out the next.

In addition to these industry-changing rates are your personal factors. Your credit history and driving record are two of the main determinants insurers use to arrive at your insurance rates. Neither of these is a static number. So if your insurance company is not accounting for an improved credit rating or driving record, it is probably time you find someone who will.

There Is No Excuse For Not Shopping Around

Today’s technological landscape has made shopping for car insurance as simple as clicking a button. A number of insurance company websites and internet review sites let you shop for and compare quotes side by side. Here at UsedCars.com, we offer an insurance quoting tool–  which allows you to shop for the best car insurance by zip code.

Understanding Used Car Insurance Terminology

Shopping around is only one-half of the battle, unless you understand what you are shopping for, you could still end up paying too much. The following is a list of terms that can help you make sense of your insurance policy.

Liability Insurance: Most states require a minimum amount of insurance. This is what is known as liability insurance. In most scenarios, liability insurance is the least expensive and will cover damage you do to other people, their vehicles or their property. Liability insurance is often broken into two parts:

  • Bodily Injury: In the event you are liable for an accident, bodily liability insurance pays for medical, rehabilitation and other physical damages you do to other people, passengers, and drivers.
  • Property Damage: If you are responsible for damage to another person’s property, such as their vehicle, this coverage will pay for repairs and replacement

Collision Insurance: A step above liability is collision insurance. Collision insurance covers you. It will typically cover repairs you do to your vehicle, regardless of the cause.

Comprehensive Insurance: Comprehensive insurance covers just about everything else. It will cover things like theft, vandalism and storm damage.

The Art of Negotiating and Setting Your Target Price

Why do so many people end up overpaying for their used car? More often than not, the scary truth is that they did not take the time to set a target price. Most will unfortunately walk onto the car lot or into the showroom and use the window sticker price as their starting point.

Your Target Price Should Not Be the Sticker Price

We’ll repeat it for you again: your target price is not the sticker price. In terms of sticker price, every car in the dealership’s lot should offer a price identified as the Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP).

The reality is that this listed price is often marked above what the dealer actually expects to receive in payment. When selling used cars, many dealerships will run sales that promote a certain percentage or set amount off MSRP or sticker price.

What Should Your Target Price Be?

Your target price is the number below the sticker price, but above what the dealer actually paid for the car (dealers still need to make a profit to stay in business).

Calculating dealer costs is a little easier than you would suspect. A number of websites and car buying price guides offer this information. You will also want to subtract any current dealer sales incentives and hold-back amounts from this figure. ConsumerReports.org  offers a great service for looking up this information.

Once you have gathered this information, it’s time to negotiate. A good bit of advice is to assume that the dealer needs you more than you need them. If they refuse to settle on a price that is 1 percent to five percent over their actual costs of the vehicle, do not be afraid to walk away. With the current state of today’s economy, it is a car buyer’s market. And if one dealer will not offer the price you want, the next one most likely will.

Best Used Cars Priced Under $10,000

Due to ever-rising standards in reliably, safety and engineering, the average life-cycle for all cars continues to increase. This is great news for the used car buyer with a limited pocketbook. And in order to help you with your search for a used car that offers reliability, style and safety – but at a price that you can afford – UsedCars.com has put together this list of the best used cars for under $10,000:

2006 – 2009 Kia Optima

Too often, the Kia Optima gets overlooked because of an association with a lower price tag. However, if you are a used car buyer looking to find a car that is a virtual steal for less than $10,000, the Optima should be added to the top of your list. Not only have these cars been recognized for their reputation for reliability, but a roomy interior and sleek exterior styling adds a high-end appeal – just without that high-end price tag.

Here are some scores for the 2007 Kia Optima.

  • Consumer Reports Overall Score: 75/100
  • NTHSA Average Crash Rating: 4.75/5
  • JD Power and Associates Predicted Reliability Score: 4/5

2006- 2007 Ford Fusion

Making its debut to the car buying world in 2006, what the Ford Fusion set out to offer was a sophisticated driving experience that fell in the price range of the modern family-minded car buyer. And it’s this area where the Fusion continues to impress – even today. So if you are looking for a used car under $10,000 that offers enough room and comfort to meet your ever-evolving needs, not many other cars can match:

  • Consumer Reports 2010 Overall Score: 84/100
  • NTHSA 2006 Average Crash Rating: 4.25/5
  • JD Power and Associates 2006 Predicted Reliability Score: 4/5

2005-2010: Nissan Versa

cc_2010NIS013a_01_320_A20Available in a sedan or hatchback, what initially made the Nissan Versa so appealing was the sophisticated styling and engineering it offered, but at a moderate price. And now, just a little more than a half a decade later, the Versa continues to offer this same appeal. So when searching for that perfect combination of fuel economy, reliability, and spacious interior, you will be hard-pressed to find a better value:

Test scores for the 2007 model year include:

  • Consumer Reports Overall Score: 64/100
  • NTHSA Average Crash Rating: 4.25/5
  • JD Power and Associates Predicted Reliability Score: 2/5

2002 – 2006 Audi A4

With average used car list prices hovering between $5,000 and $10,000, the Audi A4 is perfect for the luxury minded car buyer who doesn’t want to empty their bank account. With a handsome, well-finished cabin, sharp handling and turbocharged engine, this sophisticated sedan is capable of delivering luxury and comfort, while also placing a premium on acceleration and performance.

  • Consumer Reports 2002 Overall Score: 75/100
  • NTHSA Average Crash Rating: 4.1/5
  • JD Power and Associates Predicted Reliability Score: 4/5

2004-2006 Mini Cooper

With its uniquely designed exterior and responsive handling, it’s easy to overlook the Mini Cooper’s reputation for reliability. What’s more is that with a light-weight design and five speed 121-horsepower engine, this fun and funky little compact car adds the appeal of performance:

  • Consumer Reports 2008 Overall Score: 64/100
  • NTHSA 2003 Average Crash Rating: 4/5
  • JD Power and Associates 2006 Predicted Reliability Score: 3/5