Search This Blog

Thursday, November 7, 2019

How to Avoid Used Car Scams

By Catherine Powell

Image courtesy flickr
If you’re like most consumers, you tend to hold onto a car as long as it still has some life in it.  Today’s vehicles are way more reliable than those made even a couple decades ago.  That means if you maintain your vehicle, chances are it will last at least 200,000 miles.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that you won’t need to someday part with your four-wheeled friend once the cost of maintaining the vehicle starts looking worse than a car payment.  If you like to buy used as opposed to a new car, there are a few things you need to know. 

1.      The old saying of caveat emptor or buyer beware should be made into a bumper sticker – That’s because there are 101 ways for an owner or used car dealer to pull a fast one.  While every car owner has heard about dealers turning back the odometer to add “value” to a vehicle that’s already past its prime, there are many more ways to make a lemon look like a looker.  Some of the things you need to be on the lookout for are vehicles that have been in accidents, were salvaged, or were previously submerged in flood water.  I’ve even heard of shady dealers who welded two halves of a pair of wrecked cars together to hide the fact that both had been previously totaled.  When it comes to getting one over on a car buyer, unscrupulous car dealers will do nearly anything to turn a profit.  That’s why rule number one when buying a used car is to always ask to see the CarFax.  (It also wouldn’t hurt to check out the dealer online for complaints.) A CarFax will tell you whether a car has been in a wreck, the approximate mileage (based on maintenance), how many owners have had the vehicle and if the title is clear.  While it isn’t a be-all, end-all for making a purchasing decision,  it’s a good start. If an owner or dealer doesn’t want to show you a CarFax, I’d start considering another vehicle if I were you.

Image courtesy flickr
2.      What to look at when buying a used car? – Back in the good old days, the first thing a buyer would ask was to see under the hood.  While this is still a good idea, it isn’t as telling as it used to be.  That’s because most of what’s located in the modern engine compartment is hidden undercover…literally.  You can barely see the engine nowadays.  But there are still a few things you should be able to see.  To start with, take a look at the battery and battery terminals.  Since most car batteries in Florida only last 3-4 years (and some cost several hundred dollars), you want to find out how old the battery is.  Just looking at how clean the battery and terminals are should tell you how old the battery is.  While you’re in there, it wouldn’t hurt to have the owner or dealer start the engine.  This way you will be able to hear what the engine sounds like, as well as observing the condition of the serpentine belt.  If you see any cracks in the belt or you hear any squealing, this indicates a problem, since today’s vehicles only have one belt.  You should also be able to see if you can detect even a whiff of smoke which would indicate an oil leak.    

3.       The Walkaround – Before you take the vehicle for a spin, it’s always a good idea to look it over inside and out.  That’s also why you should never agree to view a car after dark.  Starting with the exterior, note any scratches, dings, dents or paint chips on the exterior.  Have the seller turn on the lights and wipers.  Have them demonstrate that the window washer operates and the horn sounds.  When you get behind the vehicle have the seller hit the brakes to make sure the brake lights work and have them shift the car into reverse to make sure those lights work as well.  While they have the car in reverse, have the seller back it up so you can see if anything has leaked out from under the vehicle.  (With the exception of a little water from the AC system, there should be no puddles or drips.)  Check the tread wear on the tires and have the seller open and close every window and the sunroof.  Pop the trunk and pull up the carpet to see if there is any rust or welds that shouldn’t be there.  (If a car is rear ended, you might not be able to tell from the outside of the vehicle, but you should be able to detect damage that’s been patched over by looking inside the trunk.)

Image courtesy flickr
4.      What to look for inside the vehicle. – Here’s where it gets a little tricky.  That’s because a lot of sins can be camouflaged with a little re-upholstery.  If you’re looking at a vehicle that is at least 3-years old, the carpet shouldn’t be brand spanking new.  Neither should the seats look showroom fresh.  (If a car was flooded, new seats and carpet are a dead giveaway.)  Next, you need to make sure that all the electronic components work.  Don’t be bashful about turning on the heat and the AC.  Check to make sure the nav system, stereo system and backup cameras are all in working order.  Also make darned sure that there are no lights on that shouldn’t be on when you look at the dashboard.  That would be a deal killer, since this indicates problems with the vehicle that could be expensive to repair.

5.      Time to take her for a spin. – If you like what you see, it’s time to take the vehicle for a test drive.  And I don’t mean just around the block.  A thorough test needs to include highway and back roads.  That’s because a car that has anything wrong with its suspension system will be impossible to miss at highway speeds, but nearly impossible to detect at 45 MPH or less.  You’ll also want to test out the cruise control to make sure it works perfectly, as well as the brakes which should neither pull to one side nor skid if the ABS system is working properly. 

6.      Your friendly neighborhood mechanic. – I don’t care if the car purrs like a kitten and looks brand new.  Before you sign on the dotted line and drive away with a used car, I’d take the time to let your neighborhood mechanic give it a once over.  There are many things that you could have missed that your mechanic can see once he gets the vehicle up on the lift.  Even if you have to pay a few dollars to get your mechanic’s nod of approval, it’s well worth it, believe me. 

7.      The car isn’t yours until the paperwork is complete. – Here’s where it gets tricky.  Especially if you’re buying a used car with cash.  Car titles are tricky legal instruments that can be forged or washed to scam the average used car buyer.  I’ve even read of car dealers who were taken in by a bogus title.  Title washing is also a way to hide accidents or flood damage from potential buyers.  Before you take a car seller’s word that the title is clean, do a little digging by entering the VIN number on the car into the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.  Not only will it help you determine if the title is free and clear, it will also clue you into any wrecks the vehicle was involved in, if the vehicle was salvaged, as well as if there are any outstanding liens on it.

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida, Insurance in Orange Park, Florida.  To find out more about saving money on all your insurance needs, check out her website at


  1. When it comes to buying a used car, those that don't look sometimes get took. Don't be sweet talked into buying a lemon.

  2. Buying a new or used car can be a pain. I like to take the vehicle I am looking to buy to my favorite mechanic to check it our first.


How to Rid Your Property of Rodents

 By Catherine Powell Image courtesy Pixabay The pitter-patter of little feet is usually something that makes most folks smile, unless the so...