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How Not To Buy A Used Car

Updated on October 20, 2011
DonnaCSmith profile image

Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

My Used Car Buying Mistakes

The 1995 Ford Taurus station wagon I’d been driving for ten years served me well, but with 250,000 miles on it, I was spending more and more on repairs. Finally, the transmission gave up its ghost. I thought it would be better to buy another good used car rather than sink more money into a rebuilt transmission. Like many people these days I had a limited budget.

I ended up selling the old car to the junkyard, and added that money to my car fund. But my budget would not allow more than $1000 for a down payment on my next vehicle. It was hard to go shopping since I no longer had transportation. Friends and my granddaughter helped, but driving around to car dealerships was time consuming and a lot to ask of anyone. Because I had avoided using credit for anything since being divorced twenty plus years I had no credit history and could not get a normal car loan. So, I was limited to shopping at dealerships that offered, “easy financing.”

I Was Determined to Fine a Car That Day!

Into my fourth week without transportation, my grand daughter called to ask if I wanted her to take me to look at some more cars. I was determined to find a car that day. That was my first mistake; feeling pressured by my situation.

After explaining my situation and what I could afford, a salesperson showed me a car that they’d just gotten in and had not prepped for sale yet. I agreed to his offer to buy a car “as is” in exchange for a low down payment and monthly installments that would be within my budget. I asked if they would first let me take it to my mechanic for a check over and they agreed. My trusted mechanic gave the thumbs up except that it needed two tires to meet inspection criteria. The dealer said I’d have to pay for the tires since he was selling it to me “as is.” I agreed to buy the tires, and the car passed inspection. I felt safe that the car had gotten a clean bill of health. I also had to pay for the inspection.

I thought I was still within my budget. I had considered the added insurance cost for comprehensive coverage. But by the time sales tax, title transfer, and a document fee were added to my down payment I was paying another $500 plus the cost of the tires. With the 29% interest rate on top of that, my budget went out the window.

Two days after I’d bought the car the check engine light came on. The dealer would not do anything to correct that problem because I’d signed the papers and paid my down payment. I was looking at another few hundred dollars to make the necessary repairs. I also discovered on the first warm day shortly after my purchase that the air condiitioning did not work.

My case turned out that the DMV saved the day - they caught that the car I bought had been in an accident and I was not told by the dealer. [there is a place on the title that has to be checked by the buyer to indicate they know about the car having been wrecked.] They would not transfer the title and the dealer took the car back and refunded my down payment. I could have saved myself all that trouble by researching the history of the car before I bought it. You can do that through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

What I Learned About Buying a Used Car

I just will share with you what I learned too late. Maybe I can save someone else some aggravation. If you are poor, have bad credit or none at all, are a single mom, or a senior citizen on a fixed income, or even jobless you can still find someone to finance a car. They will put a GPS in the car so if you default on your payments they can, with the click of a computer mouse, prevent the car from starting, find and repossess the vehicle.

In my state, North Carolina, a dealer can repossess your car with no warning if you miss a payment or let your insurance lapse. This is true in most other states. Check with your State Department of Justice or State Attorney General’s office to see what the policy is in your State.

Some easy-finance dealers could care less if you have good credit. My dealer didn’t even care if I had a job. Think about it. They have their down payment, they can get the car back if you default on a payment and do it all over again. Thanks to technology, they have very low risk.

Contrary to popular belief, if three days after you buy a used car something goes wrong there is no three-day cooling off period to give you the right to cancel a contract. Only a very few states have any kind of lemon law covering used cars.

The Federal Trade Commission's Used Car Rule requires dealers to post a Buyers Guide in every used car they offer for sale. Go to the FTC website and learn what the buyers guide must include.


You can also find information about repossession law at the Federal Trade Commission website:

For more information or to file a complaint

National Association of Attorney Generals

Consumer Action

Before You Buy A Used Car

  • Establish a budget and be aware of added costs: insurance, sales tax, license, title and registration fees, and document prep fee are some to consider.
  • Don’t let your self feel pressured either by your situation or a salesperson.
  • Don’t buy “as is” and only deal with a company that includes a 30-day warranty. Many dealers do offer this.
  • Test drive the car long enough to know how it performs around town and on the highway and up and down hills. Check to see if the heat and air conditioner, windshield wipers, lights, and other controls work. Listen for sounds.
  • Have your mechanic check the car out before you commit.
  • Get any promises made by the dealer put in writing.
  • Read your contract and all the other paperwork thoroughly before you sign and be sure you understand it. If you are not car savvy take a family member or close friend who is car smart along with you when negotiating the contract.

I learned from my car buying experience. If I had it to do over I would have been more cautious, taken as much time as needed to find the right people to deal with and the right agreement. So, when its your turn to shop for a used car take a deep breath and do not get in such a hurry to have some wheels that you act under pressure and without due caution.


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    • sklein profile image


      8 years ago from Atlanta, Ga

      Buying a used car is a crap shoot, but if you take all the necessary steps before (some mentioned above)you make your purchase, you can eliminate most chances of "craping out." If at all possible, buy a used car that is still under factory warranty. If you're relegated into buying from a "buy here-pay here" dealer or a "we finance anyone" dealer, chances are you'll have issues with that car.

    • dineane profile image


      8 years ago from North Carolina

      "When car buying, I use the old crap-shoot approach - I hope for a good roll, realizing I could crap out."

      I think Ace hit the nail on the head! It's a nasty business.

    • profile image

      Ace Toscano 

      8 years ago

      When car buying, I use the old crap-shoot approach - I hope for a good roll, realizing I could crap out.

      You can take everything they tell you at the dealership and flush it. If they steer you towards a particular car, eliminate it as an option. If the car turns out to be a bomb, live with it as long as you can, till you get your money's worth. Then, you can think about upgrading.

      I recently bought myself a 2009 Toyota from the Toyota dealer. I asked if it had recall issues, the salesman assured me it didn't. Then, a couple weeks later, I started getting notices to bring the car in for recall work. Also, I was told they would give me an extra key. But, in the end I had to pay a $100 for it. Thanks a lot. They keep calling me, telling me it's time for my service, and I keep telling them I'd rather have my lawn guy look at it, but they don't give up. It's a lot of fun, sort of.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Sad story; great advice!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hello Donna,

      I have a car in my drive with 250,000 miles on it with a bad transmission and I am facing the same decision. I, fortunately, have an old bang around pick-up for transportation. I want to underline the point you made about not allowing your own circumstances to dictate your buying decision. Your experience is not uncommon and your willingness to share it will help those facing the same situation.

      Thanks for sharing. NEIL


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