In the market for a used car? With the improved reliability and longevity of newer vehicles - and a flooded used car market - buying used is a better value than ever. According to nationwide data from the Better Business Bureau, used car dealers - and new-car dealers who also sell used cars - hold two of the top ten ranks for the most consumer complaints. After consulting with a few sources to find out why, we cite the following all-too-common tricks:
Clocking the odometer. Turning back the odometer, known as 'clocking', is probably the most common and infamous used-car dealer trick. Usually the clocking is done by middlemen who buy the cars from auction, turn back the odometer, and then sell them to a dealer, who, of course, stocks nothing but pristine, low-mileage vehicles. If you're observant, though, there are some telltale signs that a car has been clocked. Check them out in our tips on how to spot and avoid odometer fraud.
Disguising engine problems with additives. This is a much more common practice than you might think - especially with smaller used-car lots and high-mileage vehicles. Why fix an engine problem when you can disguise it just long enough to get it out of the lot with a few bottles of oil additive? Used-car dealers love these thick, gooey additives to (temporarily) quiet noisy engine parts, reduce oil-burning smoke, and plug leaks. But besides covering up the problems, the use of larger-than-recommended quantities of these additives (typical in cover-up situations) can lead to other troubles like oil-pump failure, overheating, excessive sludge and engine deposits, and fouled spark plugs. These additives don't solve any problems - they just quiet the noises long enough to get the car out of the lot. It's often difficult to detect these additives, but pull out the dipstick and check for a thick, lumpy appearance to the oil on it. Also, with the engine just turned off, unscrew the oil cap and look at its underside for frothy deposits or what looks like curdling. Also beware of sparkling engine bays that have been steam cleaned - it's often the sign of a cover-up.
Covering up salvage and flood titles. The number of salvage-titled cars being resold by dealers to unknowing customers has risen sharply in the past decade. The cost of vehicle repairs has risen, so insurance companies are more likely to declare a car totaled, then the car may be fixed with cut-rate parts and methods by an opportunist who in turn sells the car to a dealer at auction. Compounding the problem, laws regarding salvage and flood titles vary greatly by state. Several states, under some circumstances, do not require dealerships to reveal salvage information, and flood-titled cars are sneaking through, particularly in Southeastern states, with forged documents. The only way to know for sure is to use a vehicle background-check service like Carfax.
Overpriced, useless extended warranties. Most used-car dealerships will try to sell you an extended warranty that can cost hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars, and many of these are nearly useless because of their extreme limitations in coverage. Carefully study the fine print to check that the warranty doesn't just cover a few major components. Most of these are 'limited' (versus full), which implies that the dealership will only cover a portion of the repair costs. Make sure you have a full warranty for a time after the sale (and read the small print), but save the money and say no to extended limited warranties.
Rustproofing and other add-ons. Though it's not as popular anymore, rustproofing was a quick and easy way for dealers to make some quick money. With a quick, half-hour coat from a sprayer or a few aerosol cans, dealers have been known to charge up to $500. But you should never let a used-car dealership - and for that matter, any car dealership - apply rustproofing. Only a qualified body shop has the expertise to apply rustproofing to a used car. Unless they're particularly skilled at neutralizing and removing every bit of existing rust, moisture, and dirt, it will probably accelerate the rust. Other add-ons claiming to provide protection to carpets, fabric, or leather are essentially the same as what you can buy in the auto section of discount stores and apply yourself.
When used-car shopping, remember to keep asking questions; don't assume anything; and get everything in writing. If the charismatic salesperson is a little too excited to sell you a service or product along with a vehicle, it's probably more for his paycheck than for your benefit. Knowing some of these common scams will help keep the dealer from making a quick buck at your expense.