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COVER STORY | TODAY'S TIPS

Give Used Auto a Close Look Before Buying

April 26, 1999

Here are some tips when looking to buy a used car:

* Body: Look for rust, particularly at the bottom of fenders, around lights and bumpers, on splash panels, under doors, in the wheel wells and under trunk carpeting. Small "blisters" may indicate future rust sites. Check for paint that does not quite match, gritty surfaces and paint over-spray on chrome--all possible signs of a new paint job and body problems. Look for cracks, dents and loose bumpers--warning signs of a past accident.

* Tires: Uneven wear on the front tires usually indicates either bad alignment or front suspension damage. Do not forget to check the condition of the spare tire.

* Doors and Windows: Look for a close fit and ease of opening and closing. A door that fits unevenly may indicate that the car was in a collision.

* Glass and Lights: Look for hairline cracks and tiny holes.

* Tailpipe: Black, gummy soot in the tailpipe may mean worn rings or bad valves.

* Shock Absorbers: Lean hard on a corner of the car and release; if the car keeps rocking, the shocks may need replacing.

* Fluids: Oil that is a whitish color, or has white bubbles, can be a sign of major mechanical problems. Check the radiator fluid; it should not look rusty. With the engine idling, check the transmission fluid; it should not smell rancid.

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* Lights and Mechanical Parts: Make sure all headlights, taillights, backup lights and direction signals work properly. Test the radio, heater, air conditioner and windshield wipers.

* Interior: Check the upholstery for major wear; do not forget to look under floor mats and seat covers. A car with low mileage but with a lot of wear on the driver's seat or the brake and accelerator may indicate tampering with the odometer. A musty smell inside the vehicle could mean the car was damaged in a flood.

Road and Test Checklist

* The car should start easily and without excessive noise. Once the car has warmed up, listen for engine noise as you drive; unusual sounds may be signs of major trouble.

* Make several stops and starts, at varying but safe speeds on a clear, level road. The car should accelerate smoothly and should brake without grabbing, vibrating or pulling to one side. When you step firmly on the brake pedal, it should feel firm.

* Try turning at various speeds. Too much sway or stiffness can mean bad shocks or front-end problems. Turn the wheel all the way from one side to the other; power steering should feel smooth.

Source: State of California; Times reports

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