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THE SAFETY ZONE | JERRY HICKS

Kicking the Tires Isn't Enough

May 15, 2000|JERRY HICKS

It's not fair to generalize about people who sell used cars. Many of them must be honest, scrupulous. Surely some, somewhere.

I've just never had the good fortune to deal with them. I always wind up with the sales person who's been off work six weeks with a broken hip, or whose spouse needs a liver transplant, and if he (or she, on occasion), can just make this one sale, it will get the family over the hump financially. So why can't I be reasonable?

If you're in the used-car business, you may not like this public persona. So here's at least a twist in defense of even the most unethical wag from the used-car lot: Debbie Mahdi, who runs the Southern California Better Business Bureau here in Orange County, says too often we the consumers have no one to blame but ourselves if we're ripped off.

"Many who complain to us never even take a test drive before buying," she said. "Some don't even know that you are not stuck with taking the first price offered."

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Industry experts estimate that 45 million used cars are sold in the United States each year. But a lot of people are ready to help us out before we purchase our next one. The California Department of Consumer Affairs, the Better Business Bureau, the Automobile Club of Southern California all put out tip sheets on used-car buying. Here are some of their offerings:

* Comparison shop! Don't just go to one dealer because it's close to home. Visit several places to get the best deal.

* Don't accept the dealer's financing as the only option. Sometimes you can get a better deal through your own bank, or your company's credit union.

* Be sure all headlights, taillights, brake lights, backup lights, and directional signals are working. Even if you are car buying on the hottest day in August, test the heater to make sure it works. Same for the air conditioner in winter.

* Don't hesitate to lean hard on the side of the car, to test the shock absorbers.

* Never buy a car alone. Why? You want a companion to look at the exhaust while you let the car decelerate from 45 mph to 15 mph, then step on the gas. Blue smoke may mean worn rings or valves; white smoke may indicate a cracked engine block.

* Ask questions. Don't sign anything until you are satisfied with the answers. Make sure that all verbal promises are included in the written agreement.

* If you aren't allowed to test drive the vehicle, don't buy it.

* Ask to see the title of the car you're buying. Almost no one does. But what you might find is that car has been marked "salvage," which could mean it was a flood damaged vehicle. Don't buy it!

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Here's a new one to me that makes a lot of sense from Jeff Ostroff, who operates Carbuyingtips.com. "Never pay cash for a deposit. If the deal goes south, you'll never get your cash back."

Also, some dealers try to tell you that you must buy the warranty because the bank requires it. Says Ostroff: "It's a big scam. Why would a bank who is worried about your ability to pay back a loan want you to add another $2,000 to the loan to qualify?"

If you truly did get ripped off, don't hesitate to call the state Department of Consumer Affairs or the Better Business Bureau.

Mahdi offers the best summary advice. Maybe you've heard it before, but it bears repeating. Says Mahdi: "If you're buying a used car, be aware that you are usually buying someone else's headache."

Readers may reach Hicks at (714) 966-7789 or jerry.hicks@latimes.com

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