Buying a used car? Here's how Research, careful shopping are keys to a good deal.

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

In the market for a good used car but afraid of getting burned?

While the No. 1 rule is let the buyer beware, you can get a good deal if you shop carefully, experts say. You should be prepared to do some background research, ask a lot of questions, evaluate the car yourself as well as you can and pay a qualified mechanic to thoroughly check it out.

"A used car basically will cost consumers half of what a new car will cost," says Jack Gillis, author of "The Used Car Book" and public affairs director of the Consumer Federation of America. "The average new car costs $16,000; the average used car costs around $8,000."

In addition, says the Chevy Chase resident, used-car buyers realize other savings.

"The first owner has absorbed that huge depreciation cost that comes the moment you turn the key and drive off the lot," Gillis says. "Insurance will cost less. And maintenance costs can be less if you make a wise choice; most catastrophic problems will surface during the warranty period."

"It's like unit pricing in the supermarket," Gillis adds. "Cost per mile for a used car is always going to be less."

The key to buying a good used car is to find out as much about its history as you can, Gillis says.

Used-car shoppers have a number of sources: new car dealers, private sellers, independent used car dealers, rental car firms, fleet leasing agencies, auctions.

"The first thing consumers should be aware of is that an individual is likely to offer no warranty whatsoever," says Bob Becker, automotive services program specialist with the Automobile Club of Maryland. And individuals, unlike dealers, are not required to have the car inspected before selling it, he adds.

But guarantees on used cars vary significantly, from being next to worthless to being full warranties, and the buyer needs to scrutinize the terms. Gillis warns it can be especially difficult to get independent used car dealers to fulfill them. The rental car firms usually give limited warranties.

Both Becker and Gillis as well as Russell Shew of the Center for Auto Safety say there are a number of advantages of buying a car from one of the rental car firms: the companies sell their best cars at their retail locations (problem cars go to auction); the cars have been well maintained; the maintenance records are available. Disadvantages are that the cars are usually loaded with options, making them more expensive, and they have high mileage relative to their age.

(Under the automakers' rental-car-buyback program instituted last year, most rental cars are now bought back by the auto makers and then resold at auction to dealers. If you're looking to buy a rental car, call local offices of the various firms and ask if and where their cars are sold to the public or call the 800 toll-free numbers. Budget, for instance, sells cars at its various rental locations in the area; Thrifty sells cars at its Owings Mills location.)

But Gillis' first preference is to buy a car from someone you know. That way, he says, you already know something about the car, and theseller is much more likely to be truthful. Consumers shopping at new-car dealers should look for the same cars the dealer sells new; there's a greater chance necessary repairs have been made because the dealer can buy the parts more cheaply. You also can find good deals with private sellers, but beware of fly-by-night "curb-stoners": people who routinely buy used cars with rolled-back odometers or even hot cars to resell but pass themselves off as a regular Joe. There are legitimate curb-stoners who in effect indulge in a profitable hobby -- they buy cars that need work and fix them up to sell at a profit.

Independent used-car lots, Gillis says, are among the worse places to shop, not because the dealer is dishonest but because he doesn't really know where the cars come from. He says auctions are too risky for consumers because there's no warranty and no history. The worst, he contends, is buying cars that have come from leased fleets because, he says, half of those cars have had their odometers turned back.

Before buying a car, you should find out some general information about that model's track record. The Center of Auto Safety offers information packets that cover about 65 percent of the cars available, Shew says. These letters give an overview of the car, from both a reliability and safety standpoint, list known engine problems and sometimes refer to manufacturers' service bulletins. Send $1 for each request to cover handling costs and a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Center for Auto Safety, 2001 S St. NW, Room 410, Washington, D.C. 20009. Be sure to specify the make, model and year.

Consumer Union's annual buying guide includes reliability records for many cars, and the AAA's Becker says he finds them to be consistent with his own experience. Gillis' book also includes charts that includes data such as theft ratings, parts costs, complaint frequency and some technical information like wheelbases and turning ratios as well as lists of "best bets" and cars to avoid.

You can also call the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's toll-free hot line (1-800-424-9393) to get information on recalls and safety records.

If you're buying from a dealer, check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the Maryland Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division.

If you're shopping among private sellers, you can eliminate some running around by asking the right questions on the telephone, Gillis advises.

Aside from inquiring as to the obvious how much and how many miles, he suggests asking whether the car's been used for city or highway driving, how long the seller's owned it, whether he bought it new, what major repair work has been done, has it ever been painted, why it's being sold. He also says a dealer should be willing to give you the name and phone number of a used car's previous owner whom you should call.

Warranty information

The Federal Trade Commission's Used Car Rule applies to anyone who sells more than five used cars a year. It requires a Buyer's Guide sticker to be posted on the window of each used car offered for sale. The Buyer's Guide becomes part of the sales contract and outlines the specific terms of any warranty included. It also advises the consumer to get an independent mechanic's check and to get any dealer promises in writing.

Even if there is no written warranty, used cars sold by licensed dealers in Maryland are covered by an implied warranty. An implied warranty says an item must be suitable for the purpose intended; in the case of a car, that means it has to run. The implied warranty applies to all cars 6 model years old or less and that have been driven 60,000 miles or less; dealers can ask buyers to sign a waiver for cars that are older than six model years and have been driven for more than 60,000 miles.

Consumers with warranty complaints against dealers should contact the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration's dealer licensing and consumer services unit at (301) 768-7536 weekdays between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.

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