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Buying or Selling a Car


Buyer's Guides
Printable; suited for folding brochure-style


How To Buy A Used Car: Peach or Lemon?


Introduction

Most consumers want to know how to buy the car of their choice at the best possible price.

Many people feel that car payments are an unavoidable fact of life, and that they might as well buy a newer car than an older one. However, there are some advantages as well as some pitfalls to be avoided when shopping for a used car.

With improvements in the quality of automobiles over the years, a well-maintained car should remain reliable for at least 10 years and 100,000 miles. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports the average life span of a vehicle is 12 years or 128,500 miles. Surveys have shown that, on the average, a person trades in or sells a car when it is only 4 1/2 years old with just 41,000 miles on it.

That leaves a lot of good cars out there with plenty of life left in them. If you are looking for a new model, buying a used car of the same style, only a couple of years old, can really be a good deal. The biggest percentage (approximately 20 percent) of a new car's value is lost in the first year of ownership. Accessories such as expensive stereo systems, power assists and convenience options are far less a factor in resale pricing.

In addition, by the time a vehicle is a couple of years old, even minor problems should have been discovered and corrected.

Pricing a Used Car

With the average price of a new car increasing every year, it is not surprising that the fastest growing segment of the auto industry is the used car market. In the past decade, used cars have become increasingly better values. Buying a car that is just a year or two old can save thousands of dollars over the price of a new model, especially as the price of new cars keeps increasing.

Decide on the year, make, model and options you desire on the vehicle. Do you need a family vehicle or an economical model for a college student? Also, decide what accessories you need or would like to have. Once you have decided on a specific model, it is a good idea to have a second or third choice in mind.

Consumers Reports publishes excellent information on both new and used cars, to include maintenance and repair information. Narrow your choices of vehicles as much as possible. Pay attention to:

  • visibility,
  • safety features,
  • comfort,
  • ride and
  • other items of importance.

To check the "recall record" of a vehicle, call the U.S. Department of Transportation Auto Safety Hotline at (800) 424-9393. They will tell you if a car model has ever been recalled and send you information concerning that recall.

In addition, via the internet, you can obtain recall or technical service bulletins on vehicles at http://www.alldatadiy.com.

Price Guides

A variety of price guides are used by lenders, dealers and individuals to determine the value of used cars. Check the N.A.D.A. (National Automotive Dealers Association) Official Used Car Guide, Southeastern Edition, for the book value on your trade-in.

This book also can be found in public libraries, local banks and credit unions. It is published monthly by the NADA and provides average trade-in, wholesale, loan and retail prices for nearly every car sold in the last 7 years.

Such books are not meant to provide a definitive price but to serve as a reference point for negotiating with the seller. This information can be obtained through the reference section of your public library at no cost or there are services that provide invoice prices for a fee.

Check the classified ads in the local newspaper to determine what advertisers in your area are asking for the type of car you want. The difference between wholesale and retail value will be your bargaining range.

Financing/Insurance

Check with local banks and credit unions for financing in order to make comparisons with dealer financing. Be sure to determine the amount that the bank or credit union will finance for a specific model. Also consider obtaining preapproved credit, which would eliminate dealer pressure on the purchase of a vehicle.

Check with your insurance company for a quote on the vehicle you want to purchase. Can you afford to pay insurance and car payments? Also be sure to allow a little "extra" in your budget for unexpected repairs.

Check your local Better Business Bureau, Consumer Affairs Office, and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (1-800-435-7352) for information on local automobile dealerships.

Make sure the dealers are licensed by the Division of Motorist Services. Ask to what professional associations they belong (Florida Independent Automobile Dealers Association, Chamber of Commerce, etc.). How long has the dealership been in business?

Where to Buy

A used vehicle is a major purchase and requires comparison shopping for price and value to find the best deal. There are many sources available to today's purchaser:

  • new car dealers,
  • used car dealers,
  • rental car companies,
  • leasing companies, and
  • private individuals.

New car dealers generally keep only the best cars and usually give them a thorough inspection. In addition, consider buying from a dealer who handles the particular brand of vehicle that you are interested in. Look for a full service department and a well stocked supply of parts. They may offer a parts and labor warranty. Be sure to visit several automobile dealerships.

Rental returns (also referred to as program cars) are often an excellent value. These vehicles are typically less than two years old, well equipped and maintained, with good warranties. Some "unexpected places" to look would be domestic dealers for used imports or luxury dealers for mid-priced sedans. Find a friendly salesperson that you are comfortable with and ask questions to determine the person's knowledge about cars.

Private individuals are another source to be considered when purchasing a used vehicle. However, a private party may not necessarily offer a better deal. Buyers may end up overpaying for a car because they somehow assume they are getting a better deal from a private party.

One benefit is that the potential buyer can meet the seller face to face and inquire about any mechanical problems, who was the principal driver, why the vehicle is being sold and request maintenance records.

When purchasing a vehicle from a private individual, there are no warranties of any kind. It is strictly "buyer beware". In addition, the buyers will have to provide their own financing for the vehicle or pay cash.

Outside of Car

Look at the vehicle during the daytime as darkness may hide problems. Do not look at vehicles in the rain, which hides nicks and scratches, as well as making thin, worn paint look slick. Be sure to concentrate on big defects and not minor repairs that can be made easily and inexpensively.

Prepare a checklist for both the interior and exterior of the vehicle, as well as those items to test while driving. Take a general look around the outside of the car. A very common practice is to have the car detailed to increase its appeal. Usually this includes a thorough cleaning inside and out, waxing and the repair of minor cosmetic items which can hide abuse or "wear and tear".

Examine both sides of the car from a distance (both front and back). Look for ripples, waves, poorly fitted panels and mismatched colors, all of which may indicate that body work may have been done. Look for dents or rust around the bottom of the doors and fenders. Bubbles along molding or chrome indicates rust underneath. Also look under the vehicle for rust as well. If the rust has gone through the metal, you could be looking at major repairs.

Check for welding spots on the frame which may indicate a serious accident or repairs. Open and close the doors, hood, trunk or hatchback. Be sure they fit and are easy to close without slamming, sagging or sticking.

Conditions noted previously may indicate that the car was wrecked, poorly kept, or has been driven excessive miles. Stand back approximately 10 to 15 feet from the car and see if the car is level. If one corner seems lower than the others, it suggests a broken spring or other chassis or suspension problem.

Check the shocks by pushing down on each corner of the car and letting go. Your car should bounce upward only once and then settle back to its original position. If the car bounces several times, new shocks may be needed.

Check the tires. They should be in good shape without sidewall cracks. Uneven tire wear may indicate improper wheel alignment, tired shocks or worn front end components. In addition, check the inside of the tires for brake fluid leakage (indicating leaking wheel cylinders).

Look under the car for oil spots, or leaks from the transmission, power steering or shock absorbers. Open the hood and check belts and hoses for cracks or wear. Remove the radiator cap. The coolant should be a clean, greenish (or blue or yellow, depending on brand of coolant used) color. Brown sludge inside the radiator neck may indicate poor maintenance.

Pull out the oil dipstick. If the oil is gummy or grayish, the engine might have serious problems. If there is a black buildup near the top of the dipstick, smell it. A burnt smell indicates that the engine or transmission has been run hot. The automatic transmission fluid should be clear and reddish in color, not brown or black. A burnt smell or low fluid level indicates neglect.

Be sure and check the fluid level in the master cylinder as well. If the fluid level is low, check for leaks and have brake pads checked. Look inside the trunk. Make sure there is an inflated spare tire, a jack and a lug wrench.

Inside of Car

The interior can give you a good idea of the overall condition and how well the entire car has been maintained.

Check the mileage to be sure the car has not been used too much for the price being asked. Today's cars average approximately 12,000 miles per year. In addition, compare the service stickers on the door jamb or under the hood to see if the recorded mileage is consistent with the odometer reading. It is possible to obtain a history of service as well, depending on where the vehicle was serviced.

Check the condition of the seats, belts and carpeting. Lap belts and shoulder harnesses should be in good shape with no rips, tears or frayed webbing. The upholstery should be clean with no large rips or cracks.

Check the windows to see if they open and close easily. Manual windows should crank smoothly. Power windows should not hesitate. All glass should be free from serious cracks or scratches.

Look at the brake, accelerator and clutch. These pedals should work smoothly without strange noises or binding. Check all exterior lights and flashers on the car to ensure they are operating properly. Start the engine and check the warning lights and gauges as well as all the accessories to make sure they work. Make certain that the air conditioning blows very cold air.

Check the glove box for the owner's manual. It contains maintenance information and important data on engine tuning, fluid capacities and replacement parts.

A used car does not depreciate as rapidly as it did when it was first driven from a dealership brand new. However, it is possible to get someone else's "lemon". Be aware of hidden and extra costs, such as rustproofing or extended warranties that you may not want.

Other common add-ons include:

  • charges for processing the paperwork involved in a sale known as conveyance fees and
  • credit insurance which will pay off your loan should you die or become disabled. Before purchasing, check your coverage under existing policies you already have. You cannot be forced to purchase credit insurance as a prerequisite to securing a loan. Some dealers may try to include an advertising surcharge after the offer has been accepted. This charge represents the dealer's participation in national or regional advertising and is already built into the base price of the vehicle.

Extended warranties are generally offered by manufacturers to cover major drivetrain parts (engine, transaxle, transmission, etc.) at an extra cost. Some of these warranties may include a deductible that is paid by the owner. Service contracts and "wrap-around" warranties are offered by manufacturers and warranty companies. They generally cover repairs for a longer period than the manufacturer's drivetrain warranties. They operate like an insurance policy and are regulated as such in Florida. For information on service contracts, check with the Florida Department of Insurance at 1-800-342-2762.

Do not be afraid to take up the salespersons' time. Be sure to stay in control and do not let anyone talk you into buying a vehicle you do not want. Likewise, do not be afraid to walk away, especially if "the deal won't be there tomorrow". If it sounds too good to be true, it generally is. Shop during daylight hours in order to thoroughly inspect the vehicle and take a test drive. Be sure to drive the car under a variety of conditions, such as hills, highways and in stop-and-go traffic. This should be a fairly extensive drive, not just a drive around the block.

A car's good points or problems are often apparent after a few miles. If the engine was warm when you arrived to look at the car, it may mean the seller has been running it to hide starting difficulties.

Drive Test

Start the engine and press down on the brake. The brake pedal should go down only an inch or two and should feel firm and solid, not spongy. Press down on the brakes for about a minute. If the pedal sinks slowly, there may be a leak in the master cylinder. As the engine warms up, listen for any noises such as knocks, ticking and rattles, which could indicate engine problems. Next, put the car in neutral and rev the engine. Look in the rear view mirror to see if there is any smoke coming out of the exhaust. If there is a lot of white or bluish smoke, the engine may need an overhaul.

At idle, the engine should be smooth and quiet. Punch the gas pedal to see if the engine responds without hesitation and then returns to normal idle. When first starting out, drive slowly to get the feel of the car. The automatic transmission should shift smoothly without jerking, slipping or hesitating. A manual transmission should shift smoothly between gears without grinding. The clutch should engage and disengage smoothly without grabbing or chattering and don't forget to make sure the reverse works. Drive on a flat, smooth road and lift your hands slightly from the wheel. The car should track straight and be stable without vibration. If the car pulls in either direction or "shimmies", a front end alignment or other front end repairs may be necessary.

To test the brakes, accelerate to 30 to 40 miles per hour. Make sure there are no cars behind you, then step hard on the brake pedal, but do not lock the wheels. The brakes should grab evenly and the car should slow down in a straight line. If the car pulls to the left or right, it indicates the need for brake adjustment or a system re-build. A grinding noise indicates badly worn pads or linings. Drive at 35 miles per hour and listen for any unusual noises. If you hear a whining sound from the rear-end, it may need replacing.

Next, accelerate to 45 miles per hour. If the front end shakes or vibrates, the tires probably need balancing. Drive quickly over a rough road and listen for any loud squeaks or rattles. If the car bounces or bangs over small bumps, the shock absorbers may be worn and need replacing. After you have driven the car for a while, check the temperature gauge to see if it shows a high reading or if the temperature warning light (be sure this works!) comes on. These are signs of trouble with the cooling system and they can be very expensive.

To test engine response, accelerate hard on an empty road. The car should respond immediately. Back off and hit the gas again. There should be no hesitation or smoke from the car. The engine should accelerate smoothly with no strange noises. You may want to find a steep hill to check the engine's power. If there is a significant loss in power while climbing, the car may need an overhaul or a tune-up. While you're on the hill, test out the hand brake to make sure that it holds the car. When you are through with the test drive, it's a good idea to turn off the car for a minute or two. Then restart the engine to see how well it starts when hot. Check again for leaks under the hood and beneath the car. Some leaks may only appear after driving. It's also a good idea to check the tailpipe. An engine that is burning oil will leave a black, sooty oil deposit. A white, powdery residue usually means good fuel combustion.

Odometer Fraud

Is the physical condition of the car consistent with the mileage on the odometer? The odometer reading is an accepted means of determining the dollar value of a motor vehicle. If the vehicle is in exceptionally good condition, perhaps items were replaced due to excessive wear. Also look for scratches on the odometer/dashboard, misaligned digits, digits that stick or an odometer that fits loosely. Any of these may indicate odometer tampering.

If you suspect that the odometer has been rolled back on a vehicle offered for sale, contact your local law enforcement agency or the DMV. If you suspect odometer fraud has occurred with a vehicle you have already purchased, the DMV can assist you in obtaining a record of all previous Florida owners and odometer statements from the dealers involved. If your suspicions are confirmed, you will need to retain an attorney in order to file suit against the violator. Due to the importance of the odometer reading in determining the value and condition of a vehicle, state and federal laws have been enacted making it illegal to tamper with a vehicle's odometer. Under the law it is illegal to:

  • Disconnect an odometer.
  • Turn back an odometer.
  • Drive with a disconnected or non-functional odometer.

It is a violation for anyone (dealer or individual) to sell a vehicle without providing a written statement of the actual mileage at the time of transfer. Exemptions from odometer disclosure include vehicles which:

  • Are 10 years old or older.
  • Have a GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) of more than 16,000 pounds.
  • Are not self-propelled.
Other Items to Check

Ask if the vehicle has ever been in an accident. Find out as much as possible about the car's prior history and maintenance record. If you are purchasing the car from a dealer, contact the previous owner to verify the mileage and condition of the car. If the dealer will not provide this information, write down the vehicle identification number, which is usually visible through the windshield on the driver's side. With the vehicle identification number, you can contact your local tax collector's office or the DMV to obtain the previous owners' name.

For a small fee the National Automobile Dealer's Association, (800) 274-2277, will run a title search on a vehicle. The search will tell you in which cities and states the vehicle has been registered. It will also tell you if a particular vehicle has been salvaged, flood damaged, recalled or had the odometer rolled back.

Mechanical Check

After you've checked out the car thoroughly and are seriously considering buying it, you should take it to a trusted mechanic or auto diagnostic service (again, check the Better Business Bureau) before you make a final decision.

The money spent on checking the car out may save you a lot more money and hassle in the long run. After a close look by a professional, an attractive automobile may not turn out to be as mechanically good as it appears.

The best place to have the car inspected is at a dealership that sells and services the same make of car. The mechanics there will be familiar with the car and know what problems to look for. They also have the sophisticated computer equipment needed to analyze today's cars.

If the car does have some problems, ask the mechanic the approximate cost of repairing any defects. Minor problems which can easily be repaired can be used to negotiate a lower price but a car with major problems should be avoided. Think long and hard before buying a flood damaged or rebuilt car, or one with serious problems that you may not have the additional money to repair.

The mechanical check is not an "iron-clad" guarantee, just one more way of protecting you and your loved ones. This may be the most important step in the used-car buying process. Don't skip it! This is also very important when buying from a private party. If the dealer or owner refuses to let you take the car to a mechanic, Do Not Buy The Vehicle! You may have to pay $50 or so for this service, but it provides the best protection available, although it does not guarantee the car against major defects.

Emissions

As of June 29, 2000, Florida no longer requires emissions testing.

Certification of Pollution Control Form

All dealers are required to have this form filled out completely and signed by both the customer and the dealer at the time of sale. Dealers within Hillsborough County are required by law (Chapter 1-8) to complete a certification of pollution form that is designed specifically for Hillsborough County. A copy of the form goes to the customer at the time of sale as well. This form certifies that the vehicle has all required pollution control devices (and has not been tampered with).

As-Is Or Warranty

All dealers are required by Federal law to post a "buyers guide" in the window of each vehicle offered for sale. The buyers guide notifies the buyer that there is a warranty or that the vehicle is being sold "AS-IS" with no warranty of any kind.

In the case of an "AS-IS" sale, once you drive the vehicle from the dealership, it belongs to you, despite any problems the vehicle may have. If the vehicle breaks down after only a few minutes of leaving the dealership, the repairs are YOUR responsibility.

Sometimes the most important difference between vehicles is not under the hood or in the extra equipment offered but rather is tucked away in the product packaging - the Warranty Card. While you think nothing will ever happen to your newly purchased vehicle, problems will surface. The better the warranty, the less you will pay for those unexpected repair bills.

When comparing warranty policies, longer is better. However, be cautious of policies that are too long or have unrealistic requirements -- the company may not be around later when the vehicle needs service. Be sure to ask:

  • Are all the parts covered?
  • Is there a co-payment
  • Am I required to have repairs done only at selected garages?
  • Does normal service need to be accounted for?

Can service be performed at a repair shop of your choosing or only by certified repair shops designated in the policy? (Important if you live some distance from where you would be expected to have repairs and service done.)

  • If misused, is the warranty completely void on all covered items?

Keep your warranty safe, it should be kept with receipts. Make a copy and keep it in a separate location. Some companies are lax while others require you to have the original warranty with you when repairs are performed. Be sure to be specific in following the manufacturer's warranty requirements.

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975 requires that warranties be available for reading before purchase. Unfortunately some companies do not comply with this requirement. No reputable dealer runs afoul of this law, but their administrative procedures for providing this information are sometimes incomplete. Under this federal law, you can sue based on breach of express warranties, implied warranties or a service contract.

The bottom line is: read warranties carefully, especially the fine print. Be sure to obtain copies of the documents you sign. Be sure that any other papers you sign match what you agreed to. There have been occasions where a "buyers guide" reflected a warranty, but the contract stated "AS-IS". In this case, government agencies would view this as an "AS-IS" sale.

Remember, there is no warranty or agreement unless it is in writing and signed by all parties. Get any promises made in writing.

There is no Lemon Law for used cars in Florida.

Be Careful and Be Aware

Under no circumstances should you sign any blank forms. Obtain copies of all signed paperwork involved in the sale at the time of preparation. Do not lose control of your trade vehicle's title.

In many cases, once a deposit is made, if the customer changes his/her mind and decides not to purchase the vehicle, the decision can result in a lost deposit. Make sure that your receipt and or contract specifies a refundable deposit. Be sure that you understand all the terms of the contract.

Many contracts are written pending credit application. Deposits are made with credit application fees. Trade-in value is given and the vehicle purchased is then driven home. The application is then processed and denied. The application may then be processed with another agency through the dealership, but at a higher interest rate. Again, ensure that you get everything (agreed interest rate and terms, and terms if denied credit). Be sure the dealership has a license to finance by checking with the Division of Banking and Finance if you have any questions.

After purchasing the car, have the seller write a receipt marked "Paid in Full." The receipt should include the make, model and vehicle identification number of the car, the seller's name, the buyer's name and the amount paid.

Tax, Tag and Title

Dealers can only charge the actual amount of fees paid for tax, tag and title transfer. Generally, the tax, tag and title fees are not included in the contract. However, some dealers will charge a processing or handling fee. If they do, it must be separately disclosed. Again, make sure you understand all the terms of the contract.

A licensed dealer is required to transfer the tag and title within thirty days. If a dealer issues a second temporary tag, the consumer should start asking questions. If the dealer issues a third temporary tag, the consumer should contact the Division of Motorist Services immediately, as this is a violation of Florida Statutes which falls under DMV jurisdiction.

Be sure you have proof of insurance. Florida law requires all vehicles licensed within the state to have insurance. Without this proof, the dealer cannot complete the transfer of title and registration into the consumers' name.

Declining Value

Almost every car loses value as it ages. Large luxury cars and subcompacts tend to depreciate at the fastest rate. Domestic cars tend to depreciate faster than comparable imports.

Used cars with the highest resale value are typically best selling new models with desirable options like air conditioning, power steering and cruise control. If you end up paying a little more than you had expected for that perfect used car, it is not the end of the world. In the long run, you are much better off with a car that you are happy with than one that you saved a few dollars on.

Exterior Checklist:

  • Examine in daytime
  • Examine in clear weather
  • Check for nicks and scratches
  • Check for thin, worn paint
  • Check for big defects (costly) and not minor repairs
  • General look around the outside of the car.
  • Examine both sides of the car from a distance (both front and back).
  • Look for ripples, waves, poorly fitted panels and mismatched colors.
  • Look for dents or rust around the bottom of the doors and fenders.
  • Check for bubbles along molding or chrome (indicates rust underneath).
  • Look under the vehicle for rust
  • Check for welding spots on the frame (serious accident or repairs).
  • Open and close the doors, hood, trunk or hatchback.
  • Stand back approximately 10 to 15 feet from the car and see if the car is level.
  • Check the shocks by pushing down on each corner of the car and letting go.
  • Check the tires (sidewall cracks, uneven tire wear, brake fluid leakage)
  • Look under the car for:
    • oil spots, or
    • transmission fluid or
    • power steering fluid or
    • shock absorber fluid.
  • Open the hood and check belts and hoses for cracks or wear.
  • Radiator coolant should be a clean, greenish (or blue or yellow) color.
  • Pull out the oil dipstick. Oil should not be gummy or grayish or smell burnt.
  • Check automatic transmission fluid, should be clear and reddish.
  • Check the fluid level in the master cylinder as well.
  • Look inside the trunk for an inflated spare tire, a jack and a lug wrench.

Interior Checklist

  • Check the mileage
  • Compare mileage on service stickers (door jamb/under hood) to the odometer reading.
  • Check the condition of the seats, belts and carpeting.
  • Check the windows to see if they open and close easily.
  • Check the brake, accelerator and clutch -- should work smoothly, no strange noises.
  • Check all exterior lights and flashers on the car
  • Start the engine and check the warning lights and gauges
  • Make certain that the air conditioning blows very cold air.
  • Check the glove box for the owner's manual.
  • Do not be afraid to take up the salespersons' time.
  • Stay in control
  • Do not let anyone talk you into buying a vehicle you do not want.

Test Drive Checklist

  • Drive the car on hills, highways and in stop-and-go traffic.
  • Start the engine and press down on the brake.
  • Listen for noises which could indicate engine problems.
  • Put the car in neutral and rev the engine. Check for smoke from rear exhaust.
  • Punch the gas pedal. Does engine respond without hesitation then return to normal?
  • Check the lights on the control panels--be sure they all work.
  • Does automatic transmission shift smoothly?
  • Manual transmission should shift smoothly between gears without grinding.
  • Clutch should engage and disengage smoothly without grabbing
  • Drive in reverse
  • Does car pull or vibrate when driving on a flat, smooth road?
  • Do the brakes grab evenly and does the car slow down in a straight line?
  • Drive at 35 miles per hour and listen for any unusual noises.
  • Accelerate to 45 miles per hour, does the front end shake or vibrate?
  • Drive quickly over a rough road and listen for any loud squeaks or rattles.
  • Does the car bounce or bang over small bumps?
  • Check the temperature gauge to see if it shows a high reading
  • Accelerate hard on an empty road, does the car respond immediately?
  • Try it again.
  • Accelerate on a hill, does the car respond immediately?
  • Cut off the engine. Then restart the engine -- does it restart easily?
  • Check for leaks under the hood and beneath the car.
  • Check the tailpipe. Are there any black, sooty oil deposits?
  • Does the odometer mileage seem to match the physical condition of the car?
  • Check odometer for scratches, misaligned digits, digits that stick.

 


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