It’s every used-car buyer’s nightmare: Getting a rebuilt wreck despite doing extensive research.
That’s because they’re difficult to spot. Even buying a model known for reliability is no guarantee that it won’t have problems. That’s what Deborah Boulet of Canterbury, Conn., found when she bought a used 2011 Mazda3 and discovered water leaking into its trunk on the day she took delivery. Upon further investigation, her attorney found that the car had been hit by a snowplow and shoddily repaired. Now towels soak up the water as Boulet fights a legal battle to get the dealership to buy back her car. “I don’t trust this car at all anymore, and I drive it as little as possible,” she said. “It’s been a nightmare.”
According to Carfax, a service that provides vehicle history reports, about 20 percent of cars on the road have some sort of accident damage.
But a 2009 Consumer Reports investigation showed that reports from Carfax and its main competitor, AutoCheck, can’t catch everything. Differing state laws governing salvage titles allow for loopholes big enough to drive a rebuilt wreck through. Often, even when a car’s title is conspicuously labeled as salvaged, consumers such as Boulet never see it. Ask to see the title before you buy a used car, and be especially wary of any car with a “lost” title.
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Though there is no substitute for hiring your own mechanic to inspect any car you’re serious about buying, look for these telltale signs first to thin the herd:
- The close-up: Inspect each body panel for scratches, dents, or rust. Masking-tape marks under windowsills or fender edges indicate paintwork.
- Straight and narrow: Uneven panel gaps around the fenders, doors, hood, and trunk can indicate shoddy repair.
- Blend well: Be sure the paint color and finish are uniform, and check inside doorjambs for dull-looking overspray.
- Attractive personality: Run a magnet along doors and fenders. If it doesn’t pull toward the car, there may be body filler under the paint, indicating body repairs.
- Crystal clear: Check for moisture fogging in the lights.
- Tread lightly Make sure the tires have even tread wear. New tires may hide problems.
- Rust bucket: A coating of rust on bolts or hinges inside the doorjamb is a clue that the car may have been submerged.
- Sniff test: A musty, moldy smell in the interior or trunk could indicate water damage.
- Check the tailpipe: Black, greasy residue inside means the engine is burning oil.
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