When you go to check out a car, don't be rushed or bashful, experts advise. Equip yourself with a notebook and flashlight. Take a friend along for feedback and psychological support.
So, what do you do besides kicking the tires?
"Don't fall in love with the car," warns Bob Becker, automotive services program specialist with the Automobile Club of Maryland, "or you start to overlook the warning signs."
Odometer fraud can be very difficult to detect, but look for telltale signals. If the brake and accelerator pedals are worn, the ignition heavily scratched up by keys and the driver's seat sags, and the odometer reads 25,000 miles, be suspicious.
Pick up the floor mats and look at the carpeting. Look closely at the odometer to see if the numbers are a little out of line. Look for signs that the -- has been removed, like scratches and missing screws. Ask to see the service records, which normally record mileage. Look for service stickers on door posts and on the air filter that have mileage records. Be wary of brand new parts, like a new brake pedal.
Compare the car's age to normal usage. On average, a car is driven between 10,000 and 15,000 miles a year; hence, a 3-year-old car should have between 30,000 and 45,000 miles on it. Higher mileage may give you a bargaining chip.
But don't assume below-average mileage is necessarily better.
"Low-mileage cars in many cases are not well serviced," warns Becker. In addition, low mileage could indicate a lot of short-haul, city driving, which is harder on an engine than is highway driving.
Check everything in the car. Make sure all the gadgets work; repairs to electrical accessories can be very expensive, Becker warns. Fiddle with all the controls. Make sure they work easily. Note whether warning lights and gauges go on as you start the engine and then go off. Check whether the head lights, tail lights, brake lights and turn signals work.
Time for a test drive, which, says Russell Shew of the Center for Auto Safety, should last at least a half hour. And, he adds, don't let a salesman keep a radio blaring or cover up sounds with non-stop jabber.
Start the engine. Ask yourself these questions, Becker says: Does it start well? Is it smooth running? Does it accelerate well? Is is responsive? Are there any loud noises, especially during acceleration. Does the car steer straight or pull to one side? Does the car stop readily or does it pull to one side or the other? Is the exhaust loud?
Shew suggests putting some newspaper on the ground under the engine and letting the engine idle for five minutes. Then check the paper for any drips. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge to make sure the car's not overheating.
Shew also suggests testing the brakes by accelerating to 40 or 45 mph, then stopping quickly, seven or eight times in a row, If the brakes stay the same, they're probably OK, he says, but if they start to feel mushy, there's probably trouble ahead.
Jack Gillis, author of "The Used Car Book" and public affairs director of the Consumer Federation of America, recommends what he calls a car stress test.
With the engine idling, air conditioner on full, headlights on high beam, radio on and foot on the brake, put the engine in gear -- automatic transmission only -- and turn the steering wheel all the way to one side, then the other. Everything should continue to run smoothly, he says, and there shouldn't be any bounces or surges. Listen for screeches in the power steering and smoothness as you turn the wheel.
The AAA suggests going down a long hill with your foot off the gas pedal or, in a flat area, let the car slow from 50 to 15 mph without braking. Then step hard on the accelerator. Heavy blue exhaust smoke could mean the piston rings are shot or that the engine needs an overhaul.
If a car passes your own inspection and test drive, take it to a mechanic you trust. If a seller or dealer won't let you take the car to your own mechanic, walk away. Becker suggests you also have your own state inspection performed and ask for copies of the sheets with the actual readings, not just the certificate.
Gillis recommends AAA diagnostic centers for inspections because there is no vested interest in selling you on a repair. The local office operates a mobile diagnostic van. Call 462-4000 for information.
A mechanic should look for potential problems as well as existing problems, he says. Be sure the mechanic checks the engine compression, brakes, transmission, front wheel bearings, suspension system, exhaust, cooling system (including a radiator pressure check) and electrical system. He should check the frame; signs of welding could indicate a major collision or worse, that parts of two cars have been welded together.
If the mechanic finds problems, that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't buy the car. It just may need some new parts, like shocks. Get an estimate for the cost of any needed repairs and use it in negotiating a price.