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Shopping Tip: Used-Car Warning Words

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I’m college-bound and car-less -- not exactly a grand combination, if you ask me. But I do have to give myself credit: I’ve been searching through ads on the Internet trying to find out what’s a “good” deal and what’s a “bad” one before I take the plunge and buy my first car.

After reading about more cars than my mind can contain, I've found out a secret: there are keywords out there that just don't go well with cars.

The first unpleasant eye-catcher would have to be rust. I'm not just referring to an ugly color, which I'd also avoid. Even if you’re looking into a car that has “slight rust," don't. Rust spreads! That slight damage would eventually turn into major damage if you don’t attempt to fix it (and usually, even if you do). It's much easier to stop yourself first from buying all that rust in the first place.

Another unsettling word is rebuilt. For those of us, including me, that are concentrating more on driving cars, and not remaking them, the word "rebuilt" is something to steer around. Whether it's a rebuilt transmission, brakes, or engine, it means the same thing: the original parts wore out, and this car's been used. A lot. You don’t know the tools or means that people used to rebuild the car. And if you buy a rebuilt car from someone, you have no idea if they cut any corners or used the wrong parts. At a certain price point you have no choice, but if you can afford it, try to find something that hasn't had anything rebuilt.

I’m not so sure I’d jump at the opportunity to buy a “riced” car, either. Riced cars generally refer to cars that have been retooled with new motors, body kits, wild paint jobs and aesthetically questionable add-ons. They might look awesome -- or look like a hot mess -- but sometimes, the actual performance of the car hasn't been improved at all. Riced cars are generally considered “poser” cars by those that actually improve their cars in every sense. Riced cars can generally be spotted by their body kits, neon lights, neon paint jobs, suspension, spoilers, and excessively large rims. One of the biggest problems with riced cars is something called “identity crisis.” Identity crisis is where stickers, badges, or any kind of identifier show up on a car of the wrong make or type. Identity crisis is not limited to riced out cars, but it does happen often with them. For the first-time buyer, neither's a good sign that the car's going to last long or stay in style.

Next is a word that just sounds like doom: salvage. Unless it’s Carfax telling me there’s no salvage record, I tend to pass over ads that contain the “s” word. Salvage is what it sounds like -- the next step up from “rebuilt” and the last step before the crusher. Salvage cars can be unsafe, and they certainly don't carry a warranty -- two things a first-time buyer can't afford.

The fifth and final “warning word” would have to be the oh-so-popular “about.” Honestly, if you’re going to buy a car from someone, shouldn’t they know the specifics of the car they’re selling? The seller should be able to give you exacts on the car’s mileage, age, title status, all of the important stuff. When someone gives you an “about” or an “around,” you should question whether or not they know the details.

The lesson here? Pay attention to the words in those used-car ads -- they can tell you everything you need to know about the wrong cars out there.
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Comments (6)
  1. If I were you, Megan, I'd really worry about the ****MPG****

    Today's AAA nation-wide accurate averages

    GAS has been making records every day, incl. a big rise today, while Diesel in fact had its last high weeks ago!

    Current Avg. $3.303 $3.507 $3.634 $4.023
    Yesterday Avg. $3.289 $3.493 $3.619 $4.023
    Month Ago Avg. $3.178 $3.374 $3.496 $3.696
    Year Ago Avg. $2.706 $2.873 $2.977 $2.872

    *Prices are in US dollars per gallon

    Highest Recorded Price:
    Regular Unl. $3.303 4/4/2008
    DSL. $4.037 3/22/2008

  2. Hi:)

    If you are looking for a "clean" used car the words I would suggest looking for are certified and warranty.

    Dave in Rio Rancho

  3. Ok guys...remember the words college bound and broke....that being said there probably isn't any money for cars with warranties. But, you can definitely find some deals out there on older Honda Civic and comparable vehicles. The Civic is super reliable but expensive if repairs are needed, the GM J body Sunfire/Cavalier is another decent choice, may be a little cheaper to repair but may be less reliable. (I know its the Cobalt/G5 now, but when you are poor, you're looking at Cavaliers and Sunfires)

  4. Will pass these on to my grandson....y'all forgot the real oldie from my 75 + years ago..."driven by an 87 year old lady from Pasadena only on Sundays to go to church."

  5. What a great article! And written by someone still in HS? Great advice, and good luck with your search. Seems you won't have any problem finding a peach with your newfound mental artillery!

  6. If you’re able to afford low mileage used cars, the advice on “rust” and “rebuilt” is good. If your budget is a little leaner, and you’re looking at vehicles in the 100,000+ mile range, then you may want to look at degrees of “rust” and “rebuilt” rather than viewing them as absolutes.

    How long do you plan to keep your vehicle? At least in Michigan, it’s hard to avoid rust forever if you drive your vehicle year-round. A lot of rust is a problem, but a little body rust will take a while to become serious. If you only plan to have the vehicle a few years, and find something that is mechanically sound, but cosmetically less than perfect, you can save a chunk of change.

    As far as “rebuilt” goes, steering clear of major rebuilds is probably a good idea, but if a vehicle is up there in mileage, parts will start to fail. If the previous owner has taken care of some of these items, it can save you the hassle. Evaluate what has been rebuilt or replaced and then decide if it sounds reasonable or if it’s a deal breaker. I’d rather deal with the rebuilt part that someone was up front about, than find out later that someone wanted to make their ad sound better.

    The article has good advice, but a person’s budget and willingness to deal with a few problems add in a few more variables.

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