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How to avoid buying a nightmare of a used car

Nov. 29, 2006 - 02:20PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 29, 2006 - 02:20PM  |  
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Tales of deep woods-dwelling ax murderers may instill fear in Cub Scouts huddled around a flickering late-night campfire -- but few things are as frightening to adults as the real-life used-car horror story.

Here are some classic bone-chillers -- and how to avoid becoming a victim in your own B-movie nightmare:

The Swamp Thing

The heavy dampness of a crypt seems to waft from the carpets and seat cushions. A light fog or sticky mist creeps over the interior surfaces of the windshield whenever the windows are rolled up or the defroster is turned on.

Electronic poltergeists trigger dashboard lights that come on and go off again for no apparent reason; power accessories seem to have a life of their own. Sometimes, they work -- sometimes they don't.

Congratulations! You've bought a car that tested its mettle under water as well as on the road. It may have been deep-sixed into a swamp -- or merely driven through water high enough to get into the passenger compartment. Either way, you've got a moldy, smelly, rust-prone mess.

Services such as Carfax.com can help spot flood-damaged cars because there are usually insurance-claim records, but Carfax won't identify vehicles that have simply gotten excessively wet -- as many cars and trucks out West have recently. Before you hand over your dinero, look for signs of water damage -- including damp carpets and rust-colored water stains in places they shouldn't be, such as under the dash. Scrutinize the lower portion of each door panel; if you see a "water line," move on --fast. Also, lift up the trunk mat and check for moisture; if it's wet, say no thanks.

The Changeling

You think you bought a red car -- but a few months down the road you get a chip in the door and notice the paint underneath is blue.

This likely means it's either not the door that came on the car from the factory (a junkyard replacement that was re-sprayed to match) or the car's been repainted a different color, perhaps as the result of an accident.

A little poking around could have saved you a bunch of trouble and alerted you to previous bodywork, perhaps even evidence of major damage. Before you buy a used car, always do a careful walk-around and look closely for signs of damage and repainting.

Check inside the fender wells and underneath the car for overspray. Be suspicious of fresh black undercoating in the fender wells and underneath the car -- it may have been applied to mask previous damage or repair work.

Open each door and gently pull back the flexible rubber weather stripping just slightly. If the door was repainted, you will likely uncover evidence here. Also, look around body moldings and emblems, as these are often masked rather than taken off before a cheapo re-spray.

If you find different color paint hiding under rubber weather stripping or door panels and trim, the original door (or hood, etc.) was likely replaced with a used part from a junkyard. This is important to discover before money changes hands because any car that's been involved in an accident is worth less than one that hasn't. Make sure you know what you are buying before you make the deal.

Four-wheeled Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's mythical creature was assembled using the sewn-together scraps of various cadavers jolted to life by a bolt of lightning. The automotive version works on the same basic principle -- only the animating force is greed, not a lust to conquer death.

Car A is involved in a head-on collision; it's totaled by the insurance company and sent to the junkyard, where it's supposed to be sold for parts. But across town, there's been another accident. Car B is nailed hard from behind -- and it just happens to be the same year, make and model as A. It, too, gets totaled by the insurance company and sent to the boneyard.

But then an unscrupulous operator with a welding rig and an air compressor buys the remains -- and uses the good back half of the first car and the good front end of the second car to patch together one "new" car. A little laundering of the paperwork later, and the resultant mess is slipped quietly into the used-car food chain.

This practice is both highly illegal and unsafe because the structural integrity of the stitched-together vehicle is probably compromised. In addition, a totaled vehicle that's been put back together will often have poorly fitting body panels, with resultant leaks, noises and other problems.

Services such as Carfax.com can help uncover red flags suggestive of "salvaged titles" (that is, a car that was declared a total loss by an insurance company) and so on, but it pays to be a little skeptical and have the car checked -- before you buy -- for evidence of any metal-bending carnage.

The Wallet Vampire

This car drains your wallet as fast as Dracula sucks dry his victims. It's the car the dealer seems all too eager to get rid of -- the one with the too-good-to-be-true price.

Instead of getting a bargain, you've opened up a new line of credit that will deplete your reserves so fast you'll yearn for the release that passage to the next world brings.

The best way to avoid the Wallet Vampire is to stay away from known "problem cars" -- makes/ models that have a higher than normal incidence of problems and recalls (check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web site at www .nhtsa.dot.gov or Nutz & Boltz "Wreck Alls" at www.nutzand boltz.org).

Be suspicious about cars with unusually low mileage for their model year (it may have been in the shop more than on the road) and multiple previous owners for cars and trucks less than 5 years old (why did these people get rid of the vehicle so soon?). Stay away from former "program cars" -- most people think that means a dealer demo, but it could mean a vehicle that did a tour as a media press fleet vehicle that got thrashed by dozens of lead-foot automotive journalists testing it.

Common sense and the rule of "if it's too good to be true, it probably is" will be all the garlic you'll need to ward off the Wallet Vampire.

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist who has covered the auto industry since 1992. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, among other publications. E-mail him at Epeters952@aol.com.

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