auto

Do your own used-car detective work

Tara Baukus MelloOne disadvantage to buying a used car is that you may not know its history -- if it's had all of its regular maintenance performed promptly and what type of repairs have been needed. A car's history can be a good indicator of future problems, and the necessary expense associated with them. Doing a bit of detective work in advance of your purchase can help you select a quality used car that is less likely to have expensive problems later.

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Start your research by asking for the maintenance and repair records for the used car you want to buy. If the seller is an individual, he or she should have a folder of paperwork on the car that you can look over. If that's not the case, ask him or her to call the dealer or mechanic and ask for a copy of the service history. As long as the repair shop has computerized records, they should be able to provide this. If the car is on a dealer's lot, you should be able to get a copy of the service performed at the dealership as long as the car is a brand that the dealer also sells new. Then, the dealer can access the records by entering the car's vehicle identification number, or VIN, into the manufacturer's database.

Review the car's service history, paying special attention to whether regular maintenance was performed at the recommended intervals. Refer to the car maintenance chart in the owner's manual and what type of work has been performed over the car's life. While you might initially be alarmed at a major repair, such as a new transmission, knowing this type of repair has already been performed likely means a longer life span for the car. One area to tread carefully is when a car has been into the shop multiple times for the same problem, indicating a problem that is difficult to diagnose or correct. This is especially common with problems that are ultimately caused by electronic or computer issues.

Finally, take a look at the dependability or reliability ratings that are performed by independent groups. These studies are conducted by surveying car owners, so they are a real-world look at a group of people who own the cars you are considering.

J.D. Power and Associates' annual Vehicle Dependability Study measures problems experienced over the last year on cars that are three years old, so the current study (which was published in March) focuses on 2008 model-year cars and trucks. The study assesses brands overall as well as lists the top three cars in each car segment.

Consumer Reports' annual reliability ratings look at the strengths and weaknesses of every model over the last five model years, so this year's study -- published in the April 2011 issue -- provides data for cars for the 2005 through 2010 model years.

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If you have a car question, email it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories.
 

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Tara Baukus Mello

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