People have been lying to sell cars ever since the used car business began, and lies are not exclusive to Craigslist. They're on other websites, as well as bus stop fliers and in newspaper ads. But they are even more prevalent when you're looking in the lower price range, about $3,000, simply because more things are wrong with cheaper cars. • My search for a cheap used car for my daughter began with the Ann Arbor, Mich., version of Craigslist. I was looking for smaller cars that have a history of reliability. Consumer Reports says the Honda Civic is best. Mazda Protege also is good. Ford Focus is pretty decent. I'm avoiding Toyota for the moment. • Ideally, I would find an original owner who followed the maintenance schedule and kept receipts. Skipping maintenance can prove costly in the long run, especially in a lower price range where cars tend to have more than 100,000 miles on them. • After checking the listings for prices, mileage and stories that sound believable, I set out to visit some prospects.
The hunt begins
Older Protege: The seller says the car's been maintained by the book, with oil changes every 3,000 miles — just changed it 200 miles ago. This claim's pretty easy to knock down. Just pull out the dipstick. If the oil is dark, it hasn't been changed recently. Feel the oil with your fingers. If it's gritty, that's dirt, and it means the oil has been in the car a long time. Next!
A 1997 Civic: Offered by its original owner. It has only 112,000 miles on it. The car is beautiful, but as we pull up to the house, someone else buys the car for full price.
A 2003 Ford Taurus: The owner says he's selling the car he purchased from a cousin who maintained it meticulously. Never been wrecked, he says. But the plastic bumper isn't quite the same color as the fenders. The plastic trim beneath the doors looks brand new. And when I look under the car, there it is! White paint on the frame! It's a warning because when body shops cut corners, they don't mask off the bottom of the car. It's an easy way to tell that a car has been repainted, and new paint generally means it was wrecked. You need to be really careful when buying a car that's been in more than just a fender-bender. Bent frames can cause handling problems and tire wear. Parts can get bent in a wreck, causing failures down the road. Avoid these cars unless they've been repaired by a reputable shop and the seller can prove it.
A 2003 Focus. The guy I called says the car has had only one owner. Is he the one owner? No. He just bought it. From whom? A rental company. He's essentially a dealer buying from car auctions and has no idea whether the cars were maintained. I found this several times. People, especially on weekends when dealers are closed, will post ads as private owners, then answer their phones as if they are individual sellers. Unless you ask about the ownership, you won't know they're working for dealers until you go to sign the paperwork.
Verify car's history
More evidence that it's wise to do a vehicle history check before buying a used car. Carfax (www.carfax.com) and other services get reports from governments and repair shops. State registrations show who owned the car, and data collected from repair shops can catch whether it has been in a wreck. Multiple owners can indicate an uncertain maintenance record.