How not to get ripped off when buying a used car

How not to get ripped off when buying a used car »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. – One of the biggest mistakes you can make when buying a used car is skipping over the inspection, according to findings from our Problem Solvers team.

And why is this important? We get so many calls and e-mails from people who say they bought a used car and it fell apart on them. We can't do much for them, but we can tell you to take any used car for your own inspection – even if you trust the seller and even its certified from a dealership.

How do you make sure you inspect everything? For this Problem Solvers special report we shadow an inspector to show you the red flags. To start, "I walk around the whole car," said Josh Lawson with PDX Inspections.

Lawson is looking at paint shine and shade. A small difference in paint color could mean a crashed car that has been rebuilt.

"These guys are scammers; they really are," he warns of some in the used-car industry. "They feed off the people that don't know."

He recently checked out a black Acura for Nate Hines, a of Beaverton resident in the market for an Acura TL.

"When you're excited about a car, you overlook a lot," Lawson said. "...It's kind of like a first date. Like, oh, maybe we'll get used to each other."

The seller claimed the car had 25,000 miles on it, and no accidents.

"Right off the bat, I saw the entire side was repainted and the repairs [were] sub par," Lawson said.

Lawson said it looked like it had been repainted after a crash. So he searched for background on the car, and found pictures of the car from an auction site.

"[They] sent me pictures and you should have seen my mouth drop," he said. "I mean, are you kidding me? No accident?"

The photos show a car that had been in what appears to be a major accident.

The vehicle  inspector said he also found that the 25,000 miles advertised was really 87,000. And there were other signs that the seller's story was fake, such as corrosion on the engine, discolored transmission fluid, rust on the exhaust system, worn brakes, worn front seats, mismatched tires, an older battery and hood hinges tweaked.

These are all things you can watch for on the next car you want to buy. If they're old, the life of the car is likely old too.

Even if you don't know anything about how cars work, you can do the following:

  • Print out an inspection checklist from the Internet. (See the options we found.)
  • Ask the seller for the maintenance records. You can get these from the dealership or repair shop if necessary.
  • Check out the VIN number. (See the options we found.) You'll want to look at every panel for the VIN numbers, and make sure it doesn't look like anything has been tampered with. Note that some of the Internet options charge for the service.

Nate ended up buying this silver Acura with a scratch or two, instead of the black one with the major accident damage.

"This is a sticker that's been painted over," Lawson points out on the car. "So what this tells you is that  this is probably the original bumper, but they sprayed it for cosmetic damage."

The Federal Trade Commission says the best thing is to have an independent mechanic check the car out. That's because the seller may be counting on you to buy with the eye of a driver and not the eye of a mechanic or inspector.

"I like to look at 'em," Nate said. "I'll even wash them, but I just don't fix them."

But paying for someone else to inspect the car comes at a cost, of anywhere from $65 to $275 for a thorough inspection. So call around for your options, asking for their price on pre-purchase inspections, used-vehicle inspections or diagnostic inspections. You'll also want to check out the inspector as well; try asking friends, family or co-workers for a recommendation.

However, many used car dealers know that 90 percent of the public won't actually pay a professional to go out and look at the car. Price, then, becomes everything in the used-car buying process – with people buying on price alone.

And in the used auto industry, it seems you really do get what you pay for.

Examples of used-car inspection checklists:

Databases for information on a used car's Vin number history:

Basic information on buying a used car:

Watch Kerry Tomlinson's report: