Tips to avoid buying a used car with hidden damage

When it comes time to buy a car, we are faced with the decision of whether to buy used or new. The advantage of buying a new car is that the chances are slim that the vehicle has been damaged. On the flip side, you lose money the minute you drive a new car off the lot. As a result, many consumers look for a good used car in an effort to avoid the instant depreciation.

When you buy a used car, you might be inheriting some expensive problems. Every day cars are in accidents, some are totaled, and others are severely damaged and then fixed. I use the term "fixed" loosely as insurance companies will generally do the least amount of work to get the car running again. In some instances, an owner will take the car to a body shop and request to fix just the cosmetic problems leaving the underlying structural damage untouched.

I recently purchased an Acura MDX from Carflex, a Colorado based dealer owned by Stan Nowacki, only to find out that the vehicle had a bent rear sub-frame and a cracked engine block. Now you might be saying, "Well, you should have taken it to a mechanic". Not only was the car inspected by Mile High Acura, but, I also obtained a Carfax report, which indicated the car had never been in an accident. Unfortunately, the used car inspection was not performed carefully. I later learned that when they check "ok" for alignment, they are only inspecting tire wear.

I will likely never forget my interactions with Stan Nowacki after bringing the two problems to his attention. He literally mocked me by saying, "You called me sniveling like a little baby". He then offered to buy the car back for about $10k less than I paid for it a week earlier. He also suggested that the damage that was found occurred after I purchased the vehicle. In short, Stan was not very helpful.

I have also learned that the Carflax report, which generally reports accidents, is not fool proof either. My mechanic stated that he fixes structural damage all the time and never reports the work to anyone. It appears that if an accident does not generate a police report, it will never find its way into the Carflax database. Often accidents occur and for insurance reasons, owners decide to work things out without engaging insurance companies.

So what can you do as an untrained mechanic to avoid a similar situation? Actually, there is a lot you can do. For starters you can try to reach the previous owner. Unfortunately, in my case, reaching the owner took several weeks as the car was sold to a dealer in Florida and then purchased by a Colorado dealer through an auction, which made the tracking effort very difficult. After I purchased the Acura MDX, I was able to reach the original owner and learn the story that matched the damage.

When you are inspecting the car, you should be especially cautious if the used car looks too good to be true. In my situation, I was purchasing an Acura MDX that was priced at the Kelly Bluebook FMV for a private party. I was purchasing the car from Carflex, a dealer, so why would they be selling the 4x4 at such a great price when winter was just beginning?

Subsequent to buying the car, I have also learned that you should look at the door skins very carefully. If the door skin has been replaced, generally the VIN stickers on the inside doors will be missing. If the door has been repainted, you will notice that the VIN stickers have been removed; however, the stickiness of the sticker will still be seen through the paint. In both cases, the VIN sticker is missing in the inside of each door.

Another sign is that the new paint will be slightly different than the original paint. If you look closely you will see what mechanics call "orange peel". This is a situation where the paint displays a pattern similar to an orange peel.

You should also look at the doors to see that they are properly spaced within the door openings of the car. In my case, I can now see that the gaps between the doors are not even. This was due to the fact that the mechanic hurriedly remounted the doors without perfecting adjusting the fit.

If the roof of the car has been repainted, this is a sign that the frame of the car was bent. The roof is the largest flat surface on the car. If the frame is bent, the roof will show stress, which will require repairs and repainting. Fortunately, the roof of my Acura MDX had not been repainted.

We originally discovered the rear bent frame after taking the Acura MDX to my mechanic for a routine alignment since the car had new tires. The mechanic only recognized the rear bent sub-frame after trying to align the car. The damage was very slight; however, after they could not align the car they did notice that the rear sub-arm was slightly closer to the frame on one side. Generally, this type of damage would have been difficult for even a trained mechanic to notice. After realizing that the rear sub-frame was damaged, we then noticed two tiny spot welds underneath the car where the frame was reattached to the outer skin.

Often a previously damaged car is prepped so well that damage is the last thing on your mind when looking at what appears to be a very clean car. Don't be fooled though. Be sure to carefully open and close all the doors. Listen for unexpected rattles as this could be a sign that something is not right. In my case, there was still broken glass in the door. When I test drove the car, the Carflex owner sat in the seat with the door that was filled with broken glass. As a result, we never opened or closed that particular door.

I was able to replace the entire rear sub-frame for about $1,200 and with the help of my friend who does body work we were able to sucessfully argue that the cracked engine block was a manufacturing defect. Acura claimed that the rear incident caused the block to crack; therefore, they were not willing to fix the problem. Nevertheless, an independent arbitrator through the BBB Auto Line ruled in our favor, which required Acura to remedy the problem. This process taught me that all members of the BBB have agreed to settle differences via binding arbitration. You have to really push the BBB to setup the arbitration - we learned about this potential remedy after carefully studying the Acura warranty manual.

My situation worked out in the end; however, it definitely caused a lot of unnecessary and unwanted stress. It is my hope that the points outlined above will help you avoid a similar situation. Good luck.

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