6 Tips For Buying A Used Car in California

These are just a few thoughts on some things to look out for when you are buying a used car. A lot of our clients are first time car buyers from here and abroad (International Students) that might need some advice when looking for a used car. These are some of my observations; please do your own research to form your opinions. I’d like to think that everybody who sells their car in San Diego is a good citizen and wouldn’t do anything intentional to take advantage of an unsuspecting buyer, but it always pays to be cautious.

There are a lot of cars available for sale in California so it might be worth passing on purchasing a car if it falls into any of these categories:

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Missing Title – if buying the vehicle from a private party vs. a car dealership you will need the seller to sign the title (ownership certificate) over to you when you buy the vehicle. Make sure the seller has the original title and that it is in the seller’s name. If they have lost the title, or the title isn’t in their name because they bought it from somebody else and never registered the vehicle in their name, it is still possible to do the transfer of ownership but it greatly increases the paperwork at the DMV. If you buy the car from a dealership you don’t have to worry about this issue because they handle the transfer paperwork for you.

Salvaged Title – watch out for salvaged titles. Salvaged vehicles can appear to be a “good deal”. These are cars that have had a large claim and restored to the point of being put back in service. The claim could have been a theft, fire, bad accident, etc. so it’s hard to say what condition the vehicle is really in after it is restored. For this reason very few insurance companies will insure these cars for more than liability coverage because there isn’t a consistent way to determine the “payoff” value if there is another claim. You can identify a salvaged title by looking on either a current registration or title for the word “salvaged”.

Smog test requirement – in California it is the seller’s responsibility to make sure the car is “smogged” before it is sold. When doing the transfer of ownership the smog test needs to be completed in the preceding 90 days or it will have to be done again. If you buy the vehicle from a dealer you don’t have to worry about this step. Most of the time when you buy a used car from a private party they haven’t smogged the vehicle yet. Usually the seller will tell you that you need to smog the vehicle because they are selling the vehicle for a good price therefore you should absorb the cost for smogging the car. That’s okay, but what if the car doesn’t pass a smog test after you’ve already paid for the vehicle? The seller won’t give you the money back so it becomes your problem. It can cost several hundred dollars or more sometimes to have a mechanic fix what is wrong with the car just so it can pass a smog test. Why take that chance?

Here is a website from the California Bureau of Automotive Repair you can use to check the vehicle’s smog history – just type in the vehicle’s license plate. Chances are if it has never failed a test it is likely to pass.

Dealership “AS IS” vehicles – oftentimes when you buy a used vehicle from a dealership it comes with a limited warranty, sometimes as brief as 30-90 days – especially on older cars. Vehicles that are sold “as is” have NO WARRANTY. If you find a vehicle for sale at a dealership that is being sold “as is” you should be aware that once you drive the vehicle off the lot there is no recourse if something is wrong with the vehicle. You might ask yourself why a dealer would sell a car “as is” if they are in a business that has easy and inexpensive access to automotive repair – maybe it has a serious problem?

Mechanic inspection– when you are buying a car from a private party they clearly will not offer any kind of warranty if something breaks on the car after you buy it. How are you to know if there is an issue with the

vehicle? I suggest taking the vehicle to a mechanic and paying them a nominal fee to do an inspection of the vehicle. This won’t guarantee that they will find everything that could potentially be wrong with the vehicle but it will eliminate a lot of the obvious and usually more serious problems the car might have. This is a cost you will have to pay and is usually between $50-$100. A small price to pay for some peace of mind.

Car insurancecar insurance rates can be affected by the type of vehicle you buy. Some things to consider if you want full coverage: usually vehicles with 4 cylinders and 4 doors are less than 2 door cars and 6 or 8 cylinder vehicles. SUV’s, 4 wheel drive trucks, sports cars and sometimes convertibles can be more as well. For liability only policies, usually the rates won’t vary that much from car to car. It’s always a good idea to get the description of a couple of vehicles you are considering buying (along with the vehicle identification numbers if possible) to assist your insurance agent in determining rates before you buy your vehicle and find out the rates were higher than you expected.

You may have noticed that I mentioned a couple of times that certain things wouldn’t be necessary of you buy a car from a dealer – don’t interpret that as a recommendation to buy a car from a dealer over a private party. There are lots of great deals and honest sellers out there that won’t charge as much as a dealer does. Use your best judgment and be as thorough in your research as possible.

Happy car hunting!

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