- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

So you want to buy a used car, and you seek both a good vehicle and a good deal. Thanks to the Internet, you can be well prepared and highly knowledgeable before heading off to the car dealership or used-car lot.

You can start the buying process while sitting in front of your computer with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Assuming you've given some thought to what kind of vehicle is right for you size, power, front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, etc. you'll want to find out whether the car or cars you're interested in are considered a smart buy.

Head to the Consumer Reports Web site, www.consumer-reports. org, where you can access a lot of research and learn which vehicles Consumer Reports recommends. You have to pay for this information: A monthly subscription to this Web site is $3.95; a yearly subscription is $24.

Something else that should figure into your decision is what you can afford. There are many Web sites with how-much-car-you-can-afford calculators; Kiplinger's ,www.kiplinger. com, is one.

After deciding what kind of vehicle to buy and how much you can afford, start cyber-shopping. There are a number of used-car Web sites to choose from; one of the most popular is www.autotrader.com. When you get to the site, type in the make of the car you want and your ZIP code. From there, you get more choices model, year, price range and you'll be given a list of vehicles sold by private sellers and dealerships. Click on a particular listing and get more information about the car, such as a picture, and contact information so you know where you'll have to go to check out the vehicle.

This is a great starting point because it shows how much cars cost in your area. Just because your sister in Ohio bought the car you want for a certain price doesn't mean that's how much you'll pay for a similar car in your hometown in California. This Web site search could be much more than just a starting point, as you may very well end up buying the car you're looking at on your screen after you see it, of course.

OK, so you've found a car you might like. Now, maybe with a fresh cup of coffee, you can learn how much you should pay for that car and, if you're selling yours, how much your car is worth.

There are three well-respected sites to check out: the National Automobile Dealers Association at www.nada guides.com, Kelley Blue Book at www.kbb.com and Edmunds at www.edmunds.com.

If the price seems right, it's time to run a check on the car.

To get this information you need the car's Vehicle Identification Number, which you can get from sites such as www.autotrader.com or, when you go to see the car, from the dealership, used-car lot or private owner of the car.

This check will cost a few dollars, but if you're serious about a particular car, you should know its history before buying it.

CARFAX, www.carfax.com, provides vehicle history reports, ($14.99 for one, $19.99 for two) that reveal everything such as title problems, accident reports (those accidents reported to police), sales at auctions, car records, rental car or leased car records and the number of owners. The information is well worth the money.

That's the technology you can use for buying a used car, but don't forget common sense: Ask to see the maintenance and repair records, drive the vehicle, have a mechanic look it over, and make sure you understand the warranty's limitations if there is one (or if you're buying a warranty).

Here's something you should know about buying from a dealership: Many vehicles sold by dealers have passed manufacturer-approved inspection programs. Cars at a dealership may cost a little more money than buying from a private seller, but it could be worth it.

And have fun with the process. Remember, with all this information, you're, well, in the driver's seat.

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