With Halloween just a few days away, we’re thinking about a particularly spooky subject: buying a used car. A fear of car-buying, like a fear of ghosts, is well-founded. Most of us know someone who’s had a rotten experience at the dealership or on a sketchy website—the Federal Trade Commission reports auto-related complaints as one of the top 10 consumer gripes and they receive more than 90,000 car complaints a year.
But how can you make sure your next car isn’t secretly haunted? And if it is, what can you do about it? (Call the Ghostbusters, or AAA?) The car experts here at Vroom have five common horror stories and pointers on how to avoid them.
1. Creeped Out on Craigslist
Craigslist is a holdout from an older, dicier era of the internet. The company’s listing format hasn’t changed in years; it’s still a hodgepodge of unregulated offers and a refuge for grifters and con men. You can buy and sell cars on Craigslist with relatively little hassle, to be sure—but buyer beware. Even cars that look great may have issues under the hood.
Protip: If you can’t resist the siren call of Craigslist, make sure you get as much info from the seller as possible about the vehicle—a CarFax report, if possible.
Our pals at Car and Driver put together a helpful list of tips for a successful Craigslist buying experience, including doing the exchange at your local bank, which might have a notary public on staff to witness the deal.
2. When Your Dealership Ghosts
Vroom’s director of marketing operations, Anat, shared this chilling anecdote about the perils of a dealership shutting its doors:
“Three years ago, my husband and I leased a car from a Manhattan dealership. Six months later, the dealership closed and they stopped servicing cars at the location. So from then on, anytime we needed to get work done on the car, we had to drive two hours to the closest body shop approved by the manufacturer. It was awful. We called the manufacturer and asked them to at least provide a rental car or a car service when our car was getting worked on, but they didn’t help us out once over three years. We were beyond relieved when the lease ended and we could get a new car.”
Protip: When a dealership goes out of business, they might not even call to let you know—so it’s a good idea to check in before you head out. And if they’re closed, a local body shop might be a better option than trucking out to the nearest dealer.
3. Mysterious Lights Emanating from Your Dashboard
Dash lights let us know when something’s up with our car. But the “check engine” sign is vague at best, and some older cars have indicator lights that go in and out at random, which looks like someone sending messages in Christmas lights from the Upside-Down. Vroom’s Communications Manager had a similar issue with a leased car in college: “I had a Chevy Cobalt in college with a ‘washer fluid reminder’ light that never turned off, no matter how full I kept the reservoir. A mechanic told me the problem was with the car’s computer, and there was nothing to be done about it.”
That’s all to say, sometimes dash lights mean nothing; other times they indicate real problems. Beware of used car salesmen who brush them off.
Protip: Get the car inspected before you get their pink slip. Also, it doesn’t hurt to know your indicator lights. AutoZone has a helpful guide to what’s what on your dash.
4. Jack the Ripper-Offer
An eyebrow-raisingly low car price can spell hidden car trouble—or serve as the bait in a classic “bait and switch” maneuver, where the customer is promised a car that might not even exist, leaving them stuck with a vehicle they never intended to buy, or a frustrating trip home empty-handed.
A suspiciously low price can also act as a distraction from an inflated interest rate. Buyers who don’t have great credit will want to check—and double-check—all of their financial terms before signing a contract they may not ever be able to pay in full. For a thorough education in auto lending gone awry, turn to John Oliver.
Protip: Go over your contract with a fine-tooth comb—or buy your car from a credible source. Sites like DealerRater are a helpful resource to gauge a company’s trustworthiness. Alternatively, see what auto loan rates your local bank is willing to offer. They’ll be able to provide a baseline number for what you should expect from the dealer, and they might just beat the dealer’s offer.
5. The Island of No Returns
Buying a car, finding out something’s wrong with it, and then realizing you’re stuck with a lemon qualifies as a nightmare worthy of Elm Street. Overheating, redlining, and faulty pumps are just some of the potential issues that might not reveal themselves during a short, on-site test-drive. By the time car’s issues announce themselves, it’s often too late to take it back.
Protip: You won’t find many brick-and-mortar dealerships willing to accept returns. However, most online car retailers, such as Vroom, offer a seven-day return window, often billed as an extended test drive. We also include a 90-day No Worries Warranty with every car we sell. Should something go awry, you can take your Vroom to any dealership or ASE-certified repair shop.