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New or used?

When buying a car, deciding between a hot little number on the showroom floor or something “pre-owned” is a sensible and rational way to begin.

The answer is as clear as crankcase oil.

“There’s certainly pros and cons to each,” said Michael Quincy, who evaluates and writes about cars for Consumer Reports, a longtime trusted source for information about vehicles, both new and used.

In a telephone interview with Stars and Stripes, Quincy said a new car’s main advantage is its warranty, which covers nearly everything that could break down.

“The downside of a new car is that as soon as you drive it off the dealer’s lot, it depreciates. The value plummets,” he said.

The attraction of a used car, Quincy said, is “it’s already gone through its steepest depreciation.” Its value is not going to drop precipitously after you buy it.

The downside of buying a used car, of course, is “you don’t know its history,” he said. Has it been in a crash? Driven hard? Poorly maintained?

For those reasons, Larry Webster, who drives and reviews cars for Car and Driver Magazine, said the new-car route is the only way to go.

In fact, he recommends buying a new car every three years.

“During the whole time you own that car, you don’t have to pay to repair it,” he said, referring to the warranty. “You’re not going to need new brakes. You’re not going to need new tires. You’re not going to need new shocks.”

His route may cost more money each year, he said, unless you figure in the cost of repairs for a used car. The idea of driving a car until it simply dies, he said, doesn’t work these days because “a car never just dies.”

Instead, it is you who is going to get gnawed to death by a string of constant repairs, he said in a telephone interview.

When buying a car overseas, another factor to consider is the sales tax required by most states when you take the car home.

Sarah Wellman, wife of Sgt. Jeremy Wellman, said she was surprised she had to pay taxes on the family’s Honda Accord — purchased at Baumholder, Germany — when the Wellmans moved to their new duty station at Fort Knox, Ky.

The Auto Exchange at Ramstein, where they purchased the car was festooned with “tax free” signs.

“You get that mind-set of ‘tax free’ before you even decide to purchase,” she said. “Every single one of these places advertises that.”

She said they eventually paid $700 in sales tax for the three-year-old car.

Tom Sweeney, manager of Auto Exchange, said in an interview that an explanation of the tax system is part of every salesman’s pitch.

“We have to be crystal clear on it,” he said. “It’s of absolutely no value to anybody to duck or dive on the issue.”

In the end, the decision to buy new or used, comes down to what the buyer can afford, Quincy said.

“You don’t want to get upside down on a car loan,” he said.

Getting startedThe Federal Citizen Information Center’s Web page suggests several Web sites that can help make a used-car purchase a satisfying one: Auto Trader, Better Business Bureau, Carfax Inc., Consumers’ Checkbook - Car Bargains, Edmunds.com Inc., Kelley Blue Book and National Automobile Dealers Association Guides Online.

Testing ‘Old Betsy’

Buying a used car can be akin to shooting craps at a Las Vegas casino.

Dealers may provide some level of comfort with a limited warranty, but buying from a private person selling “Old Betsy” leaves the buyer more vulnerable.

The Federal Citizen Information Center provides used-car buyers with some tips.

Determine what car is right for you by asking yourself how the car will be used, who will use it and what features are required to fit your needs.

After narrowing the choice to a few makes and models, check them out for safety features, performance and track record for repairs.

Don’t sell the test drive short. Put it through its paces on city streets, open highways and rural roads if the car will be used away from towns.

Have a trusted mechanic give the car a once-over, but do some looking yourself. Lift the hood and look for worn belts or hoses. Check to see if the oil or any fluids are dirty.

Climb behind the wheel and turn the key to the accessories. Are all the lights and gauges working? Start the car and check out the signal lights, warning lights and all other lights.

Look at the odometer. Odometer fraud costs consumers billions of dollars annually, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Be direct when asking the seller the history of the car. Ask to see repair and maintenance records.

Mike Quincy, who evaluates cars for Consumer Reports, said used-car buyers should “look, listen and feel.”

Check the brake and gas pedals for wear, he said, which will give an indication of the car’s true mileage. Look along the car’s body for ripples that might indicate major repairs due to a crash. Also look for subtle changes in paint color.

Take along a refrigerator magnet and stick it on the car at several places. Any place is doesn’t stick, he said, is where fiberglass has been used for repairs.

Smell the car, Quincy said. A musty odor will indicate water damage. Do this inside the car and in the trunk.

“It’s a lot of simple things,” he said.

The Federal Citizen Information Center says to have all your payment questions out of the way before the car search begins. A “rule of thumb” is that the monthly auto loan payment should not exceed 20 percent of your available money each month after your usual living expenses.

— Ron Jensen


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