Ms. Geek Speaks: How the Internet helped find and repair my new used car

The Internet has certainly improved car buying and even diagnosing one’s car problems. This is not a shaggy dog story (I have two of those at home and they are sleeping); this is a shady car story.

First, let us look at making a car purchase. The first time I purchased a car (Toyota mini van) using the Internet, I used a car service through my credit union. That got me a car, sight unseen, that was driven up from San Diego from a dealer to the Los Angeles area. It had paint problems.  I realize now that the asking price was too high and I should have gone with the price suggested by the credit union loan or lower. Be sure to check on when the policy about years covered changes and get it in writing. We were looking for a 2007 car, but mid-November, when we were ready to make a purchase, we called and learned that the credit union was no longer offering loans for 2007 cars, just 2008 to 2015. You might think that the change would take place at the end of the month or the end of the year and even the person I spoke with the next morning was unaware of the change and had to check with management.

The credit union had the best loan rate, but the car-buying service the credit union used,  Autoland, won’t necessarily get you the best deal.

When first van needed to be replaced, I tried Craigslist and a guy who was running a used car  plan out of the garage that he worked at (with the owner’s permission). This person constantly was making assurances (repairs all done at the garage and guaranteed) while reneging on parts of the agreement. The car wasn’t cleaned before the transaction and, I later learned, the car’s odometer had been rolled back. Be careful with whom you do business ; check on Yelp.  According to Carfax, one out of 10 American cars has a rolled back odometer.

I could have avoided that if I had taken Carfax’s suggestions:

  • Compare the mileage on the vehicle’s title document with the odometer – be particularly wary if the figures on the title document appear blurred, smudged or hard to read
  • Compare odometer mileage with that recorded on inspection and maintenance records – they should all be consistent
  • Check odometer mileage against that on oil-change and services stickers – they can be found on windows or door frames, in the glove box, or under the hood
  • On a car with a mechanical odometer, check that the numbers on the odometer gauge are aligned correctly – gauges which are crooked, have gaps or jiggle when you hit the dash are all signs of odometer rollback
  • Look at the condition of the tires – a car with less than 20,000 miles on the clock should have the original tires
  • Inspect the car’s overall level of wear and tear to see if its condition is as you would expect considering its mileage – particularly the pedals.

Carfax offers a free odometer check. The stickers had been removed on the second car, also a Toyota mini van.

I found better prices using CarGurus, but if you’re getting a deal, expect there to be a catch. The prices on CarGurus were often lower than the ones offered to someone off the street–that’s Internet pricing. However, before you go make sure:

  • The car if available to test drive.
  • Whether or not the car is being sold as-is.
  • What, if anything, is inoperable with the car.
  • If there is a warranty, then just what the warranty document says.
  • Check on Carfax or another service to see if the car has been registered as totaled.
  • Check on any recalls that are still outstanding.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free VIN check.

Even with CarGurus, we did experience what we felt was a bait and switch. We drove 2 hours out to Redlands to look at a car that was there in the morning and we had confirmed me were heading out there and it was available at 1 p.m., but had been sold just before we got there (3:30 p.m.) and yet at 6 p.m., I got another email from the Internet sales department of Toyota of Redlands asking us if we were still going to check out that very same vehicle.

Besides the initial cost, also consider the maintenance. We loved the look and the price of the PT Cruiser, but we learned that the design made the car hard to service and thus more expensive. On the other hand, when we decided to buy a hybrid, we checked on all of the possible recalls. Some of the cars had outstanding recalls on them. If there was an accident related to the recall before you get it in to the dealership to be repaired, then you’d be responsible for the damage. That’s a risk.

If the car has been “totaled,” then you can’t get a loan for it. You also have a lower re-sale value.

One thing we didn’t think of was outstanding enhanced warranties. We bought a 2009 Toyota Prius we found via CarGurus. I’m not enchanted with the color, but it seemed to be a deal. I was reluctant because I had already caught the used car salespeople in a lie. Although I had an email confirming I was coming to look at it, when we got there on Sunday, we were told it was unavailable and was being repaired for a recall problem at the local Toyota dealership. Yet when we went to look at it later, there was no evidence or paperwork associated with that and the Carfax data sheet didn’t show any outstanding recall. Curious.

We bought it at a Lexus dealership in Cerritos. We had it checked out immediately and found that the spark plugs needed to be replaced along with one of the belts and the struts. What that garage didn’t find was other things: an enhanced warranty problem.

So neither Carfax nor the dealer nor our auto repair garage told us about this defect.

I first noticed the problem when I was going to cover a major story. My dashboard wouldn’t light up. I turned it on and off several times, taking the key out and putting it back in. At one point, not only did the dashboard cease to light up, the car refused to release the key. So my motor is running, I can’t turn off the car and I can’t take out the key. Not an ideal situation. I first had this problem on an early Sunday morning. The next week, I had the same problem on a Thursday afternoon. I took the car to the auto repair garage. They called me back and told me that I had simply put the key in wrong.

My Internet research discovered otherwise.

There is a defect in the motherboard that results in the dashboard display remaining dark even though the radio and other audio functions were working fine. The problem is the combination meter and this affects the display of your car’s consumption display.

One of the best places I found for information on the Prius and Toyota warranties is a blog by a San Francisco hybrid specialist: Luscious Garage. I would not have found it if my husband’s repair garage hadn’t dismissed my concerns, but more importantly, they also should have been aware of this problem since it is widespread enough to cause Toyota to issue not a recall, but a warranty extension. The warranty extension covers all owners of Toyota Prius between the years 2004-2009, has unlimited mileage and extends for nine years. That means 2004 owners had until 2013 (notices were sent out in late 2012).

Luscious Garage also advises you on how to turn off your car should you experience the problem before you need a repair: “You have to hold down the power button for three seconds, which will do a safety override and put the car into accessory mode; from there you hit the power button two times quickly to turn the car off.

Even though I am the third owner of my 2009 Toyota Prius, I was able to take my Toyota Prius in this week and they covered the repair which according to Luscious Garage would cost $450 for the part alone and another $100 plus for labor.

The inverter water pump replacement was a limited service campaign was for 2004-2007 according to Luscious Garage. That service was free until 30 November 2013. I can only hope the person who owned the car then took advantage of that limited service campaign.

When you have a problem with your car, sometimes it helps to get a second opinion. On the other hand, if my husband’s auto garage was unaware of this problem, then there are deals out there to be made. More than one of the heavily discounted Toyota Prius’ that we test drove had problems with the display but not the dash. Now I have to wonder if that particular day we first went to test drive the Toyota Prius, perhaps the dashboard was not coming up properly.

The Internet helped me find my 2009 Toyota Prius and it helped me get it repaired for free. So when shopping for a used car, remember to use Carfax, but even Carfax won’t show limited service campaigns or extended warranty offers. You’ll have to research that for yourself. 




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