Frustrated used car buyers offer lessons to avoid an expensive mistake

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- CBS4 Problem Solvers hears from a lot of people about their used car buying nightmares, so we took two cases of cars that buyers told us weren't what they seemed and put them to the test.

When college student Emily Coats bought her nice-looking blue 2008 Audi at a used car lot in Indianapolis, she thought she'd hit the jackpot.

"I thought I had just got a great deal," Coats said.

Instead, Coats has spent the last few months swallowing her pride, as the adults in her life pointed out the car really was too good to be true.

Despite her proactive approach to car-buying, Coats said she did not do as much diligence with the Audi since she initially thought she could not afford it. After she bought it and became concerned about issues while driving, she learned through a vehicle history report that the car had been previously salvaged in Wisconsin.

"I was furious," Coats said. "I didn't know what to do."

A salvaged car is one that has been in a bad wreck, totaled, then rebuilt. In Indiana, it's important to know that a salvage title is only required on a car that is seven years or newer, meaning as of summer 2018, a salvaged car older than a 2011 model does not have to be disclosed. That's why the title Coats received had no brands to identify it as a salvaged vehicle.

"If it was clean ... it wouldn't be in my price range," Coats said she later realized.

CBS4 Problem Solvers also heard from Brian Shedd, who bought a 2008 Cadillac in April and ended up returning it after he suspected it may have been previously flooded.

"I was desperate for a car," Shedd said.

Shedd did receive a limited vehicle history report from the dealer when he bought the car, which noted no issues. He said after he drove the car across the country and had numerous problems with it, he took it to a mechanic who diagnosed it with major issues.

"When something looks too good to be true, always go with your first gut feeling," Shedd said.

CBS4 tests different vehicle history report options online

Both Coats and Shedd learned that they should've done their homework and shelled out the money for their own vehicle history report before they bought their cars.

In Coats' case, she said the salesman pulled up a report on his computer but did not show it to her, instead reading it off a screen she could not see.

"He told me it was in an accident in 2011 in Wisconsin, and he said, 'But it wasn't anything major, it's got a clean title,'" Coats said.

CBS4 Problem Solvers ran both the Audi and the Cadillac through two systems: the more expensive Car Fax and Auto Check websites, as well as a $5.95 option called Title Check, which is suggested by the Department of Justice's consumer program, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, or NMVTIS.

The cheaper option did turn up the 2011 accident for the Audi, noting the car had been declared a total loss. It didn't give much detail, but it could have pointed Coats towards the bigger issue with the car.

The same Title Check option for the Cadillac came out clean, much like the report the dealer gave to Shedd.

The $25 Auto Check and $40 Car Fax told us more about both cars. In the Audi's case, the Auto Check confirmed Coats' suspicions. After the 2011 wreck, the car hit the auction block at least six times. In four cases, it was announced as body and frame damage.

"That's not a little accident. For frame damage, you've been hit hard," Coats said.

A Car Fax on the Cadillac did not confirm Shedd's suspicions of a flood, though. It came out clean, but it did estimate the car's value at less than $8,000. That would have helped Shedd make a better car-buying decision, since he ended up financing more than double what the car was worth, nearly $24,000 total including interest.

"I will definitely take it somewhere (in the future), have it checked out," Shedd said.

Car-buying tips to avoid costly mistakes

These cases highlight the need to do your research before you buy, even if it means paying a little extra for a vehicle history report.

You should also take a car to a mechanic you trust to have it checked out. In Shedd's case, that might've caught the problem that a Car Fax didn't show.

As for the title, remember that seven-year rule. If it's older than seven years from the current model date, it's past does not have the be disclosed and it can carry a clean title.

Jeremy Brilliant, with the Indiana Attorney General's Office, suggested that buyers follow Coats and Shedd's lead, and file a complaint no matter your situation. You may not be able to get your money back, but it could help another buyer in the future. He said used cars purchases are one of the biggest generators of complaints to the office.

"It's good to check it (ahead of time), especially with an older vehicle, because you just don't know where it's been and what's happened to it," Brilliant said.

You can find additional car-buying tips from the Attorney General at the link here, as well as a checklist provided by NMVTIS at the link here.

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