THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Homework helps: Research cars to the max

Jennifer and Donnell Hopkins bought cars in haste, and now they've had plenty of time to repent in leisure. I told their story last week ["Buyers' remorse," Feb. 2], which came down to this: They signed contracts they hadn't read for cars they hadn't researched and committed themselves to interest rates that came as a shock when they actually read the contracts. When they complained, they found out fast that the terms of a signed contract are mighty hard to escape.

I used their experience as a lesson in how not to buy a used car, and closed by saying that the sales director at Brown's Toyota, Jay Malone– who wasn't involved in the original transactions– had agreed to talk to the unhappy couple and seek a resolution.

I'm happy to report that they've spoken at length. Although the details have yet to be settled, Jennifer has only praise for Malone: "He's gone above and beyond," she says, confident that she and her husband will be satisfied with the outcome.

Impulse shopping can be fun– but only when you can pay cash for items that have little or no potential to cause buyer's remorse. For most of us, cars don't qualify. If you're thinking about buying one, a little homework can save you money, time, and heartache. This is even more crucial with used cars, since it's rarely possible to know the car's entire history.

It's easy to find good advice, though, and I'll highlight two sources. The first is, an Internet site devoted to all things automotive; I especially recommend its "10 Steps to Buying a Used Car," which leads you clearly and methodically through the process. In Step 5, for instance, you decide how much you can afford– before you go shopping– by calculating how much you can afford for monthly payments (if you'll be borrowing money) and how much you can put down in cash. Once you have those figures, you'll know how much you can spend.

Step 6 discusses payment options; cash, obviously, is best. If you do need to finance the car, you have two choices: funding through an independent source (credit union, bank, online lender, etc.) or funding through the dealership. "highly" recommends the former, "because it will usually save money and give the consumer the most control over the transaction." This isn't always the case, however; as Malone noted, sometimes the dealer can meet or even improve on what's offered by an independent source. The best bet is to get a quote from at least one outside source, then see whether the dealer can beat it.

The second resource I especially recommend is the auto issue Consumer Reports publishes every April, which is packed with ratings and reviews of both new and used cars. Particularly valuable for used-car buyers is their rundown of reliable used cars. Last year's list, for instance, included "all 1997 through 2004 models that showed better-than-average reliability," divided by price range. A 2002 Toyota Highlander, the car Brown charged Donnell Hopkins almost $28,000 for, is on the list– but in the $20,000-$24,000 range. If the Hopkinses had known that before they went shopping, they might have had leverage for bargaining.

Finally, what if– like the Hopkinses– you're unhappy with your car or the deal you got, have complained to the salesperson, and believe you're not being heard? As Malone notes, "Everybody has a boss." In other words, keep moving up the ladder. Malone wishes the Hopkinses had, and regrets that he only heard about the situation when he heard from me.

Buying a used car doesn't need to be onerous; I bought one last month– after deciding on a make, model, and price range before I went to the showroom– and the happy result has been a car I treasure driving.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.