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Why you should closely check the odometer on that used car you're thinking of buying

Used car prices are finally decreasing. But buyers need to be aware of another drop before they buy. This one is on the mileage.

SAN ANTONIO — Used car buyers want both a good price and low mileage. 

You may want to jump on a great deal before it disappears, but be suspicious. Texas ranks second in the nation when it comes to the number of vehicles on the road with rolled-back odometers. San Antonio ranks better at 19th in the U.S., but do not take chances because it will cost down the road.

“So many people don’t know that digital odometers can be rolled back,” said Emilie Voss of CARFAX. “We think back to ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and that analog odometer getting taken out and manually rolled back. Unfortunately, the digital odometer is, in most cases, easier to manipulate.”

Rolling back an odometer is easy to do and difficult for buyers to spot.

“There’s nothing mechanically that can seen, no trace left where you can tell the odometer has been rolled back,” said Voss.

It will cost you. You will pay more for the car and more for repairs when there is a rolled back odometer.

“This can cost you thousands of dollars, not only upfront in the purchase price but cost you thousands of dollars and a lot of headache and heartache during ownership,” Voss said. “The maintenance schedule on a vehicle that has 150,000 miles is very different from one that has 50,000. If you don’t know that true odometer reading, it can cause you a lot of problems, not to mention a safety issue.”

A fraudster quickly can shave miles off a car as Josh Ingle of Atlanta Speedometer demonstrated with a 2009 Chevy HHR by taking 100,000 miles off in seconds.

“I’m going to go ahead and press my button and that’s going to enter the mileage and you’ll see how quickly the odometer changes,” he said. “That’s going to be a permanent, lasting reading. One, two three. That fast. There’s no digital trace unless you’ve got some type of documentation that shows you a different reading.”

The mileage adjustment added $3,000 of value to the car. To spot odometer fraud, make sure you get a vehicle history report like a CARFAX before you buy.

“There are all these mileage readings on a CARFAX report for vehicles,” Voss said. “You look at the last reading and see what it is and then see what’s on the dashboard right now. If there’s a discrepancy, if it’s lower than what was on the last reading, that should be a red flag to walk away.”

CARFAX also flags any cars that have inconsistent mileage.

Ingle said odometer rollback devices are fairly easy to get and fairly inexpensive, yet there are legitimate reasons a body shop would have the tool, such as repairing broken odometers.

Next, get an independent mechanic to inspect the car.

“A trained mechanic can see wear and tear,” Voss said. “They can see things you and I might not see.”

An inspection will cost about $100, but it can save you thousands in repairs.

“We’ve lost 100,000 miles on the car,” Ingle said of the 2009 Chevy HHR. “But my brake pedals are the same, my strut was the same, the engine was the same. None of that stuff has changed. That’s why, you know, you get in so much trouble and so many expenses because you do have that higher mileage car that you’re not really expecting stuff to break on yet.”

It is important to know exactly what you are buying so you can make an informed decision before purchasing. Also, take time to test drive any vehicle before you buy it.

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