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CarMax’s Rebecca Sckrabulis: First-time car buyers must scrutinize financing options

Since 1997, Rebecca Sckrabulis has been helping people buy and sell cars through CarMax, a chain of new- and used-car superstores. She spent more than 12 years as general manager of a CarMax store in Illinois. Now, Sckrabulis is a sales development leader for the Chicago region, where she oversees sales training programs for CarMax. recently spoke with Sckrabulis to get some tips on buying and selling a car.

In a recent CarMax survey, quality was shown to be the the No. 1 factor in buying a car —how would you advise a consumer to determine a vehicle’s quality?

First of all, do some research before you go (to buy a car). A quality vehicle in the used market will use the term “certified.” A certified vehicle can be considered a better-quality vehicle. The tricky part is there’s nothing that regulates the word “certified.” So it can mean anything from putting the car through a car wash to a certified program like CarMax has. There are over 25 points that we go through, it’s in writing and our customer can see it. If you’re looking for a great, quality vehicle and (the dealers are) saying the vehicle is certified, find out what that means.

If it’s a high-quality vehicle, then wherever you’re purchasing it should offer some kind of warranty and guarantee with it. Federal law mandates that if a dealer is offering a warranty or guarantee that they have to show it to you and they have to have copies of it. So if they’re offering a 30-day warranty, get a copy of it.

What tips do you have for first-time car buyers?

Most of the time, a car is worth what people are willing to pay for it, and there’s usually a range. So the first thing is understanding what the value of the vehicle is. You can go on the CarMax website and see how cars are priced and also review that on other websites like, or No two used cars are the same, soyou’re going to get a range.

The second thing is understanding what your financing options are. Automatically, (first-time car buyers) are a higher risk for the lender because they don’t have a proven installment credit history. While you can get a great deal on the vehicle, if you end up paying too much money in interest, you run the risk of putting yourself into a payment that you won’t be able to meet. I tell first-time car buyers that it’s OK to have a co-signer on your first vehicle. You’re still earning that credit equally. My recommendation is don’t be afraid to ask for help. The person who is co-signing on that loan with you can cause you to have a lower interest rate.

When is the best time of year and best time of month to shop for a car?You hear people say that the best time to buy a car is at the end of the month because (dealers are) trying to make their month-end numbers. I don’t see that. The reason people buy cars is that there’s a necessity. Whether it’s spring, summer or fall, I don’t think there’s ever a better time to buy a car.

How does CarMax determine how much it will pay for your vehicle?

We have our appraisers and certified buyers who are highly trained and are out in the market every single day. Not only are they appraising thousands of vehicles across the country every day in the CarMax stores, they’re also on-site supplementing that information and going to wholesale auctions. That way, we know exactly what the market is doing so we can offer the most for your car.

Are there any questions customers should ask when it comes to buying a pre-owned “certified” vehicle?

Ask for a list of what the dealer checks. Can they prove it to you? Is there a formalized program? Ask what work they’ve done to the vehicle and what’s going to be warrantied afterward.

Is there anything consumers should keep in mind when it comes to buying a warranty?

There’s a difference between a warranty and what I’ll call an extended service plan. A warranty usually is something (dealers) offer, and there’s no additional cost. It comes with the buyer’s guide —which is a federally mandated sticker you see on the window. Sometimes that will say “as is.” When it says that, it means you roll the car off the lot and it’s yours — they’re not backing it up. But if the warranty box is checked, it should tell you specifically, in writing, what the warranty includes and how long it is.

A guarantee or extended service plan usually comes as an extra cost. Those can vary. Most of them are underwritten by different companies, and there can be a wide variety. It’s often a way for dealers to make extra money.

What’s the general rule when it comes to how much mileage a used car should have?

The rule of thumb is the average consumer drives 12,000 to 15,000 miles a year. If it’s a 2-year-old car and it has 24,000 to 30,000 miles on it, that would be consistent driving. Anything less would be better. Anything more would tell you this car has been driven more than the average, which can mean that things get worn out sooner and you may need to replace some parts sooner.

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