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Should Mike save a few bucks and go for a hail-damaged car, or will he be buying a dent-plagued nightmare? Find out.

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Dear Tom and Ray:



I'm a college student in a small Podunk town in Minnesota. Recently, we were "blessed" with a hailstorm like none other, and the damage to the cars here can only be described as impressive. I've been postponing buying a car as long as possible, but I need to get one within three months. I want to buy a used car. Here's my question: A friend told me that if I want a car cheap, I should shop around for sales on hail-damaged cars. I don't care what the car looks like, but I do want to know if there are any risks to buying a hail-damaged car. What should I look for, what should I be careful of, and how much money should I expect to be knocked off the normal price? -- Michael

RAY: Well, if you really don't care what the car looks like, Michael, you might want to have a look at one of my brother's beauties.

TOM: Actually, it's a great idea, Michael. Hail damage is almost entirely cosmetic. I mean, if it breaks or damages a window, obviously that should be fixed. But other than that, it's just dents and maybe paint damage.

RAY: Over time, if the paint is actually chipped or broken in some spots, that can lead to rust. But that's not an immediate danger. And it's something you can address yourself -- you can learn how to sand down those spots and prime them if and when rust becomes an issue.

TOM: And since you don't care how it looks, you can repaint it with a roller and a gallon of Sears Weatherbeater!

RAY: I actually think all cars should COME pre-damaged. If the side of your car looked like it had been in a hailstorm, would you care if someone dinged your door in a parking lot, or if your kid's bicycle scratched the paint? It would be very liberating.

TOM: Plus, you'll save money on the purchase price, because most people want pretty cars. While some hail-damaged cars can be repaired pretty cheaply with "paintless dent removal" systems (think "bathroom plunger"), more serious hail damage can cost thousands to fix. Dozens, or hundreds, of dents have to be pounded out or filled in individually, and then the whole car has to be sanded and repainted.

RAY: To find out how much that would cost the seller, arrange to take the car to a body shop before you buy it in order to get an estimate. You won't get quite that much off, because otherwise, the seller would just fix it himself. But you can ask for, say, half or two-thirds of that off. Then don't fix it. You'll be the only guy in Podunk who can play Chinese checkers on the hood of his car.

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