Buying a used car is similar in some ways to buying a new one, but it is very different in others. What’s the same is that you need to know what you want and you are looking for a good deal. From there, however, the approach takes quite a different turn. Winding up with a successful transaction and driving away in a mechanically sound vehicle where everything has been disclosed by the seller will be a lot more likely if you follow these top used car buying tips from the experts.
Narrow your choices. Even if you’ve decided on a particular make and model you want, experts recommend having a target vehicle list of three. These could be competitor vehicles to the one you really want, or they could be different body styles entirely. For example, you may be after a large four-door sedan but find that a crossover or a mid-size sedan will just as well suit your needs. Check the Other Choices section of every car review on The Car Connection for the vehicles we'd cross-shop, if you like.
Decide how much you’re willing to pay. Just as in shopping for a new car, you need to know what your budget is and how much you are willing to pay. Here is where having more than one vehicle in your target list may come in handy. If a car is popular, the seller may be asking more than you really want to pay. Going for a competitive make and model may bring the price more in line with your budget.
Arrange financing ahead of time. Whether you shop at the used car section of a new car dealership, an independent used car lot or a private party, the only way to close the deal is with cash, financing from a bank, credit union or online bank, or dealer financing, if available. By securing financing before going used car shopping, this is one hurdle already overcome and may help you get the car you want before someone else does.
When buying from a private party, call ahead. Combing through the used car listings online or in the paper, when you find a car or vehicles you’re interested in, call the seller to check on the mileage (or confirm what’s in the listing), get the vehicle identification number (VIN) so you can order a vehicle history report, and make an appointment to test drive the car.
Obtain the vehicle history report. Armed with the VIN, go to AutoCheck or Carfax and purchase a vehicle history report. This is a complete history of the vehicle that lists all owners, any accidents, violations and other information that’s vital for you to know in order to determine if this car merits a closer look.
Test drive the vehicle. Do a vehicle walk-around, checking to see any obvious signs of repair, misaligned doors, noting scratches, dings or other visible signs of damage or wear. Then go for a test drive that mirrors, if possible, the kind of driving you generally do. During the test drive, pay attention to how the vehicle fits. Is it comfortable? Is visibility good? Does it accelerate appropriately? How is braking and cornering? Any squeaks and rattles? Check roominess and comfort in the back seat as well as storage capacity.
Ask to see service records. This is to provide assurance that the car has been properly maintained during the seller’s ownership of the vehicle.
Have it inspected. If you like what you see so far, it is still important to have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic. While it may cost you in the area of $100, the expense is well worth it to give you peace of mind that the vehicle is as the seller purports it to be and you shouldn’t expect a major problem when you drive it away after the sale. If this is a certified pre-owned (CPO) car you buy at a dealership, you don’t need the inspection.
Negotiate the price. Before making an offer, know what buyers in the area have actually paid for such vehicles, using tools like the Edmunds True Market Value and Kelley Blue Book pricing (for private party, suggested dealer retail, CPO). Then make an offer to the seller, going low to begin with, but not unreasonably low. If you must go higher in price, do so in increments and know when you’ve reached your limit. Be willing to walk away. There are many more used cars out there. You don’t have to buy this one if you run into problems or feel uncomfortable with the deal.
Don’t forget insurance. Before you drive away the car, make sure to call your insurance agent and add it to your policy. This protects you the minute you become the new owner.
Complete the transaction. In a private party sale, you’ll likely pay in cash or by certified check. If buying from a dealer, you may go with financing you’ve already arranged. Before money changes hands, however, have the seller sign over the title to you. Be aware of the requirements in your state regarding licensing and registration, as they vary.