Not every used car bargain is a one-owner, low-mile car that was always garaged except for when a little old lady drove it to church on Sundays. But if you’re creative and look a little off the beaten path, you can find some pleasant surprises.
Competitor-brand dealers. Manufacturers love "conquests," their term for customers lured from a competing brand to their own. But that used BMW on an Audi lot, for example, occupies a spot that could otherwise feature a used Audi. With it comes the potential for a used-car buyer to become loyal to another brand. Prices for these orphans can be very attractive in hopes they’ll quietly go away.
Luxury cars. Late-model luxury cars house amazing technology, often surprising road composure and comfort features that rival a spa, if a spa could silently whisk occupants at high speed without breaking a sweat. What luxury cars don’t manage well is hold their resale value. Give the first owner a few years, and once the lease is over or the car is traded, you can have a like-new flagship at a fraction of its original sticker price.
Concierge. Car-buying services are still emerging, but a car concierge can save you thousands, even after the fee. If you know you want a particular car but haven’t the time or patience to visit multiple dealers, these folks will essentially take your order and do the legwork for you. They have the experience and resources to find what you want but also do the heavy lifting of hard-nosed negotiating and even coordinate delivery.
Catch-up miles. Some people have long commutes. When they trade in, the miles can be higher but they will often be maintained very well. They don’t take chances skipping repairs and risk being stranded an hour from anywhere. Even so, a well-traveled car, even just a couple years old, can’t command a middle-of-the-road asking price. So if you’re one to drive lower than average miles, this can be an opportunity. You’ll drive catch-up miles, so to speak. Time will naturally even things out.
Remote dealers. Like competitor-brand dealers, dealers in outlying areas can be perfectly happy to deal on cars that clash with the rest of the inventory and basically amount to conflicts of interest. A rural lot dominated by 4x4s won’t miss the stray Prius that was traded in, as a radical example.
Fleets. Companies don’t maintain fleets in the numbers they used to, but they still exist. So too do they as a great used-car source. Typically these are mid- to full-size domestic cars used by district managers, salespeople or employees traveling for business. What they lack in pizazz they deliver in thorough and well-documented maintenance. Employees generally get first crack and at better prices than the general public, but check with friends at these companies or even the fleet managers themselves.
Government auctions. This does not echo the late-night television ads promising drug-bust Ferraris for pennies on the dollar. It’s not a tip for buying retired police cruisers, either. State and local government agencies, like the aforementioned companies, run fleets of vehicles for day-to-day operations. When their time is up, the auctions begin. The manner in which they are conducted can be a traditional on-site event or even eBay style, with online bidding and a deadline. Again, nothing too snazzy here, but the prices can be appealing, the miles are usually gentle and they’re supported with good maintenance.
Last-generation models. Some products are so thoroughly redesigned that they bury interest in and resale values of their predecessors. It doesn’t just happen with smartphones, it’s a fact of life with cars. Some will find it unfashionable and unthinkable to drive anything but the newest model, and if you’re less than completely wrapped up in the hype, you can find a used car bargain in these.
Repossessions. Foreclosed houses have been popular with buyers who will accept some rehabbing for attractive prices, you can have it in a vehicle as well. Like the properties, the cars may not have benefited from perfect upkeep when things got grim, so be aware when you look to lenders for these cars.
Mechanic’s lien. Regulations and requirements vary, but under certain circumstances a shop can take ownership of a customer’s car when the bill goes unpaid. It takes a while, and it takes plenty of effort on the shop’s part. But when it happens, the last thing the shop owner wants is to see that car hanging around even longer. Prices for these can be as low as the shop has into them for repairs, plus some consideration for the time and effort they spent securing ownership.
Salvage auctions. You usually have to be a licensed car dealer or salvage dealer to bid and buy from vendors like Copart, but the national auto salvage chain does also list vehicles for which no license is required. What’s more, some of these are anything but smashed; they can be donated vehicles or hail-damaged vehicles than are mechanically sound.