Buying a used car is something of a misnomer—sure, the car is used, but it’s new to you, and most buyers are looking for an automobile they can rely on for years to come.
The decision demands thorough financial consideration, especially if you’re on a tight budget. Before you go shopping, keep these four tips in mind.
1. Find the car that fits your budget.
Educate yourself about the different types of automobiles—from compact cars to sensible sedans to ecofriendly hybrids—and then investigate the models that are available in each category and at the price point you’re able to afford. Kelley Blue Book, which tracks used car values, maintains a searchable database to help you find approximate used car prices based on make, model and year. As you’re determining your budget, be sure to account for the potential trade-in value of your current car.
2. Plan a day of dealer visits.
As tempting as it might be to take a chance on that Craigslist posting, it might not be a better deal compared to what you’ll get from a reputable retail dealership.
“The biggest risk is that the majority of fraud cases are through private sellers,” says Chris Basso, public relations manager for Carfax, which gathers and publishes vehicle history reports. “What you buy is what you get, and that’s why it’s so important that [you do] your research before you lay down your hard-earned money.”
Most automobile manufacturers have a certified pre-owned vehicle program, which allows dealerships to become certified to resell the manufacturer’s product line. More than 90 percent of all certified pre-owned dealerships offer a free Carfax report, which contains a wealth of information on the vehicle’s history. Many dealerships are able to offer warranties or other coverage as part of this certification.
3. Get up close and personal with the car.
It’s the moment of truth: You’re standing in front of the car, and the sales agent is dangling the keys in front of you. Before you grab those keys, you have to do a little work. First, get down on your hands and knees and inspect every bit of the car’s physical exterior. Look for uneven tires, lumpy paint, poorly patched panels or anything else that could indicate a serious problem that’s been covered up.
After this, it’s time for the test drive. Drive normally, but make sure you get a chance to rev the engine up to at least 35 mph. Test the brakes, keep an eye on the warning lights and pay attention to little things like seat comfort.
4. Stop in and see the mechanic.
Up next is a visit to a trusted, independent mechanic of your choosing. Alarm bells should be going off if the seller—either a dealership or a private individual—won’t let you take the car off-site for a thorough inspection.
“The mechanic’s inspection is key because there are some things that just aren’t reported to anybody,” Basso says. “The trained eye of a mechanic or body shop expert can pick up on those prior signs of damage or repair.”
During this step, you’ll also want to request a report using the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). All sorts of data are connected to the VIN, from collisions to previous owners to salvage certificates. Some companies, like Carfax, offer an enhanced report that bundles even more information on the car’s history.
After that, it’s decision time. Is this the car you can see yourself driving for years to come? Are you getting the best possible deal on your trade-in, if you have one? Do you feel comfortable with how the dealership treated you during the negotiation process? If the answers are yes, then you’re all set to drive off with your new (used) car.