Buying used can get you a great car for significantly less money. But they come with significant risks as well. How to choose a used car—without getting taken for a ride.
There are a lot of advantages to buying a used car, rather than a new one. Price is an obvious benefit. Used cars can be a lot cheaper than new cars, and thus keep you from having a monthly payment.
But how you choose used car can make all the difference. Choose the right car, and you can save a fortune over a new car. Choose the wrong one, and that brand new car will look like a bargain in hindsight.
There are strategies to use to choose a used car.
1. Find out the market value
This should be the first step in your used-car-buying process. You should have at least a ballpark idea of the value of any car you are seriously considering.
Kelly Blue Book and Edmunds.com have online tools that will enable you to get the value of just about any car. You will first have to get as many details about the car as possible. This will include make, model, year, mileage, options, and overall condition. The more information you can furnish, the closer you will come to the car’s actual value.
That value should be your starting point in any negotiation. It can also indicate how anxious the seller is to sell the car. For example, if the sale price is too high, the seller’s probably not motivated. But if it’s accurately priced—or price below-market value—you may be onto a good deal.
2. Carefully inspect the car
The condition of the car is a major indication of value. A well-maintained vehicle will be near the top of the value spectrum, while a poorly maintained one can be worth thousands less.
Pay particular attention to the following:
Make sure that the car is a comfortable fit. Check both the front and rear seats.
Carefully inspect every inch of the car. In the interior, inspect all of the seats, the floors, the doors, and the ceiling. Are there tears or stains? On the exterior, carefully inspect the paint job, the trim, and the bumpers. Are there any major scratches, dents, or evidence of repair? Also look at the car lights, the tires, and the muffler. Age or deferred maintenance will be obvious.
Take a nice, long whiff of the car. Some smells, like cigarette smoke and mildew, can be particularly difficult to remove. But the smell of burning oil or burning gas are much more serious, as they can indicate deep engine problems. Test them after the car has been running for a while.
Inspect the engine. A dirty engine can be an indication of poor maintenance. Check to see if there is oil on the engine. This could indicate leaks—or worse. Cracks or tired-looking hoses and belts can be an expensive fix, and another indication of poor maintenance.
3. Do a serious test drive
This isn’t just about driving the car see how you like it. While you are driving, you need to do a serious evaluation, particularly of all the “little things.” They can include:
Do a thorough check on the car’s amenities. Are they what you want? Power seats, steering, and windows? Are they working properly?
Check out the sound system. Does it meet your expectations? Or will you be constantly annoyed that it’s just not good enough?.
Test both the heat and the air conditioning. It may not seem important to test the heat on a sunny day in June, but come January, you’ll be thankful you did.
Carefully inspect if any warning lights are on or flashing. Don’t presume they don’t mean anything. Follow up with the owner or dealer about any required maintenance.
How does the car handle? Test it under high stress situations, such as stop and go, high speed, low speed, sudden acceleration/deceleration, hard turns and sudden stops. Make sure you get the car up to at least 55 miles an hour. Some things, like a bent rim, won’t be noticeable at lower speeds. Once you hit 55 or 60, it’ll be obvious something is off.
Listen carefully to the engine. A smooth hum is a good sound; sputtering or knocking can indicate serious problems.
Check the brakes repeatedly. Listen for sounds of squeaking, grinding, or metal-on-metal.
Pay particularly close attention to how the car shifts. Does it do so smoothly, or is their hesitation? (Could indicate a transmission problem.)
Watch the exhaust. Smoke can be an indication of a problem, and blue or white smoke can be an indication of a big problem.
4. Get the car checked out by a mechanic
Think of it as similar to a home inspection performed on a house you’re about to buy. You should have the car thoroughly inspected by mechanic.
This is sometimes referred to as a pre-purchase inspection, and it can cost $100 or more. But it’s money well spent, if it enables you to avoid buying a car with serious problems.
Whatever you do, do not rely on the seller’s representations, or recommendations by his or her mechanic.
5. Get the repair history on the car
You can order this through Carfax but you’ll need both the license plate number and vehicle identification (VIN) number in order to do it.
A pattern of well-spaced repairs can be an indication of a well-maintained vehicle.
However, frequent repairs, particularly for the same malfunction, could be an indication of a serious problem. It could even be the reason why the seller wants to get rid of the car.