Buying AdviceHow-Tos

How to buy a used car


Buying a car is fun. Buying a used car is real fun. The thrill of the hunt. Chasing leads, digging through piles of mediocrity in online classifieds. In truth, spending many thousands of your hard-earned dollars on a used car is all kinds of stressful. Best case, you wind up with a well maintained, broken in car which lasts for years. Worst case, you inherit someone else’s neglected pile of rust, which lasts for days. A lemon.

There are some basic things to do when buying a used car. Having ignored many of these in the past myself, learn from those mistakes. The next time you’re looking to spend hard earned cash on a used car, these things should help you avoid buying someone else’s problems.

Pick your top three

Once you know the kind of vehicle you want, pick your top two or three favorites from the group. To help narrow down your search, use the internet to narrow down the best in class. Visit the IIHS and NHTSA pages, and sort by type. Make sure your short list is also on their short list. Reliability is important in the long term, so take a look at sites like TrueDelta. They organize by type as well, giving you quick visual cues as to which car is going to last, and which one will make your local mechanic very happy. This is true even if you have a specific vehicle model in mind. Check out the crash and reliability ratings, and see which model years score the best.

Buying from a private owner

Thanks to sites like Craigslist and Kijiji, more people are buying used cars direct from their owners. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it adds risk. Ask the seller how many owners the car has had. Less is better, and one is best. Check for maintenance records and history. Maintenance intervals are often posted online by manufacturers. Someone who cares for their car likely has maintained it. Look for cars which already have safety certificates. Otherwise, you’re buying a mystery. Most importantly: If the price seems too good to be true, it is. There’s always a catch; a hidden accident or money wire scam.

Buying from a dealer

If the used car sits on a dealer lot, do some online digging before you buy. Check how the dealer ranks on sites like Google or DealerRater. Dealers who interact with customer reviews are even better. A good indicator of how reputable a dealer is sits right on their lot. Dealers with old inventory aren’t selling things. That could be a sign of bad history, bad products, or a combination. Your state or province may have a used car dealer association. Check for membership. It’s not guaranteeing anything, but it does mean the dealer could be subject to standards, or fines for missing those standards. The bar may be low, but at least there’s a bar.

Check the history

If you can, set out to get as much vehicle history as you can before viewing. It might take some doing, but most dealers will provide you with Carproof or Carfax reports if you ask them. It’s worth requiring that they do. Check the VIN for recalls at NHSTA, or at the vehicle’s manufacturer site. They should report any outstanding recall repairs.

The test drive

No brainer: check the car out in person before you buy. Only view cars during the day, in sunlight if possible. Light can reveal all sorts of blemishes and bumps. Do a good look for rust. Common places are fenders, side panels, along the bottom of doors, trunk lids, leading edges of hood and roof. Paint bubbles are a warning sign of hidden rust. Get dirty, on your belly, and take a look under the car. Be sure to get a good look at the engine bay, look past the dirt, checking for obvious leaks or worn hoses and belts. Take a peek at the spare tire. Make sure all the features – radio, power options, locks etc – work. Problems are like cockroaches: if you hear or find one, there are six or more you didn’t see.

Lastly, give your mechanic a call. If you don’t have a regular one, ask around. When you book the test drive, let them know you’ll be taking it for a quick inspection. Make sure your mechanic has the time during the test, but never buy something that hasn’t had a look over. If the dealer/seller refuses, walk away. Something is being hidden.

The buy

Negotiate. Don’t pay asking. With private sales, this is a bit harder as some owners may have sentimental value attached to the car. Come armed with online comparables, but make the offer fair. With dealers, there is no emotional attachment. Never feel guilty making a reasonable below price offer. They paid a low price for the trade in or auction. Dealer cars are often priced at or just above the top range, hoping to sell to someone at sticker. Rule of thumb: sticker prices are for suckers.

TL:DR (Too long. Didn’t read)

Have a short list. Do your homework: reliability, safety rating and recalls. Know what you want before you visit the dealer/owner. Test drive during the day. Look over everything for rust. Check the spare. Make sure stuff works. Maintenance history, accident history or no buy. Have a trusted mechanic check it out. Lastly, never offer asking.

Now you’re buying lemon free.

Dan Croutch
the authorDan Croutch
Dan is a freelance automotive and technology writer. He enjoys all things pickup trucks, classic cars, and minivans (really). The intersection of vehicles and technology fascinate him.

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