Buying a used car can be an excellent option. It allows you to own a car that would otherwise be out of your budget, and if you know what you’re doing, there are some great deals to be found. However, there are many pitfalls too, so here is our guide to buying a used car.
1. Think about finance first
Before you even start looking at cars to buy, the first thing you need to do it to work out your finances. How are you going to pay? Can you pay up front? Or will you be taking out a loan? How much will your monthly payments be?
Don’t choose the numbers at random, work it out carefully – and when you know your budget, make sure you stick to it.
You need to know all this before you start looking because then you will be in a much stronger position when it comes to making a deal. If you know your budget, nobody will be able to pressure you into buying a car you can’t afford or don’t really want.
2. Know current prices
Once you know what your budget is, start looking at the kind of cars you are thinking of buying. Spend some time browsing online, take note of used cars on forecourts and generally try to get a feel for how much the kind of car you are interested in will cost.
This will mean that when you start to take an interest in a particular vehicle, you will have a much clearer idea of roughly how much you should be paying, and you will be on a firmer footing when it comes to haggling over prices. The Kelly Blue Book is a useful resource.
3. Check insurance premiums and other costs
When deciding which kind of car you want to look for, don’t think only about the up-front cost but also how much the car will cost you to run.
Check out the insurance premium for a particular model of car at a particular age and calculate whether it is something you will be able to afford.
Also, consider things like fuel efficiency. You might find a car that seems like a good deal – but if it turns out to be an unexpected gas-guzzler, it will quickly eat into your monthly budget.
4. Look for cars of the right age
One of the most important aspects of buying a used car is looking at cars of the right age. There is an old adage that you should “buy at three and sell at five”.
This is because the value of a new car depreciates faster in the first three years but its reliability drops off after five, meaning a three-year-old car often represents the best value.
However, don’t take this too literally or make it your “golden rule”. A car loses a lot of its value after only the first year but will probably still be in excellent condition. As a rule, cars in the one- to three-year bracket will represent the best deals.
On the other hand, you might be looking for something the lower price range. Buying an older used car is fine too – just make sure you understand what to look for, how to spot a good deal and what should turn you off buying a vehicle. Many of the points below are relevant here.
5. Know which cars are reliable
When buying a second-hand car, reliability is important. Certain models are known to be reliable cars that tend to last a long time, and if you choose one of these, you are less likely to have problems with it later on.
This is especially important when buying a used car since you can never know what kind of life the car had before it came to you.
6. Diesel or gasoline?
Understand the difference between gasoline and diesel cars. In general, cars that run on gasoline will be more efficient if you tend to use your car for shorter journeys, whereas diesel can be more economical for longer trips.
However, also bear in mind that due to environmental concerns, the future of diesel is uncertain. In the future, it may become much more difficult to sell on a diesel car and taxes may also rise. This will make it a poor long-term investment.
7. Check the vehicle’s history
Make sure you find out as much as you can about the history of the vehicle; some dealers will give this to you automatically, but with others, or from private sellers, you will have to look it up yourself. You can order a report from Carfax or AutoCheck. Another resource is vehiclehistory.gov.
This will alert you to the possibility of somebody having altered the odometer or may reveal undeclared damage from floods etc. You may also discover that a vehicle has been rebuilt or has been issued with a salvage title after being written off.
In short, do as much homework about the car as you can and try to find out as much about its history, previous owners and maintenance record as possible.
8. Check the car in daylight and good weather
When you look the car over, make sure you do it during the day and in good weather conditions. Checking a car at night by torchlight or even on an overcast day when the light conditions are less than perfect is a sure way to miss things that you would otherwise have noticed.
If somebody seems insistent on only showing you the car at night, this could be something that arouses your suspicions.
Also, pay careful attention to any scrapes, dents or – especially – rust. Once rust sets in, it’s very hard to reverse.
9. Test drive the car – and know how to do a proper test drive
It almost goes without saying that you should never buy a car without taking it for a test drive. However, a quick spin around the block isn’t enough – you need to know how to do a proper test drive and what to look for.
First, start the car from cold and let the engine warm up. Does it start first time, or does it take several attempts? Does the electric cooling fan kick in properly? Does it make any strange noises?
Next, start the test drive itself. Methodically test all the gears, the brakes, the steering, the pedals and the suspension. Does it drive well? Does it pull to one side? Does it brake evenly? Does it rattle or make any other strange noises? Does it smoke?
By preparing a list and checking each point systematically during the test drive, you will make sure you don’t miss anything. If you don’t do this and just go by your “feeling”, you are not doing a proper test drive.
10. Understand mileage
One of the most obvious things to check is the mileage, and the first thing to consider is if the odometer has been tampered with. This can be difficult to spot but there are tell-tale signs you can look for.
Does the mileage tally with the age of the vehicle, the number of owners it has had and any other information you have about the car? Do the numbers line up properly or are they slightly off?
Is the steering wheel or gearstick shiny or do they show other evidence of excessive wear? How about the seatbelt?
Remember that digital odometers can easy be changed electronically, so you shouldn’t necessarily trust it any more than an old-fashioned one.
Another point about mileage is to know a little more about how it works. A car with lower mileage but that has been used primarily for short trips about town may actually be in a worse condition that a company car that has been used for longer journeys and has been cared for and serviced regularly.
With this in mind, finding a car with a higher number of miles on the clock but that has done the right kind of miles could be a way of uncovering a bargain.
11. Check electronics, the air-conditioning and the interior of the car
Check the electronics and make sure no lights stay lit up on the dash when starting the car. If they do, it might suggest some expensive work will be required in the near future. Even check that things like the Bluetooth work correctly. It might not be a deal-breaker, but it may help when haggling.
Equally, make sure you check the A/C. When was it last serviced? Does it function correctly? It can be easy to forget something like A/C because it isn’t related to the way the car actually drives – but it can be very expensive to fix if it breaks down.
While you are inside, check for wear and tear on the seats and everything else. Cigarette burns, worn out upholstery and so on can also cost a lot to fix
12. Check tires
Check the tires carefully. Make sure they have plenty of tread left since buying four new tires is likely to set you back quite a lot after you have paid for the vehicle.
Also, look for patterns of wear. If they are not new, you can expect a certain amount of wear on the tires, but is the wear even? If not, it might indicate poorly aligned tracking – but it could also be a symptom of something more serious, like a car that has been patched together after an accident.
13. Consider having it checked by a professional
Modern cars are increasingly complicated and computerized, and whereas in the past, anyone with a bit of decent mechanical knowledge could check a car for themselves, nowadays it is becoming more and more difficult.
If you are buying a higher-end used car, it may well be advisable to swallow your mechanical pride and call in an expert. They will be able to give you a professional assessment of the condition of the car and will also provide a written report on which to base your decision.
This might be a more expensive option than simply having a look under the hood yourself, but paying $100 now might save you thousands further down the line.
14. Check that everything is included
When buying a used car, it is natural to focus on the big things, but the little things are important too. Make sure there is a spare key, spare wheel, jack, relevant tools, handbook etc.
Although these things might not be at the top of your list, if you don’t factor them in when buying a used car and only realize later, they can cause costs to mount unexpectedly. For example, having a new key made for a modern car or buying a spare wheel and tire can work out pretty expensive.
15. Conclude the deal and pay
Once you are satisfied that the car is within your means and there is nothing wrong with it, you need to agree on a price. Having previously done your homework on the price of similar cars, you should know where you stand.
Remember that the stated asking price is always higher than what a seller expects to receive for a vehicle, and that is true whether it is a private individual or a car dealership.
Having checked the car carefully and thoroughly, use any defects or problems that you may have spotted as bargaining chips to help bring the price down. When you offer a price, start low and work up. This, after all, is the art of haggling.
Once you reached a price you both agree on, you need to finalize the deal.
Even if you have a pre-arranged loan, a dealership may offer you a better one – there is nothing wrong with looking into this. If buying from an individual, check if there is an unpaid loan on the vehicle and how to close it.
Be aware of your rights; laws vary from state to state. When buying from a car dealer, you will generally have some protection if anything goes wrong.
However, unless you have written guarantees, if you have problems after buying from a private seller, sometimes your options will be limited.
Lower the risks by preparing properly
Buying a used car can be a nerve-wracking experience since you never know if someone is trying to trick you. However, as long as you are methodical and well-prepared and know exactly what to check for, you can minimize the risks involved even if you can’t eliminate it altogether.