How To Buy a Used Car

Buying a used car

I often look at new car prices and my guts start wrenching. $30,000 here, $60,000 there, $12,000 for a Chevy Aveo. I can’t help but wonder, “seriously?” Why buy new when the price of the car is going to depreciate as much as 30% when driving it off of the lot? Then you have to pay for maintenance, tires, full insurance (cause it’s new), and what  other accessories you need to have while you’re paying it off. The simple solution is buy used.

Keep in Mind

The question you have to ask first when buying a used vehicle is what do you have budgeted for a vehicle? Keep in mind $1,000 is a minimum that you should have in reserve for repairs on the car the day after you purchase it, for any used car of any age. If can only spend around $5,000 then you should consider looking at cars costing $4,000. This can save you a lot of heartache in the end.  If you can afford a used car that is still under factory warranty that is usually the best way to go. If you have problems with the car, it is covered. But, most of us can’t afford those either (myself included).

Do Your Research

Look for a vehicle based on function for your needs not necessarily by a specific manufacturer. I know, Toyota, Ford, Honda, etc. is all you’ll ever get, but every manufacture has vehicles that have more problems than others in their line-up. This is why it is important to do your research. Let’s say you are looking for a small SUV, there are a ton of manufacturers that produce compact SUVs. Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan, Subaru, Ford, GM, and on and on. But there are ones that have better maintenance and durability than others, so keep your options open. Select a few that you like out of the group and find out which ones have been the most reliable.

The Important First Question
Regardless of where you are buying from a dealer or private party, ask about the title.  You’ll probably get weird looks from the dealer but it is important.  This goes for all vehicle titles, check to make sure it is not a salvage title or restored salvage title.  If the title is salvage it is in your best interest to walk away even if it is a “killer deal”.  A salvage title usually means the vehicle has been in an accident and even the insurance company didn’t feel the vehicle was worth repairing or saving. There are exceptions to this rule, especially for motorcycles, but for the average person, buying a salvage title vehicle is a bad idea. Salvage title vehicles are for mechanics, race car drivers, and do-it-your-selfers, not the regular working man or woman who needs a dependable and safe vehicle.

Buying at a Dealer?

Alright, so you’ve got a car you’re interested in and it is at a dealer. There is good and bad when buying at a Dealer. The good is you can usually get them to repair or knock money off the price of the vehicle for problems found. Secondly they are not likely to sell you a vehicle with a Salvage Title (Assuming you go to a reputable place.). But here is the bad, you have to pay sales tax on what you get from a dealer. Secondly, the haggling and hassling of a dealer is tough, especially if you’re trading your car in. The important thing to remember is to know what you want to pay for the car, know the fair value of the vehicle and your trade-in, and if they are unwilling to give in to your price, walk away. This is why you need to have options, you might not get the first car you see or you like.

Buying Private Party?

I have purchased every vehicle I have ever owned from private parties.  There are a lot of people who like to take advantage of others so be prepared to walk away from a vehicle at anytime.  Start by calling up the person and asking about the Title.  The title should be free and clear but if it has a lien on it and the vehicle is paid off it needs to have a lien release with it.  Some titles are bank owned and have to get transferred over by the bank and seller.

Next ask if it has ever been in an accident.  Some vehicles have been in accidents and still have good titles.  For the most part you don’t want to by a car that has been in an accident.  A fender bender or dings doesn’t count, I’m talking major frame components moving.  Finally ask about mileage, maintenance of the vehicle, and find out if it is in good working order.

If after all of this and you feel comfortable with the car, set up a time to take the car for a test drive.  Remember, be ready to move onto another vehicle if you don’t like what you hear.  Keeping these steps in mind can save you valuable time in the long run and a lot of heartache in the end.

photo from flickr user mhashi


#1 Bruce McIntire on 12.08.08 at 2:05 am

Great post. I will read your posts frequently. Added you to the RSS reader.

#2 Allen on 12.08.08 at 12:07 pm


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