4 Tips For Buying A Used Car

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Used car poster.

Buying a car from a stranger may come with more worries than getting a hand-me-down from your parents.

After moving off campus, my son quickly got tired of begging for rides to do his laundry and grocery shopping. (Riding his bike in 6 inches of snow got a little old as well.)

So, we recently sold him one of our family’s cars. And while I received a lovely road trip out of the transaction, I also got to endure something much less enjoyable: the tedious process of buying another used car.

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I’ve had my share of misadventures buying cars. But with the cost of a car on top of college expenses, if you are thinking about buying one, you need to be sure you can realistically afford it. Figuring out where to start can be a challenge, but I have a plan that can help.

1. Shop In Your Own Garage First

You can save yourself a lot of time and aggravation by buying a car off your parents or grandparents. A hand-me-down may sound boring or look ugly, but you’ll have a great idea of the car’s history and its shortcomings. (After all, you may have had something to do with its wear and tear …) Your family members may also give you a great price and be flexible on repayment terms.

If there are no cars in your immediate circle of friends and family for sale, you will have to deal with total strangers to buy a car. This can be daunting, but it’s doable! Recruit your parents to help you through every step of the process, including estimating the ongoing monthly costs of ownership, like car insurance. Check on anticipated premiums with your family’s insurance agent.

2. Do Your Homework

It’s complicated to understand the value of a car—and therefore how much to pay for it. The blue book value is a good place to start, but you should also consider things like the model, mileage, CARFAX, overall condition, and ownership history.

It can pay to look at the overall reputation and reliability of the brand. You will probably spend more for a top-selling car, but then again, there is a reason why it’s so popular. Perhaps the maintenance costs are low, or the car can last for 200,000 or more miles.

Where the car is physically located also ties into its value. Having just given up two weekends driving far and wide to see various cars, I can tell you that buying close to home has value! On the other hand, you can save real money if you are able to expand your search geographically.

3. Figure Out What You Want

Buying a used car is like a lot of things in life: If you get 80% of what you want, you are doing just fine. List your “must haves” and “nice to haves.” Then, test-drive a lot of cars—and make notes immediately after seeing each one. It can all become a blur a few days later.

Once you have found a potentially good car (or a couple of them), ask the owner or dealer to let you take it to a garage of your choosing for a pre-sale inspection. If they won’t agree to that, run fast in the other direction—they may have something to hide.

4. Negotiate

If you still want the car after your pre-sale inspection, start negotiating. If the car has no significant issues, there may be little room to haggle, but you won’t know until you ask.

If you have major concerns, but still want the car, ask for a price you feel is appropriate given the car’s condition and your research. The seller may or may not meet your price. But if you are prepared to walk away, you are in a stronger position to negotiate.

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You will eventually find a good used car (hopefully one you’re not embarrassed to be seen in). But when you do, keep your bike for those times when you want to save some gas—and burn off some steam after class.

Got a tip for finding a good used car? Post it below.

(Photo: Ryan Bedford)

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  1. Thomas Horrall October 30, 2013 / 5:15 pm

    Nice article. One thing I would add is a car certified by the manufacturer through one of its dealers will take some worry out of buying a used car that may have issues. The warranty is generally quite good and the car will have been thoroughly checked according to the requirements of the manufacturer as neither dealer nor manufacturer wants to be on the hook for repairs under the warranty. The downsides are that only cars a few years old are generally available as certified, and one should expect to pay a slight premium over a similar car from an independent dealer or one operated by a dealer for a different brand than the car’s make. Many leased cars become available at the end of a 3 year lease so there is generally quite a bit of choice and competition available if one wants a car of that age.

  2. Sarah Barker October 31, 2013 / 1:45 pm

    Hi Tom,
    Thanks for writing! I agree – buying a pre-owned, certified car can alleviate a lot of the worry. Buying a used car can be a nerve racking ordeal!

  3. Designermirrortv November 1, 2013 / 7:35 am

    Good one. I like the tips you have mentioned here. When we we buy a used car there are certain things we should consider about. First we should know why we need to buy a vehicle, the purpose, the budget, and also you should think about the future.

  4. Sarah Barker November 4, 2013 / 9:41 am

    Thanks for your note. You are right – really thinking about whether you need a vehicle is key. Buying a car is just the beginning of the cost. Clearly, car ownership has an impact on budget which needs to be looked at before making a purchase decision.

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