The car buying process is loaded with questions: Which car will satisfy all your wants and needs? Is there a warranty? And what's really going on under the hood?

You can do online research, peek under the hood and go for an exhaustive test drive, but your impression of a vehicle is really formed over months and years of ownership--not hours of research. Of course, you can't do months of testing when shopping for a vehicle, but you can do everything possible to bolster your confidence in your big purchase.

To date, millions of shoppers have accomplished that goal by choosing Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicles. Certified cars offers many of the best features of new and used cars.

What does CPO mean?

To be eligible for CPO status, vehicles generally must be recent models with relatively low mileage. All CPO vehicles must also pass a detailed inspection, outlined by the manufacturer. Most certified inspections are similar, but the number of points can vary based on the manufacturer's definitions (for example, whether tires count as one point or four).

The option of buying certified has been gaining popularity for years, particularly for more expensive vehicles that shoppers might not have been able to afford when new. Although the luxury brands are the most popular certified cars, a lower price is a benefit for any CPO vehicle, since the value of a vehicle depreciates more during its first year than in any other. The number of Certified buyers has grown steadily in recent years, and nearly every automotive manufacturer now has a CPO program in place.

If you'd like to broaden your search beyond CPO, please see our other buying guides for information on how to research new cars, or shop smarter for used ones.

Even though it's CPO, research is still key.

There's no industry standard for what makes a CPO vehicle, so it's important to keep in mind that all CPO programs are not created equal. First of all, different manufacturers have different age and mileage eligibility requirements for their CPO programs. Each manufacturer also does things a little differently when it comes to the extended warranty and other new-car perks such as roadside assistance or special financing options. To find out the details of your favorite manufacturer's CPO program and compare the features and benefits of up to three manufacturers side-by-side, check out our CPO Program Comparison Tool.

That's just one of the tools you should use to help you make your decision. Buying a CPO vehicle eliminates some of the uncertainty of buying used, but you still need to do your homework and ask the important questions to ensure you're getting the best car at the best price. Your safest bet is to follow many of the same steps you' would use when shopping for any used car, such as obtaining a comprehensive Vehicle History Reports from CARFAX. A one-time fee will allow you to get CARFAX Reports on an unlimited number of cars, as well as model-specific Safety and Reliability Reports. A Vehicle History Report tells you if a vehicle has ever been totaled, flooded or stolen, if its odometer has been tampered with, and plenty of other useful facts that must check out for you to proceed with a purchase.

Here are a few of the most important questions you should keep in mind while shopping certified:

Who's doing the certification?

Some dealerships also offer their own certification, although manufacturers typically offer better warranties and perform more stringent inspections. And should something go wrong, manufacturer warranties will cover repairs at many different locations, instead of just one.

Can you review the inspection list without any issue?

Each vehicle must go through a specific point-by-point inspection. The number of items in the list help indicate the thoroughness of the inspection and whether any repairs or maintenance work were required to bring the vehicle up to CPO condition.

Does the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the inspection report match the one on the vehicle itself?

The VIN is a series of 17 characters commonly displayed on the driver's side of the dash (viewable through the windshield). The VIN may also be located the front of the engine block, or in various other places depending on the particular model.

Is the vehicle still covered by the new car warranty?

And if so, will that transfer with ownership? Some programs allow you to finish the current warranty before the new one begins.

How comprehensive is the extended warranty?

How long does it last, and what's covered? Is it transferable? CPO programs offer warranties for a certain number of years or miles (whichever comes first), but there's great variability in the most crucial details.

What about other incentives?

In addition to special financing options and free roadside assistance, many programs offer free shuttles or loaner cars when your car is being serviced, basic vehicle maintenance and more. Find out what's available to you.

Who'll provide service for your car?

Will you be locked into receiving service at a particular location? If the warranty will be honored at various locations, see if any limitations apply.

Is there a return policy?

If you're not happy with your purchase, can you bring it back? If so, for how long? Policies vary, so check to see whether you'll receive a full refund, including sales tax and title fees.

Is the price right for what you're getting?

It costs a certain amount of money to certify a vehicle, but you can negotiate as you would with any other car. Going in, it's a good idea to research resale values for the model you want.

Finally, make sure everything you've been promised is clear, in writing. When you finally have the most important information--your extended warranty details, point-by-point inspection report, and other key documents--you'll be more confident in the purchase, knowing that the new vehicle comes with built-in peace of mind.

Now that you know what buying CPO has to offer, compare the benefits of CPO programs or browse the CPO listings on AutoTrader.com.

author photo

Brian Moody heads up the AutoTrader.com editorial team. An automotive writer and presenter for more than 12 years, he's contributed to such media outlets as CNBC, Edmunds.com, Fox Business, Speed TV and The Today Show.

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