Buying CPO: Bridging the Gap Between New and Used

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

The answers to these and many other important questions aren't always easy to come by, yet they're directly linked to your overall satisfaction.

You can peek under the hood and go for an exhaustive test drive, but you'll form your lasting impression of a vehicle over a period of months, not hours. Of course, no one has that luxury when shopping for a vehicle, but that fact should illustrate the point that it's necessary to do everything possible to bolster your confidence in your big purchase.

To date, millions of shoppers have accomplished that goal by looking into Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicles. CPO is now a legitimate alternative to buying new or used, and it offers many of the best features of each.

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, which is measured by the number of inspected points. Most 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, in particular for luxury brands or vehicle segments that shoppers wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise. Although the luxury brands are most popular, 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, 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 as you would when shopping for any used car, such as obtaining a Vehicle History Report from CARFAX. Know up front if the car has ever been in an accident or reported stolen, salvaged or damaged.

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 service at many 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. This list will 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 under 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 shuttle service, basic vehicle maintenance, loaner cars or even all of the above. 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.