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Shopping for a Used Car: Here’s an End-of-Year Checklist

It’s a great time to be shopping for a used car. Interest rates are still relatively low, and dealer lots are crammed with off-lease, late-model, low-mileage vehicles. Not to mention, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is historically when the biggest bargains can be found. It’s a used-car-buying perfect storm. But, of course, it’s the end of the year, and there are lots of other things to get in the way of your car shopping. The question is, how can you take advantage of this terrific used-car market along with running all your errands and completing all the chores that the year-end holidays require?

Autotrader has a few suggestions — a shopping checklist for used cars, if you will. It won’t magically provide you with extra time or help you grow an additional set of hands, but it will help you get organized to maximize your used-car-shopping effectiveness. Suit up. It’s game time.

Be Sure About What You Need

If you aren’t shopping for a specific classic car or some aspirational vehicle you’ve always wanted, you are probably shopping for an everyday driver. What do you want or need that car to do? Narrow its functions down to three or four main ones, such as getting to work, getting the kids to school, cruising the beach, towing a trailer or whatever. Once you have those functions in mind, decide which types of vehicles are best suited to complete those tasks. A minivan, a convertible, an SUV or whatever else might perform those core, must-do functions.

Do a Little Research in Those Vehicle Categories

Autotrader has plenty of comparison reviews, as well as past reviews on virtually every brand and model. There are other consumer websites out there with helpful reviews on older models, as well. Get a feel for the vehicle segments you need to shop.

Research the Current Average Transaction Price

You need to know what the used vehicles you are considering are currently selling for. Autotrader provides average transaction prices on specific models from Kelley Blue Book. Other consumer sites offer similar information. In negotiating a used-car deal, you need to know the ballpark transaction price.

Be Flexible

In any given vehicle segment, you should have more than one pick. If you can’t find your first choice among the current used-car offerings in your area, be prepared to consider a second or third choice. The deals are out there. You just need to be emotionally and mentally ready to pounce on them. You can only do that if you have researched and are comfortable with your pick.

Know Your Credit Worthiness

As with purchasing a new car, you need to know your current credit standing. Your credit score is a solid snapshot of where your credit stands at any given moment. You can obtain your score from the different credit-reporting agencies, such as Experian. Your bank may also provide your score. If you are going to finance your purchase, it will help you determine the interest rate for which you qualify. In fact, it’s always a good idea to be prequalified by a lender before entering into negotiations on a used (or new) vehicle. You should also make sure you know exactly how much you can borrow, too.

Line Up a Mechanic Ahead of Time

You should have someone qualified to check out any used car you are seriously considering. Negotiate ahead of time what an inspection includes and what it will cost. Part of this is acquiring a vehicle history report on the vehicle you are considering. There are several such services that offer this, such as and

Maximize the Test Drive

You’ll want to get the most out of the time you spend test-driving a vehicle that you are considering. Assemble a written checklist of things to inspect and look for. Check for those must-have features you can’t live without.

Don’t Forget to Check Out Certified Preowned (CPO) Vehicles in Your Area

You may get a better bargain buying directly from a private seller, but you’ll get more peace of mind buying CPO. These are low-mileage, factory-certified vehicles providing additional warranties and often other perks, such as special financing. Many manufacturers will also support leasing for CPOs.


The best deals may be at the end of the year, but you still need to do the work to take full advantage of what’s out there. A little time and sweat up front can translate into some big rewards when shopping for a used car this holiday season.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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