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Used Car Buying Guide

When it comes time to make any major purchase, most buyers are interested primarily interested in one thing: getting the most for their money. This is especially true when it comes to used cars, where there is no established price for any particular vehicle. And when you add up the costs of vehicle ownership–like initial cost, insurance, maintenance and depreciation–it becomes clear that there is no better value than buying used. On top of that, the selection is virtually limitless, and all the extra options that you may not be able to swing on a new car suddenly become affordable. Cars are also now built to last longer than ever, and repair issues that were common two decades ago are now much less likely.

But while used cars represent the peak of value, they can also represent the highest risk. Everyone has heard stories of car buyers getting saddled with lemons, and having no recourse. Familiarizing yourself with these potential risks is the best way to avoid them, and it’s easier than you might think. Your used car story can have a happy ending if you stay informed from the start and know what to expect every step of the way.

What’s Right for You?

Only you can ultimately decide the type of vehicle you’d like to pursue, but you have all the help you’ll need right at your fingertips. The Internet is the most valuable tool available for vehicle research, and it can help you get a very specific idea about what you’re looking for, even down to the particular vehicle, well before you decide to start contacting sellers and taking test drives.

If your options are completely open, it’s a good idea to start by determining your preferred vehicle body style. It should be in line with your personal taste, of course, but also consider what you’ll need from your vehicle. How many passengers will you regularly need to carry? What about cargo room and towing capacity? Gas mileage and safety features? Examine your lifestyle, determine whether or not it will be changing in the near future (like a new baby or adding teen drivers), and be specific–the used vehicle spectrum is wide enough to have something for just about everyone. When you have a body style in mind, you can use it to tailor your searches right here on, as well as read extensive model information and even compare models side-by-side. Consumer and expert reviews are also widely available for most models and can help guide your search.

Once you’ve chosen one or two models to focus on, you can further narrow your options by setting a strict budget and examining the mileage of used vehicles that fit your criteria. A vehicle’s mileage tells only a small portion of the whole story of how it has been treated and whether routine maintenance has been performed–however, it can be a significant factor in the price of the vehicle. A popular rule of thumb is to look for vehicles with not much more than 12,000 miles per year since they were built.

Find out as much as you can about a vehicle before you go see it. The wide selection of used vehicles on the market means you don’t need to waste your time with a vehicle that doesn’t meet your standards. In particular, finding out the 17-character Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is a must. The VIN is included in many online car listings. Otherwise, getting it from the seller should be no hassle. It’s all the information you need to receive 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.

Caution is also necessary when using the Internet to shop. Further protect yourself by reading our Fraud Awareness Tips.

Money Matters

By now you should have a short list of vehicles to see in person, but before you go, you should have a financial plan in place. This doesn’t just mean setting a strict budget for the price of the car, but also considering other costs of ownership, such as insurance rates and fuel costs. Also, most used cars either have very little warranty left or none at all. Examine your extended warranty options to see if one would be right for you.

With Road Loans, you can choose the best loan for you within minutes from up to four lenders. And get tips and advice on securing the best loan.

There is also, of course, the issue of price. It’s important to keep in mind that value is in the eye of the beholder, and purchase price will be determined by how much the buyer or seller is willing to budge–but more on that later. At the start, a good indicator of a vehicle’s worth is easy to find by searching for it on

By now you have the makings of an ideal used vehicle shopping packet, which you can take with you for quick reference when you go out to shop. It should include:

  • Any applicable CARFAX Vehicle History Reports
  • Your credit report, if you’re planning to finance through a dealership
  • Several price quotes
  • Car loan pre-approval information
  • Insurance quotes
  • Extended warranty quotes
  • Pricing information for your current car, if you’re considering a trade-in
  • A notebook, to record everything you learn during the inspection and test drive

Time to Drive

Now, all that’s left before you go is placing a phone call to set up a test drive. While you’re on the phone, verify the information you’ve already learned from the Vehicle History Report. Ask if they have service records to back up their upkeep of the vehicle, and try to get a general feel for them and why they’re selling the car. If sellers seem to waver in their answers, you’ll know to tread carefully and be vigilant for other red flags.

During your first inspection of the vehicle, be sure to examine every part of the interior and exterior and look for any flaws that could potentially affect your decision, or lower your asking price. It’s often helpful to bring along a mechanically inclined friend to point out things you might have missed. If you’re able, also examine the area where the car is normally parked; a stained driveway or parking lot may be a warning sign that the car has a potentially problematic fluid leak.

A car’s VIN will also come in handy during your initial inspection. Look for it on the driver’s side of the dash (viewable through the windshield), and it may also be located on the front of the engine block, or in various other places depending on the particular model. Find out all the places where the VIN should be located and see if they all match–mismatched VINs are a telltale sign of major body work.

When you get behind the wheel, there are a number of things you can do to make the most out of your test drive. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself while test driving a used vehicle:

  • Does the vehicle have enough head and leg room for everybody who will regularly ride in it?
  • Does it have the acceleration you’re looking for?
  • Does it slow smoothly when you brake?
  • How does it feel on bumpy roads?
  • Are the interior controls and displays easily accessible and readable?

Listen carefully for any unusual noises that might suggest mechanical issues. If you hear anything, or even if you don’t, another important piece of advice still applies: your safest bet is always to get any vehicle checked out by a certified third-party mechanic.

Name Your Price

When you’ve decided on the car you want, it’s time to get down to the numbers. The car’s value on should be considered, but that number should always be weighed against what you discover during the test drives and inspections. Often times, your initial offer will have nothing to do with the seller’s asking price, but you will have plenty of concrete information and research to back up your offer. Don’t be afraid to make a low offer, and if you have to move up, do so in small increments. If you have a price ceiling set, don’t budge from it. However, you also should be willing to make some sacrifices for quality. The car with the lowest sticker price can often end up costing you much more in the long run, not to mention the headaches of having to make time for numerous trips to the mechanic.

If at any point you don’t have a good feeling about your negotiation, don’t be afraid to walk out the door. Hopefully you won’t have to. Everybody negotiates in their own way, and bringing along your ample Internet research is a huge first step to getting a great deal. Knowledge is power!

Close the Deal

Before you sign anything, make sure to get everything you’ve been promised in writing–especially anything that relates to a money-back guarantee or any other kind of warranty. Even then, sign an “As Is” paper only if you know you’re getting a pristine vehicle, because that document overrides anything else you’ve been promised. By this point, you should know just as much about the vehicle as the seller does, but you should still leave nothing to chance. And after all the paperwork is in order, you can drive away smiling, knowing that you’ve maximized your value.

Brian Moody
Brian Moody
Brian Moody is an author specializing in transportation, automotive, electric cars, future vehicles as well as new, used, and certified pre-owned advice. He also specializes in liking ridiculous cars like the Buick Reatta, Studebaker Lark, and the GM A-Body wagons from the late 80s and mid-90s. Why? You'd have to ask him. Brian graduated from Cal State Long Beach and has been creating written... Read More about Brian Moody

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