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Where to shop for a used car

There are many choices, but be cautious

Last updated: May 2014

There is a far wider range of outlets for a used car than a new one and both prices and vehicle quality can vary greatly. To find an outlet, check print and online classified ads, particularly those for local newspapers and websites specializing in used-car sales.

New-car dealers. Nearly all franchised dealers have a used-car department, which tend to feature late-model vehicles, two or three years old, that often carry the remainder of the original factory warranty. Many new-car dealers don’t bother with cars more than four or five years old, or ones that are difficult to sell, so they can be more expensive.

Auto superstores. Superstores are dealerships with huge lots and scores of cars to sell. CarMax, for instance, is a chain that sells cars at no-haggle prices. So-called auto malls, have numerous brands under the same roof or sharing the same chunk of real estate.  

Independent used-car dealers. These dealerships are apt to handle any car make, and the vehicles can run the gamut from the almost-new to the junker-in-waiting. Some dealers specialize in late-model cars and are affiliated with new-car franchises. If the dealership has been around for a long time and has a good reputation locally, that’s a good sign.

Many used-car dealer­ships can arrange financing for you. Both price and quality tend to be lower than at a new-car dealership. Independent dealers may also specialize in working with customers who have a shaky credit history. Such financing is often what’s called a subprime loan, and may carry a very high interest rate. Caution is the watchword. Whether the financing is easy to arrange or not, you must be extra careful not to get in over your head.

Independent mechanics. Some mechanics have a sideline business selling used cars. They may not have all that many cars to sell, but prices are often better than those you’ll find at a dealership.

An added benefit is that the station may have serviced the car throughout its life, giving them knowledge of its repair history. But it is wise to take it elsewhere to have an impartial inspection performed.

Private owners. You can usually get the best price if you buy a car directly from its previous owner. A private party doesn’t have to cover the overhead of a business and frequently just wants to get rid of the vehicle. But an owner may not be aware of trouble signs that a dealership or service station would recognize.

Conversely, many rebuilt wrecks are sold through private sellers who fix up damaged cars on the cheap. In the end, having the car inspected thoroughly by an independent mechanic is critical.

Shopping online. Researching and buying used cars online significantly eases the process, as you can search, sort, and investigate the marketplace without leaving home. Used cars aren’t necessarily cheaper online, but the web does provide an easy way to find out prices for various models for sale in your area. You may find, how­ever, that many offerings are located inconveniently far from home.

Used-car websites typically ask you to fill in some search parameters: the make and model in which you’re interested, your price range, and the region (usually based on your ZIP code) where you’d like to shop. Try to limit your search to locations that are easy to reach. You then get a list of vehicles that fit your buying criteria, along with a way to contact the seller. Because many sellers are car dealerships, most sites provide direct links to the dealership websites. Many services also let you place a classified ad for selling your old car.

Online auctions (eBay Motors is by far the largest) are another route. The auction system is a little different from stan­dard dickering over price. On eBay, once you enter a bid it’s like signing a contract to buy, whether there’s a reserve or not. The winning bidder is obligated by the bid, and the seller is obligated to accept it. If there is a reserve, it must be met or the auction with expire without a transaction. While auctions give you an opportunity to snap up a bargain, it also means that you have committed to the deal, unless the seller has made some serious misrepresentation. There is, however, a conditional guarantee by the seller and a short-term service agreement of one month or 1,000 miles. You can arrange to have the vehicle inspected through a paid service on the site.

Problems we’ve noticed with used-car websites include outdated information and the clutter of pop-up and banner ads. Some sellers must constantly update their offerings as inventories change, making it challenging to even find common models that area available. Always make sure the vehicle you're looking for is still available before visiting any seller,  whether it’s a dealership or a private party.

No matter how much of the transaction you conduct by phone or e-mail, it’s important to inspect the vehicle in person and take it for a test drive before you buy.

Used car buying guide

Learn more about choosing a used car, avoiding a lemon, buying and selling a used car, pricing and financing, and more in our used car buying guide.


   

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