Survival guide to buying a used car

Learn how to drive a fair deal and get a great pre-owned vehicle

Published: April 27, 2015 11:00 AM

Buying a used car is fraught with risk. Unlike a new car that is factory fresh and backed by an extensive warranty, used cars have typically been driven for thousands of miles over several years. Their usage and service histories can be a mystery, and there is always the concern that the car was traded in due to an emerging problem. But, by following a few key steps, you can survive the harrowing used-car buying adventures, while getting a great deal.

Check our lists of the best and worst used cars and visit our complete used-car buying guide for more detailed advice.

Eric Evarts

Research

Use online tools, such as those available at ConsumerReports.org, to determine the cars that meet your basic needs and budget. Then whittle the list down by studying their overall road test scores when new, crash test and dynamic safety performance, and reliability. Done right, this will establish a workable list of truly promising models. You will need to take some test drives to see how the cars measure up for your personal comfort and needs, then it is time to shop for the individual model to purchase.

Where to shop for a used car

Who’s selling a used car can make as much of a difference to its quality as the make and model.

New-car dealers tend to sell late-model used cars (two- or three-years old) that often carry the remainder of the original factory warranty. Generally, dealer cars are higher quality due to age and their ability to readily make repairs.

Auto superstores have huge lots and scores of cars to sell. CarMax, auto malls, and rental-car sales lots sell numerous brands under the same roof and have their own large-scale reconditioning operations. They also put age, condition, and mileage limits on the cars they’ll sell.

Independent used-car dealerships are apt to handle any car make, and the vehicles can run the gamut from almost-new to junker-in-waiting. Favor the dealerships that have been around for a long time and have a good reputation locally.

Independent mechanics and body shops often have a sideline business selling a few used cars. They may not have a large selection, but it costs them little to fix cars up. That means their prices can be better than those you’ll find at a dealership.

Private owners may sell their cars for less, but there are limits. Businesses that sell cars required to offer some kind of warranty by law and have the expertise to spot problems. Private sellers can’t provide the same security. All the private transactions are assumed to be ‘as-is.’

Ask the right questions

Before you go check out a car, ask the seller some direct questions by phone or email to make sure it’s worth your time:

  • “What's the car’s condition?”
  • “How about the body and interior?”
  • “How many miles has it been driven? And in what conditions?”
  • “How is it equipped? Any aftermarket upgrades?”
  • “Had any body work done?”
  • “Do you have service records?”
  • “Does the car have any open recall?”

Specific questions for private sellers:

  • “Have you owned it since it was new?”
  • “Why are you selling the car?”

Learn more about asking the right questions.

Know the car’s current value

Once you locate a car you’re interested in, make sure you know what it’s worth. The seller will want to know you’re serious about buying and may ask questions to gauge whether you have money to spend. And if you like the car after driving it, you may want to make an offer.

For any used car there are two prices: retail and wholesale. Retail is what you should expect to pay for the car at a dealership. You may also find trade-in, or wholesale values listed for cars, but you shouldn’t expect to be able to buy one at that price. The price you pay will likely be somewhere in the middle.

You can find retail and wholesale prices for most models at Websites such as consumerreports.org, Kelley Blue Book, and the National Automobile Dealers Association. Then gauge the local market by checking current ads on Autobytel, UsedCars.com, AutoTrader.com, or eBay Motors. Remember though, an asking price is not a transaction price. Using several sources will put you in a stronger negotiating position with sellers.

Avoid a disaster

No matter how much you spend, driving home in a car with hidden problems is every used-car buyer’s worst nightmare. According to Carfax, a service that provides vehicle history reports, about 20 percent of cars on the road have had some sort of accident history. There’s no substitute for hiring your own mechanic to inspect any car you’re serious about buying. But there are a few things you can check yourself to see which cars may be worth taking to a mechanic:

  • Inspect each body panel for scratches, dents, or rust. Masking-tape marks under windowsills or fender edges indicate paintwork.
  • Look for uneven panel gaps around the fenders, doors, hood, and trunk can indicate shoddy repair.
  • Be sure the paint color and finish are uniform, and check inside doorjambs for dull-looking overspray.
  • Check for moisture fogging in the lights, or for a water line in the engine compartment, which could indicate previous flood damage.
  • Make sure the tires have even tread wear. New tires may hide problems.
  • Inspect the door hinges and the bolts that hold them; rust on these parts may be a clue that the car has been submerged.
  • Do the sniff test. A musty, moldy smell in the interior or trunk could indicate water damage.
  • Check the tailpipe for black, greasy residue, which could indicate that the engine is burning oil.

Learn more about avoiding used-car disasters.

Negotiate effectively

If you want to get the best price, don’t fall in love with a car. There will always be another. And never negotiate under pressure, especially when a salesperson tells you that a deal is only good today. If you’re working with a dealership, negotiate one thing at a time; don’t let the dealer lump your trade-in, purchase, and financing into one monthly number.

Once you have a good idea of how much you’re willing to pay, begin by making an offer that is realistic but 15 to 25 percent lower than this target number. Name your offer and wait until the person you’re negotiating with responds. If you have to raise your offer, do it in small increments. State clearly when you have reached your last offer, and stick to it. Don’t be afraid to say your offer is fair, final, and good for 24 hours only. If the seller won’t budge, be prepared to walk away rather than pay more than you know is a fair price.

Learn more about used car negotiation.


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