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Steps To Buying a Used Car

Used Car Buying Tips

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Purchasing a used car can be a harrowing experience if you aren't sure what to do - and hence not sure what you're getting out of the deal. The first step is to relax, because buying a used car is not rocket science and your chances of getting ripped off are not that high if you know a few things about the process and what to look for and expect.

Step 1: Know What You Want

The first thing to do is decide what you really want and need out of a car. Will this be your second car, a commuter, your family get-around vehicle, or what? Knowing exactly what the car is to be used for will tell you what type of car you need. It might sound obvious, but many people actually have no idea beyond a vague notion of "hatchback" or "something with 4 doors" when they go shopping.

Step 2: Check Values, Insurance and Title Costs

Now, before shopping, it's time to do some research. Look up book values of the vehicles you're interested in and call your car insurance carrier and your county tax office and find out the costs associated with your chosen vehicle make and model (or models). Get a general idea of what it's going to cost you to register the vehicle and get plates, how much your insurance per month (or year) is going to be, etc. If you don't know exactly what care you're going to be looking for, try to pick a representative make/model and year. You're not looking for exact quotes, just a ballpark figure for budgeting.

Step 3: Begin Looking, Ask Questions

Most car shoppers today begin by looking online and in the newspaper or classifieds. These are good places to start. Make a short list of vehicles available that you're interested in and then start making phone calls. Ask a few simple questions of each seller (or dealership) and start marking choices off of your list to narrow it down.


  • What is the vehicle's mileage?
  • What kind of shape is it in (fair, good, excellent, like new)?
  • Does it have a complete maintenance and ownership history?
  • Why are you selling it? (or if a dealership) Why was it traded in/sold?

The first two questions will give you an idea of the seller's honesty. A car with 150,000 miles on it will not be "like new" so use common sense. Maintenance and ownership histories are important, but if you're buying a certified used vehicle they may not be necessary. Finally, the last question gives you more insight into the seller's honesty as well as an idea of what may be wrong with the car or how it's been cared for. It may also give you an idea of what to expect when haggling the price, since motivated sellers will have different reasons for selling the car than those who are not in a hurry.

Step 4: Go Look At It

You should have your list narrowed to just a few cars now. So go have a look at them. First, call a mechanic (or two) in your area or the area of the car's location and find out if they accept walk-ins for a mechanical check. Most mechanics are happy to give a car a once-over for you for a time charge (usually 1/2 hour or about $50). It's well worth it to have this done.

Talking to the seller is optional at this point, but may prove fruitful. Use your first impression and instincts to decide whether to walk away. If you go see the car and it's nothing like what was described in its ad or on the phone, walk away. This is a dishonest seller and there's no reason to waste time.

If the seller is there to talk with, ask some of the above questions again (see if answers match) and have a look under the hood. If the engine compartment is clean, that's a good sign. If you know how to check, pull the dipstick and look at the oil and (if applicable) transmission fluid.

Step 5: Test Drive and Mechanics

Now's the time to ask for a test drive and to find out if they're OK with you taking it to a mechanic. If they aren't OK with either of these, find another car and mark this one off your list. They either have something to hide or are not trusting enough to be selling a car.

Used car dealerships should never have a problem (even on "certified" vehicles) with you getting a second mechanic's opinion. If they do, find another dealership, this one's dishonest.

Once everything's checked out and you're comfortable with the car, haggle the price! The easiest opener is to say (as you look at the price on the windshield or sign) "What do you have to have for this car?" Most will understand this to mean that a) you aren't paying the expected price, and b) it's time to haggle. Negotiate until you feel you're getting a fair deal. Your goal is not to whittle the seller down to rock bottom. Instead, it's to get the car down to a price you think is fair.

Good luck!

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