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How (and When) To Buy Your Next Used Car Hassle-Free

Several used cars for sale are in a dealership.

When is the best time to buy a used car? Where should I look? These are common questions asked by people at all stages of the buying cycle. While everyone’s circumstances are always a little different, there are some tried and true methods to guide you through your search. Perhaps you’re casually looking for a used vehicle for your newly licensed child, or you just took a job far from home and need a commuter car quickly to avoid putting miles on your nicer car. Maybe you want to buy a car to store at your vacation property in the mountains. Whatever the reason and whatever the timeline, you’re sure to always find a large variety of used cars for sale in your area.

If your timeline is flexible, it may be advantageous to wait until certain specific times during the year when the selection is greatest, and your chances of landing a great deal are highest. The car business is cyclical, and used vehicles are no exception. If you can hit it at the right time, you’ll be ahead of the pack and––just maybe––you’ll have a better range of options than the other guy. Below, we share some ideas for focusing your hunt on the right time, place, and seller.

New Model Years

Let’s face it: people like shiny new objects! Nowhere is this truer than with brand new automobiles. Motivated by the need for that new car smell, a large percentage of the car-buying public will frequently opt for a new vehicle, and automakers entice them every fall when the coming year’s new model year vehicles are released. These eager buyers jump at the opportunity to upgrade. It’s not unusual for buyers to upgrade every few years, or in some cases, annually. This means the market will be flooded with gently used vehicles with low miles and minimal wear and tear. Take advantage of this sweet spot of inventory because dealers will be looking to move traded vehicles quickly. Lucky for you, these one-to-three-year-old vehicles have already taken the biggest hit to residual value, which means you’re getting a great deal.

Speaking of dealers, it’s a good idea to check local dealers’ websites regularly to view their current inventory, as available vehicles change quickly. Viewing used cars for sale at a new car dealership gives you the added advantage of selecting from carefully inspected pre-owned stock versus purchasing a vehicle of unknown origin from a private seller. In addition, dealers will usually include some kind of short-term warranty for added peace-of-mind. Dealers can also provide vehicle financing if cash is tight.

Don’t forget about leased vehicles! Leasing has become an increasingly popular financing option for new car buyers. Most leases run two or three years and restrict lessors to a low maximum mileage allowance. This means that vehicles coming off a lease contract will likely have minimal mileage, and because lease terms require vehicles to be returned in excellent condition, you can relax and scratch worrying about hidden mechanical problems off your list. Lastly, leased vehicles are often still under factory warranty after the lease term. This is a huge advantage for used vehicle buyers.

A salesman is talking to a couple while they lean on a blue car.

Third-Party Selling Sites

These days, most sellers are listing their pre-owned vehicles for sale online. Sites like www.autotrader.com and cars.com are great resources for viewing a wider range of used vehicles for sale without having to toggle between different dealer websites. These sites encourage sellers to include a free CarFax report to reassure buyers that the listed vehicles are high quality and reliable. Each listing contains multiple vehicle photos, descriptions, and comprehensive details about options and ownership history, and because sellers must pay to advertise, you can usually count on working with reputable people.

There are many other sources for used cars, including sites like craigslist.org and your local newspaper. Always remember to use caution with any online source because, while you may find the deal of the century, some ads can be deceptive. In all cases, unless you’re working with a physical dealership, always be careful whenever meeting someone to look at a used car. It’s best to bring a friend or meet in a public place. You should also plan to find a mechanic that can inspect the vehicle before you commit to buying it. Consider it a red flag if a seller resists cooperating with a third-party inspection.

Local Resources

Many small, local groups exist for buying and selling merchandise. For example, your university student may have access to local social media groups in their college town that list merchandise for sale. These sites are a great place to look for used cars for sale because college students are constantly in transition. As they graduate and move on, often they’ll be looking to unload their vehicles. Similarly, your local rental car agency often has a sales arm that offers former rental vehicles for sale. Each location will have different inventory, so a little digging might be necessary.

Check out local community Facebook group pages, too. These pages––often identified as neighborhood marketplace pages––are growing in popularity because of the convenience and peace-of-mind associated with a more neighborly exchange of goods and services. Many people feel more comfortable sticking within their area when shopping for big-ticket items like cars. These marketplace groups are usually private and restricted to residents only, allowing for a safer, more geographically convenient way to connect buyers and sellers.

One last option is to simply keep your eyes peeled. Private sellers often park their used vehicles in public spots around town with for sale signs prominently posted. Some neighborhoods have even developed a popular location over time, where many sellers know to stage vehicles for sale. Ask around, drive around, and let friends know you’re looking. Chances are someone in your area is looking to sell their car. Don’t hesitate to ask someone you trust for a referral to a reputable new or used car dealership. While inventory may not be as broad, you’ll feel comfortable knowing others have had a positive buying experience.

A woman is sitting on the couch and smiling while on her laptop.

Prepare Before You Buy

In today’s fast-moving used vehicle market, it’s important to prepare before you start searching. Remember to do some preparation. First and most important, what’s your budget? Knowing what you’re willing to spend will help keep you focused, and you can avoid wasting time looking at cars you can’t afford. Next, decide what type of car, truck, or SUV you want and if you have a preference on age, mileage, or options. Is there a specific make and/or model you want?

If value is your goal, focus on criteria like price and fuel economy. If you have some flexibility, you’ll want to consider geography and weather. Do you need AWD or 4WD? Does it get hot where you live? Perhaps a black car with black interior is not practical. Safety is another major consideration. If you’ve narrowed down your search to one or two options and still can’t decide, let safety be your tiebreaker. Always opt for the safer vehicle. You can check the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHSTA) for things like vehicle safety ratings or current and past vehicle recalls.

There are many exceptional tools available today that will help you conveniently locate and purchase the vehicle that’s perfect for your unique needs. It’s just a matter of blocking off some time to research and shop. Luckily you can start this process from the comfort of your own home by using the resources above to narrow down your search. From there, all you’ll need is a free afternoon to test drive, inspect, and complete your purchase.

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