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How to Successfully Buy A Used Car

A salesman is talking to a couple as they buy a used car.

There’s nothing like knowing you secured a great deal on a used car. Of course, there are people out there that lose sleep, hair, and their sheer sanity when thinking about buying something used. What if it is a lemon? What if the moment I drive off the lot, it explodes into a billion pieces? What if the cartel used it as a drug runner and someone comes looking for the goodies they left stored in a hollowed-out wheel well? Trust us. It’s been thought of. People are always dreaming up crazier and crazier scenarios about used cars. And while it might be entertaining to think your new sedan was part of The French Connection 2.0, the probability is not high. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research. Lemons very much do exist, and if you’re not careful, you might walk into the trap of a sneaky used car salesman. How do you make sure you jump over the Lemons like Mario jumping over super-sized bombs? Here’s everything you need to know about how to successfully buy used cars.

Before You Begin

So you don’t want to just jump right into the deep end of buying a car without setting a few ground rules. Yes, yes, we know, rules are boring. You couldn’t wait to grow up as a kid so you could break all the rules, and now you’re just running into more of them! Well, this one is going to help prevent you from falling into a major financial trap that will only end poorly. Before looking at any kind of car, it doesn’t matter if it is a dream car or a beater you buy just to get you to college and back, you need to have a budget.

Look at your finances and determine what you can afford for a monthly payment. You don’t want this to be tight. Nobody enjoys eating ramen noodles every meal (and your heart wouldn’t be a big fan either). So leave yourself some financial room to spare.

Once you have your budget in place, do not go over it. Also, if you visit a used car lot, do not tell the sales staff what your budget is. They might try to price up certain models to hit this budget number.

A couple is looking over their budget at home.

What Kind Of Car Are You Feeling?

Okay, so you’ve done the boring stuff. You’ve figured out the budget. Sure, in a perfect world, you’d just walk up to the lot, hop in, and never have to pay a cent. Sadly, doing something like that will also likely give you a date with the local judge. But you know how much you’re going to spend. Now you need to know what kind of car you want.

Do you want something that is fuel-efficient and is built more for a large city? Perhaps you’d like something that can comfortably fit a family of five, but you don’t want anything too big. Maybe you want something that can tow the boat you’ve had parked out front, and your cranky neighbor gives you the stink eye whenever walking past. Whatever you’re looking for, now is the time to decide the type of vehicle you need.

The big thing here is not to get attached to a specific make and model just yet. Maybe you’d love a used Ford F-150. However, don’t be closed off to only that. You may end up finding a Chevy Silverado or Ram 1500 ends up fitting in your budget (and is available) when you start shopping. So, pinpoint the vehicle type here. Not the exact vehicle.

The Reliability Test

Next, you’ll want to look at historical reliability figures for a particular vehicle. Some model years just aren’t that great. Everyone makes a dud from time to time, but the problem is nobody is going to know it’s a dud until later. That’s actually where buying used is a benefit. You’ll let the other drivers deal with these issues. You get to then pick through what works.

Consumer Reports is a great research tool for finding out what vehicle holds up and what doesn’t. Kelley Blue Book can give you some of this information as well. KBB is a solid reference for identifying what a vehicle should cost when you’re considering a particular car on a lot. Keep KBB bookmarked, so when you find a vehicle listing, you can compare it to what KBB would say. This way you’ll know if you’re being taken for a financial ride.

What are some possible vehicles that are more likely to be duds? This isn’t 100% the case, but the first vehicle of a new generation often runs into a few problems. Do you have friends who rush out to get a brand new video game system the day it comes out? Chances are they’ll later tell you about all the problems they’ve sustained. Well, a combustion engine and transmission are far more complex than a PlayStation, so these first generations are a bit more likely to have issues (again, it’s a vehicle by vehicle basis, but it’s usually better to get something that is further into the generational development of the vehicle).

Check For Vehicles

So now you know what you want, how much you can afford, and which vehicles are reliable and which ones aren’t. This should leave you with a list of some models that will work. With this information, you can now begin the search for the right used vehicle.

Probably the easiest way to start this is by looking online. If you are going to use a website like Craigslist, make sure to know the difference between a dealer vehicle and one sold by a private owner. There are no guarantees with a private owner, so you need to do extra research on that particular vehicle. This includes obtaining the Carfax and taking it to a mechanic you trust for an inspection.

Once you find a few vehicles that you like, now you can go check them out on the lot. Sometimes the pictures don’t do it justice. When you’re on the lot, make sure to look it over carefully. Pay attention to the windows as well. It’s easy to miss scratches in the glass. Take note of any imperfection. You can use these imperfections during the negotiation for the vehicle.

Also, make sure to take a test drive with the radio off. Listen to how it sounds. Be mindful of how the pedals feel. Do the pedals vibrate, or is everything smooth? Can you hear any clicks or ticks, or other strange noises? You want to listen to how it drives. Do this not only on the local road but on the highway. Sometimes you won’t spot any problems until you’re driving faster than 25 MPH.

A man is driving a used car, shown from the inside.

Look Up The Vehicle Background

If you love one of the cars now, you’ll want to look up the vehicle background. The seller should give you Carfax, which is a rundown on any accidents, repairs, and anything else upgraded or updated on the vehicle. Look for anything that has been repaired more than once in a short period. This means there’s likely a performance defect, and you’ll want to avoid it.

At this time, you should price the vehicle on Kelley Blue Book as well. Make sure you’re not overpaying. You can also use any vehicle damage (chipped glass, dents in the fender) to lower the price. You’ll want either these areas replaced for the same price or a reduction of the price. If everything checks out, now’s the time to buy!

Your Best Used Car Experience

Buying used doesn’t need to be a headache. It does take some extra legwork on your part, but it can help you save all kinds of money. If you have bought a used car in the past, what are some tips you’d share with others? What helped you out, or what did you wish you knew ahead of time? Let us and everyone else know in the comments below!

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