A 2015 Chevy Malibu, popular among used cars, is on a wet road at dusk.

Three Major Mistakes When Buying Used Cars


Buying a used car is one of the smartest decisions you can make if it’s done correctly. I’ve been through a few used cars since acquiring my license, which can be looked at as either a good experience or me picking bad cars. My 25-year-old self assumes its a combination of both.

Mistake #1: I Bought the First Car I Saw

I was 17 when I decided to buy my very first car. I got my license when summer was beginning, so on the days that my stepfather drove his bike to work, I was able to drive his Volkswagen Jetta to school. I was a junior in high school, so I really would have felt like hot stuff driving anything into the parking lot. After school, I’d drive myself to the elementary school, where I worked in the after-school program. One of my older co-workers, who already admitted displeasure about a small wrist tattoo I had, said to me, “well, when are you going to get your own car?”

Of course I took it personally, though a valid question. Within just a few weeks, I found someone I knew who was selling a car; I think it was my uncle’s ex-girlfriend. It was the perfect dark blue Saturn SC1, which even as a used car came with a moldy interior and pet mice! Honestly, what sold me on the car was the fact that it had three doors, the driver’s side, passenger side, and one backseat suicide door. This little car was the cutest thing I had ever laid eyes on because I knew it was going to be mine. It was the first time making a major purchase, and the start to a terrible habit of jumping on the first car I could find.

Mistake #2: I Didn’t Take Care of the Car

I was able to drive this car around all summer without any problems, and life was great. I would take it to weekend trips outside of state, which my mom is probably finding out now if she’s reading this. I would take it as far as I could. Every last dollar I had went right into the gas tank. It all sounds wonderful until lights started showing up on the dashboard a few months into my senior year, but my music was too loud to hear anything that could really be problematic.

Once winter hit, my little Saturn was beginning to shut down. Any left-hand turn I would make would cause it to completely shut off. Not only was I frustrated, but anyone on the road behind me as I pushed it through intersections. So you want to know what I did? Maybe not but I’m going to tell you anyways. I kept driving it. I kept driving it until the weather warmed up. The lights were still on my dashboard, but as the temperature warmed back up, my car could handle the necessary left-hand turns.

At the end of my senior year, I still had never brought it anywhere or to anyone at all to take a look at it because I took warning lights only as suggestions. I still had, “SENIORS 2012,” painted onto my back windshield as I drove into the first day of work at the elementary school after graduating. I was in front of a line of traffic in an area where the highway turned into one lane due to never-ending roadwork. My Saturn stopped accelerating. “This is it,” I thought as I switched on my hazard lights, “I’m really getting fired this time.”

Lucky for me, the lanes divided into two only a few yards ahead. I kept pressing the gas in hopes that something would happen. I crept closer and closer, cringing for every moment that passed as the frustration grew in the line behind me. I reached the divided lanes like a finish line, and that’s when my Saturn blew up. The hood flew off, there were bangs and pops of all kinds and smoke. A lot of smoke.

At least I had made it to the right lane, and those behind me had realized the reason for my slow speed, not that anyone of the 50 people had stopped to see if I was okay. After a quick panic attack, I called my father and then AAA. While waiting for the tow back home, my father showed up and gave me the rundown of what I did, well, didn’t do, that drove the car to the ground. We scrapped it for a few hundred bucks.

A man is standing next to his broken down used car  while looking at a paper and on the phone.

In the Meantime…

I was carless, which is even worse after having the mobility and freedom that comes with having a vehicle. That next Christmas, I was gifted my grandmother’s car who had recently lost the ability to drive. I was familiar with this car because I had been driving it to and from work and college after blowing up my Saturn.

This little Hyundai Elantra was also dark blue but had only about 60,000 miles on it. It was in great condition all around, and I even changed the oil twice a year. Even though it was a used car, it was absolutely perfect. I drove it down, and back up the east coast, twice. It lasted the nasty nor’easters of New England, and scorching humidity of Central Florida. Unfortunately after all of the memories made over the five years of driving it, my Hyundai Elantra had met an end. Even after getting me to and from college until I graduated, my little used up car served me one last time, by getting me to a small, local dealership without blowing up.

Mistake #3: I Trusted a Sketchy Dealership, and Didn’t Cover Myself

This used car dealership I went to was upset that the check engine light wasn’t on as I drove the Elantra onto their lot, and I was still able to get $500. I didn’t do my research, and the owner of the dealership played me like a fiddle. I was sold a Mercury Mariner that was unable to pass inspection. It looked nice, but I still didn’t know much about automotive sales.

A few weeks after purchasing, I still hadn’t gotten my Mariner inspected. It was entirely my mistake, and only two weeks into driving it, the transmission went. An uncle I recently reconnected with helped me out with that, but he told me the car was undrivable; the subframe was completely rotted out, and I was lucky that wasn’t the first issue that we came across.

At this point, I went to a friend who was a legitimate dealer located a few hours away, who informed me of Lemon Laws when it came to buying and selling used cars. I was mad at myself for not getting my car inspected in time but furious that my life was put in danger because this dealership wanted to make a quick buck. As an introvert, confronting the dealer was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do, but once I started, I most certainly let them know that if they didn’t fix my problem, that they would have a lawsuit. Multiple shops had taken a look at what was going on, and I knew I had a firm leg to stand on. Needless to say, they knew I was right and replaced the subframe.

I learned Some Lessons

Eventually, I learned to turn down my music and listen to my car. I learned to give my car the attention that it needs, as well as the buying process the attention that it needs. The biggest lesson that I use in everyday life is being wary of who my trust is given to, but to always make sure that I am covered. I will continue to make mistakes and learn from them, I just hope future lessons about used cars will be much easier than previous experiences.