How to buy a used car ( And not get burned )

Everyone can agree that buying a late-model used car can be a great deal. You get a reliable, fairly new vehicle at a lower cost than new, and without the huge depreciation hit.

The problem is that when you’re buying a used car, it’s very easy to get a bad deal, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. While I can’t guarantee you success when purchasing a used car, I can help. If you follow my 8 steps below, you’ll have a much better chance of a getting a good car, and a good deal.

  1. Carfax is your friend. Always, always ask for a Carfax report before talking numbers on a used car. If the dealership won’t provide it, then really you should walk away. But if you’re set on having an interest in that car, then buy the report yourself. Carfax reports can spot major accidents, frame damage, or salvage titles. Note: Just because Carfax says the car is clean, it doesn’t automatically mean that it is.
  2. Ask for maintenance records. Oftentimes, dealerships won’t have these on hand, because the previous owner didn’t hand them over. But it never hurts to ask, and if the records are in tact, you can be a bit more assured that the vehicle was maintained properly.
  3. Check for paintwork. A good paint job can be difficult for the novice to spot, especially if the colors are blended very well. That doesn’t, however, mean that there has never been any paintwork. What you’ll want to do is run your fingers along any edges of the car; such as where the hood meets the windshield, and along the edge of the trunk. Don’t forget the edges of the doors as well. You’re checking for roughness. The factory paintjob will be very smooth along these areas. If the vehicle has been repainted ( partially or completely ) then you’ll feel a rough texture on the edges. Also, pop the hood and check for overspray – little dots of spray paint that missed it’s target. You may see this around the inside edges of the hood. There are a few more telltale signs, but I’ll save those for another post.
  4. Have a mechanic inspect the vehicle. Many dealerships will be hesitant to let you take the car to an independent mechanic. And truth be told, I can see where they’re coming from. After all, any reputable dealer has already thoroughly inspected the car and deemed it saleworthy. And if you take the car out for an inspection and don’t buy it for some reason, then that car was off the market for no reason. But it’s always worth the time and cost to have the car inspected, especially if it’s a little high on miles.
  5. Pay attention to miles. This is related to maintenance in a big way. The average car is driven about 15,000 miles per year these days. So if you’re looking at a 2 year old car, look for around 30,000 miles. 4 year old car, around 60,000 miles. Now, say you’re stuck between two choices – a 2 year old car with 50,000 miles, or a 4 year old car with 60,000 miles. Even though the four year old car is older and has more miles, it just may be a better bet. Why? The 2 year old car has been driven 25,000 miles per year. People tend to do maintenance on a monthly schedule ( oil change every three months or so, 15k maintenance yearly, etc ). Unless maintenance records are available to prove otherwise, chances are that this car hasn’t been maintained optimally.
  6. Check the Blue Book value. Since there’s no window sticker, you want to have a good idea of what the car you’re buying is worth. And remember, the car you want to buy is never in “Excellent” condition, just like your trade-in is never in “excellent” condition. If the dealership quotes you KBB value, they may use Excellent. Don’t hold it against them; they’re just trying to earn a profit. But that doesn’t mean you have to pay it. Also of note, most trucks & SUV’s are bought pretty far back of book these days, due to the gas price and huge incentives on new product. So keep that in mind when you make an offer.
  7. Buy Japanese. I know I may hear it for including this one, but I say what’s on my mind. Stick with Honda, Toyota, and Nissan when possible. While Ford & GM make plenty of quality cars, you need to be more careful. I recommend steering clear of used Hyundais, Kias, Mitsubishis, Daewoo, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and heck, quite a few other makes. Stick with Japan’s Big Three and you will likely be better off.
  8. There are no guarantees. Buying a used car is a risk. It can be a very smart financial decision, but there is a chance it will backfire. Even though you do your homework and follow my advice, the Camry you buy with 65,000 may throw a rod a week after you take it home. There’s just no way to tell, and that’s the risk of buying a used car. So please, take my advice, but understand that nothing is set in stone, and there are no guarantees.

Published on April 10, 2007 in Misc

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