How to Buy a Used Car and Not Screw Up
Buying a car is not the same as buying jeans or aftershave. When choosing, you will have to take into account a lot of factors. Otherwise, tens of thousands of dollars will just go down the drain.
What if your budget is not enough for a new car? It seems that the answer is obvious — take a used car. But this option scares many people — after all, you can spend money on a vehicle that will break down tomorrow.
Some people think that you need to be a real expert to buy a good used car. Dude, relax, it’s not that hard. We have made for you a list of 10 steps that will help you walk this path and choose a vehicle of your dream. Well, maybe not exactly of your dream, but pretty close.
1. Decide on a Budget
Many people wonder how long it takes to buy a used car. It’s all up to you. Usually, the choosing of a car takes a lot of time when the buyer does not know exactly what he wants.
Therefore, first decide what kind of car you need — a sedan, a wagon, or a crossover.
Then make a list of the requirements for your future car. The better you imagine what you need, the easier it will be for you to find it.
And of course money matters — decide how much you are ready to spend on a car. Don’t forget about maintenance costs, tire changes, and more. If the car does not have a guarantee, it would be good to keep some money for sudden repairs.
Don’t buy a car with your last money — we recommend leaving about 10% of the car price for unforeseen expenses.
2. Make a List of Brands and Models
Don’t dwell on one brand — consider different variants. So if you have calculated your budget and realized that buying a used Honda Accord is not affordable for you, consider cheaper vehicles. You will save several thousand dollars, but you’re gonna still have a good car.
It is the best if your list includes three models that are optimal for you in appearance, specifications, and price.
If you can afford to spend a little more, it’s better to buy a certified pre-owned vehicle (CPO). These cars have a factory-backed warranty. You can buy a CPO car only at the same brand dealership — for example, for a CPO Chevrolet Silverado you have to go to a Chevrolet dealer.
3. Check Prices
Let’s talk about car price secrets. The price depends on where you buy the car. The most expensive will, of course, be CPO vehicles, but this is a reasonable overpayment. If you are looking for a cheaper option, contact private sellers — they have the lowest prices.
In addition to used car sections of new car dealerships and private sellers, there are also independent used car lots and used car retailers. You can find some of them by the ads “We buy used cars”. They usually have average market prices.
Do not rush to trust ads that look too tempting. If the car price is much lower than the market average, there are probably reasons for that: problems with documents, a serious technical malfunction, and so on.
Too high prices should be taken with skepticism: for example, such a car could be tuned or have serious changes in the design. This will increase the cost of maintenance and may also reduce the reliability of components and assemblies.
4. Find a Good Option
What factors besides price are decisive when choosing a car? Mileage, car age, documents, and the number of owners.
A good used car is the one that has up to 30 thousand miles of the run and has an age, in which the factory warranty is still valid. And if, moreover, the car was not used as a company vehicle, was bought from an authorized dealer, has all the accompanying documents, and was in the hands of only one owner — consider yourself lucky.
Some deviations are possible, but the fewer they are, the lower is the risk of problems and unnecessary costs in the future.
Remember that the critical mileage for most cars is 60-70 thousand miles. It is for this mileage that suspension parts, clutch, flywheel, gas distribution mechanism, and other expensive elements wear out.
Check different ads, look at photos, read descriptions — find out what the price of the car should be. This will help you not to overpay too much. Check the prices of the same model, but several years older — so you will understand how much its price may fall soon. Subtract a small percentage of the declared value — you will negotiate, compare the amount with the one you planned to spend and move on to the next steps.
5. Check the Car History Report
If you have the vehicle identification number (VIN), you can get all you need to know online: information about the previous owners, the real mileage, accidents, service history, and so on.
The report will let you know, for example, that the “excellent condition car” was in fact in a serious accident or that it had not two, but five owners. If there were too many owners or they changed frequently, it is better to refuse to buy.
But you shouldn’t blindly trust the report. To double-check the information, ask the seller questions.
6. Talk to the Seller
For all questions, it is better to call right away, and not write by email or leave comments under the ad. The conversation allows you to immediately clarify many issues, and you will understand whether it is worth spending time inspecting the car.
First of all, you need to make sure who you are dealing with: an owner, an intermediary, or even a fraudster. You will understand that something goes wrong if he suddenly asks for some advance payment — of course, you should not transfer money in advance.
Feel free to ask all the questions that interest you. But keep in mind that answers like “everything is fine” do not guarantee that this is so. Find out how the car was serviced, ask about accidents.
And here is a video with an example of how to have a conversation with the owner and what to ask when buying a used car.
Preliminary checks will help you filter out inappropriate options without unnecessary meetings and limit the number of contacts with sellers. But without inspection and test drive you will not understand the real state of a car.
And yet, if you have done everything that is described in the previous steps, it will save your time during an inspection.
It is better to choose a clear day with dry weather to inspect the car. Rain will interfere with normal visibility, and later, after washing, unpleasant “surprises” may come out from under the dirt that covered the car.
First of all, check whether it is easy to get in and out of the car, whether there is enough space inside — not only in the front but also in the back.
Then carefully examine the car body, interior, dashboard with indicator lights, and odometer. Pay particular attention to the gaps between the body parts and the glass markings. In the interior, the wear of the steering wheel, pedals, and seats indicates the real age of the vehicle.
Do not be too lazy to look under the hood and bottom: there may be weld spots, and this is a bad sign. Make sure everything opens and closes, goes down and up, lights up and goes out, heats and cools, starts up and runs smoothly. If you are bad at technical stuff, take a more experienced friend with you.
Be sure to insist on a test drive — and you need not just drive around the house, but fully test the car on the move: drive the streets with speed bumps, slow down and accelerate, check how the car behaves in turns, and different speed modes. And yes, make sure that you meet with the same owner of the car, whose name appears in the documents: any intermediary in this matter is not good.
Here’s a smashing example of how to properly test drive.
8. Have a Car Inspection
Everything seems to be okay! So can you buy a car? Do not rush. We advise you to carry out professional car diagnostics. An exception should be made only for CPO cars — they have already been inspected.
For diagnostics, choose a car repair shop, but not the one the seller offers. There they should check the engine, chassis, and electrics. Such diagnostics can save you from a bad purchase or help reduce the price.
Don’t forget about negotiating. This is a great chance to save a few hundred dollars, and the sellers are usually ready for it.
Be sure to give reasons for your proposal. Remind what flaws were in the vehicle, compare its price with the average on the market, and negotiate the final price with the seller.
Keep in mind that the seller doesn’t like negotiating too, and he will most likely try to quickly find a compromise solution.
10. Get the Paperwork Done
Let’s say you have reached an agreement with the seller on the price. It’s time for paperwork.
The most important of all tips for buying a used car from a private seller is making sure the vehicle you’re buying is the same vehicle that the title registered on. If the VIN doesn’t match up you’re probably not getting what you’re paying for.
This is where you can find the VIN number on the car.
Check also other details in the pink slip. There is a letter right next to the mileage — pay attention to it, this is important. “A” means that it’s the actual mileage, “S” means the car salvage, “T” means the car was used as a taxi, “F” is for flood damage, “P” is for police, “L” is lemon law and so on.
Make sure that the person who shows you the car is the owner listed in this title. Compare driver’s license — only a person with that driver’s license can sell you a car.
Do not forget that the car can belong to the bank — then there will be a stamp in the title.
Once you’ve checked everything, it’s time to sign the back of the title. Be very careful — you can’t mess up here. The title should not contain any cross-outs otherwise, the document will be invalid.
So, you’ve done with the paperwork. What to do after buying a used car from a dealer or private seller?
When you buy a car, the first thing you want to do is get in and just drive. After all, that’s why you bought it. Do not rush. Deal with all the paperwork first — insurance, registration, ownership, license plates.
Also, be sure to change the oil in the purchased car. Even if the previous owner assures you that he just changed the oil, you should still do it. You just bought this car and you should do your best to make sure that it is running properly.
Don’t forget that this is not a new vehicle, it has already been in use. Therefore, thoroughly clean the inside and outside of the car.
You should flush the engine coolant. The engine coolant plays a vital role in making sure that the engine is running properly and it prevents it from overheating.
Check the battery condition. The battery can leave you stranded. Therefore, check the date on the battery, and pay attention to any signs of corrosion. Check the charge, make sure it is in good condition. If not, replace it.
Read the owner’s manual. It has everything you need to know about your car.
And last but not least, check the condition of the brakes. Brakes are crucial for your safety and the safety of people around you.
Now take the keys and go for a drive!