Most people consider buying a
used car an unpleasant experience. It can be difficult to find
the vehicle you want and negotiating a price can be frustrating.
There is always the concern that while you may be saving a lot
of money versus buying a new car, you could be buying someone
We will take you through the
buying process, give you some pointers that will tilt the odds
in your favor, and try to make the whole experience a
little less confusing.
But remember an important fact.
Ultimately, your instincts are your best guide. If something
about the car or the deal just doesn't seem right, our advice is
to listen to yourself and walk away, no matter what
the car magazines, websites, or guidebooks say. You are the one
looking at the car, you are the one talking to the owner or
dealer and you will be the one that has to live with your
First, we'll show you how to
prepare for the purchasing process. We'll look at where to buy
used cars, vans and trucks. Then, we'll give you some key
suggestions on how to inspect and evaluate a used vehicle. Next,
how to negotiate your price. Lastly, there is some information on
your rights as a used car buyer.
Preparation is the single most important thing you can do to
help ensure that you are successful in your used car or truck
purchase. Sure, it can be a pain in the neck, but it may just
save you years of regret.
When to Buy
The best time to buy a car is when you don't really have to! The
benefits of planning ahead and taking your time cannot be
emphasized enough. If your car or truck is due for some major
work and you've decided not to put any more money into it, don't
wait until the last minute to start looking for a new vehicle.
You are far more likely to get a better deal on both sides of
the equation (the vehicle you're buying and the one you're
selling or trading in) when you have time to look around and
have a vehicle that is still roadworthy to sell.
Drive a few different examples of
the same model to give you a feel for what the vehicle should
drive like. Driving only one or two examples may not give you a
proper feel as to how the vehicle should drive. Time will also buy you negotiating power, enabling
you to wait out a seller or simply walk away and find something
better. Being without wheels can bring on enormous pressure to
get them -- sometimes forcing bad decisions.
We fully understand that in the real world
it's not easy to follow this advice, but it is the single most
effective strategy you can employ. Below are some other
important steps that will prove beneficial.
How much do you want to spend? Before you embark upon the
selection process, you need to establish your buying parameters.
The amount of money you want to spend will greatly influence the
type of vehicle you buy. Consult the
used vehicle pricing data
in this guide to set your buying parameters--and
then stick to it! Buying a car often stirs up emotions
that aren't particularly sensible. It's not always easy, but
don't get caught up in the heat of the moment and make a
decision you'll regret.
Consider your transportation needs and your lifestyle needs to
help decide on the type of vehicle you should buy. Do you want
a sedan or a coupe? A sport utility or a wagon? Make the
decision! This will save you a lot of wasted time in your
search. Don't just consider your immediate needs. Keep in mind that the same amount of money can get you
into a late model cream puff compact or an older sport
utility with a lot a miles, impending service bills and most
likely a whole lot of extra cash for gas. Determine your priorities.
Now that you've decided the type
of vehicle, you're confronted with dozens of makes, models and
trim variations. Again, try to narrow down your list to a few
A good place to start is the
annual April auto issue of Consumer Reports, available in
most libraries (remember those?). You can also visit their
website. Check their frequency-of-repair data to
determine if there may be one or more trouble areas in the
particular model(s) you are considering. Focus on these areas
when you go to look at the vehicle. Ask if they have been
Even if a vehicle seems to show
good overall reliability you can still get stuck with a problem
car. Don not rely soley on published data. Conversely, a model
with relatively poor ratings may have received loving care
throughout its life and be perfectly acceptable. Check with
friends, neighbors, relatives, etc. If any of them had owned a
similar model find out what their experiences were. After
all that, don't forget that you will still need to have any used
vehicle inspected before you buy.
A word of caution: with so much
information available on the internet, it's easy to suffer
information overload. To make matters worse, a lot of
information is often misleading, contradictory or downright
wrong. Manufacturers spend billions of dollars on branding
and consumer influence, and it often shows as owners regurgitate
the latest ad campaign in various bulletin boards, blogs, or
comment sections. And you can bet some of those comments
come from people employed or paid to monitor the most popular
This is also the time to check
with your insurance agent about the cost to insure the vehicle.
There can be substantial differences among models.
Another source to check is the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They have complete recall records for all cars
sold in the US. You can call at 1-800-424-9393 for recall
information or get the information directly from their databases
on the web here. You can also call your local
dealer or the manufacturer and ask if they can tell you if a
specific example (you'll need the VIN number) is under a recall
notice or if it has had all its recall
Check with your local new car
dealer about any Technical Service Bulletins (TSB's) that have
been issued by the manufacturer for the model(s) you are looking
at. Some of these may involve mechanical work paid for by the
manufacturer, either partially or in full. These reports are
also available online. You can also contact
the manufacturer directly and request a list for your records.
FINDING A USED
There are lots of places to buy used cars and trucks. Of the million used cars, vans and trucks that will be sold at the
retail level in the US and Canada this year, about half will
move through franchised and independent dealer lots and half by
the owner's themselves, including the rental companies.
You will find pros and cons with
each supply channel of used cars. We've highlighted the major
Dealers are regulated by federal
and state laws. They have to ensure that the vehicles they sell
meet all basic state and federal requirements. That means the
brakes, lights and emissions systems work properly. The car must
also meet all safety requirements. While this does not assure
your satisfaction, or even a reliable vehicle, regulations give
you and the dealer a set of rules for playing the game. It is
easier (though far from easy), to seek remedies if the vehicle
you purchase has been misrepresented, intentionally or not.
Also, the Federal Trade
Commission (FTC) requires that all new or used car dealers in
display a "Buyers Guide" sticker on a used
vehicles window. This also applies to new car "demos." Its
primary benefit to you is that it makes the dealer put the main
points of the deal (except the price) in writing before you
commit to purchase. If you purchase the vehicle, you should get
the original or a copy of the Buyers Guide that was affixed to
the window. One way to ensure you have the original
display copy is to take a picture of it. Unscrupulous
dealers may change the copy in the final paperwork to one with
better terms for them.
In particular, the sticker tells
you what the warranties (if any) come with the car and informs
you of any rights you may have. If the "AS IS" box is checked,
the dealer offers no warranty. Unless you can prove the dealer
absolutely lied to you (like tampering with the odometer or
misrepresenting the condition or age of the vehicle) you may
have little recourse. Most states require that dealers
provide a minimum warranty period, usually 30 days. Check
with your state's Attorney's General website or Department of
Motor Vehicles. Links to those sites can be found
Do not confuse this with the
stickers some dealers put on the window that describe the
vehicle and displays an asking price. Those are window dressing used to
make the dealer's price seem firm, backed by some
"impartial" third party (often Kelly Blue Book), and less
open to negotiation.
Unlike a private party who may sell one used car every five
years, one factor that all franchised and independent dealers
have to consider is their reputation in the community. If they
upset or intentionally mislead too many people, they will lose
business. Often the most earnest advertisers are the
dealers that can't rely on repeat or word-of-mouth business.
While it doesn't hurt to look at
the many websites with dealer satisfaction indexes or consumer
ratings, you have to be careful here, too. Fictional
postings (good and bad) are not unheard of!
New Car Dealers
This is usually the most expensive option. New car dealers make
a large portion of their profits from used vehicle sales. And
with intense and unprecedented competition in the new vehicle
sector depressing margins ever further, their determination to
wring as much profit as possible out of used cars, vans and
trucks is all that much stronger.
On the other hand, new car
dealers have large selections, especially of the make they sell.
Often, dealers get first shot at the best cars being auctioned
by the manufacturers they represent. These may be one-owner
"off-lease" vehicles or returns from rental firms or from other
Used Car Dealers
Like new car dealers, used car dealers (independent dealers not
affiliated with a manufacturer) have to ensure the vehicles they
sell meet minimum federal and state requirements. They have to
use the Buyer's
sticker. And they are subject to your state's laws.
Because they do not have the
overhead of a new car dealership and generally operate on
thinner profit margins, you can often get a better deal from an
independent. New car dealers capitalize on the perceived
stability and prestige of a new car operation by charging higher
prices. Used car dealers cannot.
Of course, there are downsides:
First, low overhead means they usually do not have service or
repair facilities or expertise in a particular make or
model. You may be relying on a service department that does not
know your vehicle particularly well. There are exceptions, of course.
Second, the quality of vehicle
may be lower. Generally speaking, these dealers get auction
leftovers or vehicles that have been wholesaled from another
dealer. This doesn't mean the vehicle is bad, just that you'll
have to keep your guard up. Hard-driven examples are far more
likely to end up on these lots. An inspection by an independent
mechanic is essential.
You may want to consider the used
car dealer that specializes in one or two specific makes. Since
they limit their service to one or a few makes, often they have
developed a thorough understanding and expertise of the models
they sell. Indeed, most have a background at a franchised
We recommend buying from used car
dealers who have been established in your community for at least
a few years, preferably at the same location. Ask for
references. Be extra careful of transient operators and "Buy
Here, Pay Here" or "Tote-the-Note" lots that offer second-rate
vehicles and onerous credit terms, usually to people with poor
Somewhat riskier than purchasing from a licensed dealer, often private parties offer
the best deals. Newspapers, auto trader magazines, the internet
and even cable TV are full of cars, vans and trucks for sale by
individuals. The biggest downside? Limited and often
impractical recourse if there is something wrong with the
vehicle or it if was misrepresented.
If you are considering this
route, start at the least risky source: someone you know.
Ask around and see if anyone is considering replacing their
vehicle in the near future. You can offer a little more
than a dealer would give in trade, so it's a win for all
involved. This is an especially good strategy if you know
that they had few problems with the car and took care of it
If you end up hitting the
classifieds and don't know the person,
take a look at their house and how they dress. If the outside of
their house is a mess and they are not clean in their personal
habits, it is unlikely that they took proper care of the
Always ask for service records.
The ideal private party transaction is buying from the original
owner who has maintained the vehicle properly and has the
service records to prove it. The records will also give you a
great deal of confidence in the odometer reading.
There are downsides: First, it's
a good idea to ensure that you are really dealing with a private
individual and not a dealer. There are thousands of front-yard
dealers or "curbsiders". One way of weeding out these dealers is to respond to
their advertisement by asking about "the car" without actually
saying the model name. If they have multiple cars for sale, they
won't know which car you are calling about and will have to ask.
Second, unless you are buying a vehicle still under it's
original warranty, you are not getting any guarantee. Third, in
the absence of outright fraud, you have little recourse against
a private party. Some states automatically convey dealer
status (and all the consumer protections that go with it) for
any individual selling more than a couple vehicles a year.
As a practical matter, though, it is quite likely that it will
be very difficult to fix any problem situation.
We don't want to paint all
curbsiders with the same brush. Many are just trying to
make a little extra income and do care about their reputation.
Because of their extremely low overhead, they can offer good
vehicles at prices most dealers can't meet. The problem
for the consumer is that it's often difficult to weed out the
bad ones. At the very least, check with your state's
Attorney's General office to see if there are any complaints
against the individual.
Generally, rental car companies will sell most of their cars at
the end of their service period through wholesale auctions.
Or they may have an arrangement with the manufacturer to return
them. Rental vehicles are also available directly from the
rental companies. Check your area yellow pages to find locations
and check availability.
Approach them as you would a new
car dealer. The cars have likely been well-maintained (although
maintenance requirements are quite low for new cars) and many have low
Many also have factory warranties that are still valid.
An unknown is that some examples may have been abused --
especially high performance models. You never know who's
been behind the wheel.
It's likely that you can find an auto auction in your area that
is targeted at consumers. You
can get a good price, but not if the vehicle is in demand on
that day. Do not assume that just because you can buy it at an
auction that you will get a good deal, because that is
absolutely not necessarily true. Often these vehicles
are rejects from wholesalers or other dealer auctions.
A problem with any auction is
that you may not get a good chance for a thorough inspection or
test drive. Also, you may not have the chance to get out of a
deal if the car is a lemon or is not what you thought it was. Be
sure you understand what your rights are before you make an
As a result, we do not recommend
buying at these auctions unless you fully understand the risks,
and know what you are doing when it comes to inspecting a
vehicle. Bring a mechanic if you can.
Government auctions are held around the country as the federal
government renews its Interagency Motor Pool. They are usually
driven for six years or 60,000 miles, whichever comes first.
Maintenance records are available. The vehicles can be inspected
on site and the engines can be started but they cannot be
driven, which is a major downside in our opinion. Contact the US
General Services Administration in the US government section of
the phone book for more information.
City, State and Federal agencies
impound thousands of vehicles each year. Most go to public
auction. There are even more variables to consider with
these vehicles, but if you've got time and knowledge, deals can
be found here. This is the Federal Government's
resource page, check with your state or city government for
INSPECTION OF THE
Now you are at the point of physically looking at and test
driving vehicles. You should be looking for
reasons NOT to buy the car! Do all you can to verify its
history. Inquire about accidents, major repairs, previous owners
and what the vehicle was used for. Was it used as a tow or plow
vehicle? Those two activities accelerate wear on major
If buying from a private party or
if the car had been serviced by the selling dealer, ask to see
Although you should have any used
vehicle inspected by a qualified mechanic before buying, there
are some things you can check out on your own that may help you
spot a clunker that isn't worth pursuing.
It is always a good idea to
verify information with a a vehicle history report. We
offer Carfax reports on our website, and it's been proven over
the years to be beneficial for millions of car buyers.
The body should be straight and have uniform color. Paint that
looks like an orange peel generally means that an inferior paint
job has been applied. In a late model car that may indicate that
it has been in an accident.
Check for rust along the body and
under the car. Too much rust can eventually destroy a car. Once
it starts it can progress very quickly. Determine if
undercoating has been recently applied, as that could be masking
a number of problems, including rust.
Check the transmission fluid. It should be pink, not brownish.
You can smell it to make sure there's no
burnt odors. On automatics, gears should change smoothly. On a manual transmission, gears
should shift without any loud noises, especially grinding. If
the clutch only activates at the top of the pedal's range, it
could mean that the clutch is due to be replaced. That can
Check the engine compartment for leaks and the floor of the
passenger compartment for moisture. Both could mean that the
cooling system is faulty. Check all the hoses and around
the engine in areas such as the intake manifold and cylinder
Take the cap off the radiator
(CAUTION: Don't do this when the engine is hot - check the
owner's manual for specific instructions). The coolant fluid
itself should be clean and free of floating debris. Dirty fluid
means the car has not been well maintained or has an internal
cooling system problem.
If you want to get crazy, bring a
small turkey baster or long eye dropper and extract some
coolant. Squirt it into a clear glass and examine the
contents. The fluid should have a viscosity greater than
water, be free of debris and have a oddly translucent look to
The engine should start quickly and idle smoothly. If you have
someone with you, have him/her push down on the accelerator to rev up the engine. Check
the exhaust for smoke. If it's just you, check the
rearview mirrors. Blue smoke is a warning sign as it can
indicate excess oil consumption. The engine may need rebuilding
or replacement. Lots of white smoke (not just a trace on a cold
day) means that the coolant is leaking into the engine, which
could be expensive to repair.
With the engine running, put good
sized piece of cardboard or poster board under it to check for leaks. If you see
any within a few minutes, it could be a simple fix such as a
gasket or something far more serious and expensive. Do not
consider purchasing the vehicle until you find out what is the
cause of any leak(s).
Turn the engine off. There should
be no run-on, it should stop immediately.
Bounce on all four corners. If any corner takes more than 2
bounces before it stabilizes, it may need new shocks or struts.
First, always test the brakes before moving. The pedal should
feel firm. Drive the car over a variety of road conditions and
speeds. Don't be rushed or pressured into a short test drive.
Ideally, the seller will let you take the car out yourself. At
the very least, spend 15 minutes behind the wheel. Be sure to
save at least for some part of your test at
highway speeds and try to drive over roads you are familiar
It's also a good idea to find a
really rough road to find out how well the suspension performs
and if there are any squeaks or rattles not noticeable on smooth
roads. Make a note of any unusual or obtrusive noises, rough
operation, and things that simply don't feel right.
A common malady is broken tie-rod
ends, which usually results in a clunking in the front end over
even minor bumps. Figure about $100 a side to have them
When you get back, leave the car
idling for another 5 minutes and check the temperature gauge (if
it has one). Check your impressions of the test drive against
our inspection checklist