So you’re not the type to buy or lease a new vehicle, and even “Certified Pre-Owned” cars are more coin than you’re willing to part with. So, Mr. Cash-and-carry, how can you avoid getting ripped off when buying a used car? There are no absolutes, and even well respected manufacturers build lemons from time to time, but here are my top ten pointers for buying a good used car at a fair price:
1) Know EXACTLY what you want. Don’t shop for a “sporty car” or a “sedan” or a “pickup truck”. Shop for a 2000 to 2005 Mazda Miata, or a 2001 – 2003 VW Passat or a 1997 – 2000 Ford F150. If you stay focused, you are less likely to be lured into buying a car you have NOT done research on just because it appears to be cleaner or in better shape. Focus, people!
2) Do your homework. Once you decide on a year, brand and model, learn all you can about it. Sites such as Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book are good places to start and can give you a feel for regional pricing of the car you’re shopping for. Better yet, brand and model specific forums will give you much more in-depth information on reliability, problem areas, tuning and prices. Google is your friend here, and I recommend you visit several message boards to get a feel for the type of information on each.
3) Once you’ve found a vehicle, Carfax is your friend. Many sellers now offer a Carfax report as proof that their vehicle is worth buying; don’t be afraid to ask for one, especially if you’re buying from a dealer. Running a Carfax report on a specific VIN will tell you how many owners the car has had, whether it’s been in any accidents, what recalls the car has been subjected to and what the mileage should be. Walk away from any cars that have bad histories (major accidents, many owners, unclear mileage, etc.), but be aware that Carfax is not omniscient: accidents, if unreported to police or insurance companies, will not show up in a Carfax report.
4) Remember, cars purchased at dealers will cost more money than private party sales. The trade off is that you should have SOME recourse with a dealer should the car turn out to be a lemon. Many new car dealers offer limited warranties on used cars, which may give you some piece of mind. New car dealers can also be a source for “lease take back” vehicles, which can be a good choice for a used car.
5) Beware of small used car dealers. Not all of ‘em are shady, but many of them are. Never buy from a used car dealer unless you do the research on the vehicle you’re buying first. Word of mouth counts for a lot here, too – if a friend or neighbor can recommend a used car dealer from personal experience they may be worth a visit. Megalots like Carmax are the exception here; their vehicles are carefully bought from customers and auctions and inspected prior to sale. You’ll generally pay more than a private party sale, but the megalots generally give you a limited warranty.
6) NEVER buy a vehicle with a salvage title. A salvage title means that an insurance company has written the car off due to accident damage, flood damage, etc. Salvage titled cars typically sell for 20% to 50% less than “clean” titled cars, for good reason – they almost always have problems, and can be difficult to sell or even insure. It doesn’t hurt to see the title in person either; titles with white-out or scratched off information should set off alarm bells. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
7) Personal Inspection – this is obvious, but go over the car with a fine tooth comb (figuratively speaking). You are looking for rust, dents, scratches, transitions in paint color, mismatched body panel gaps, uneven tire wear or other damage. A shiny paint job can be a bad sign – look for evidence that the car was recently repainted (overspray in wheel wells, trunk, door frame, etc). No one wants to spend a lot of money to repaint a car if they’re trying to unload it. Mismatched paint (door to quarter panel, for example) may be a sign of accident damage. “Flat” paint (not as glossy as surrounding areas) may be a sign of body filler. If the seller agrees, use a soft magnet (preferably through a microfiber towel) to check for Bondo. If a fender should be steel and you can’t get a magnet to stick, it may be time to walk away and keep looking.
8 ) Mechanical inspection – this is too lengthy a subject to cover here, since what to look for varies from car to car. It’s always a good idea to have the car checked out by a competent mechanic. Brand specific mechanics are best – don’t take a Volvo to a guy who wrenches on Cadillacs for a living. Walk away from any deals where the owner refuses to let you have the car inspected.
9) Test drive – make sure you take your time here. Look for any problems like:
– Does the car smoke at start up? How about on deceleration?
– Does the car pull to one side?
– How do the brakes feel?
– Where does the clutch grab?
– Any unusual noises?
– How does it feel at idle? Does it accelerate smoothly?
– Does the A/C work? Stereo? Wipers? Lights?
– Any unusual smells? (a sweet smell in the interior can be a sign of leaking coolant from the heater core – just walk away).
10) Can you afford the insurance? This is often overlooked when people shop for a new (used) car. If you’re going from driving a 20 year old Volvo 140 to a 3 year old BMW M3, expect an increase in insurance costs. A BIG, HONKIN’ INCREASE. Depending on your age and record, cars like a Mustang or Camaro may be uninsurable – make sure you know this BEFORE you buy.
Take your time and shop smart. A car is a long term investment, and will last for hundreds of thousands of miles if well cared for. Don’t be afraid to haggle on the price, but remember that the best value is not always the lowest price.