Are you looking for a car but don’t want to overpay? In that case, used cars may be your best bet.
New models devalue quickly once bought. So even if the owner never drove it, the vehicle is far cheaper than in the dealership. What a deal!
But the opposite can also happen. Sneaky sellers may try to offer the car for more than it’s worth. You drive away thinking you made a good purchase, but you don’t know all the hidden problems that will cost you money.
And that’s why used cars are both your best and worst choice. Unless you want to fall for those dealership scams, you need to learn how to buy a used car and what to ask.
Half of the work is about knowing where to look. And even then, you’re not safe from risks. Sellers will use any platform available to list their vehicles, whether they are legit or not.
Once you find a car deal that looks too good to be true, this guide will help you validate it.
How To Find A Good Used Car?
Your local dealership will probably be the most reliable, but that doesn’t mean prices are good. So when it comes to the best deal, you have three choices:
- Particular sellers
- Car dealerships
- Online sites (e.g. Craigslist, CarMax)
You will find the best price when dealing with particulars, assuming you find the right person. These people are drivers just like you, and it shouldn’t be hard to meet in person. As the owner, the driver should disclose any problems the car has.
The problem with these sellers is, you never know what happens after you close the deal. If they scam you, you won’t hear of them again. So you’re increasing risk to get a lower price.
Dealerships are usually more reliable, which doesn’t mean they price fairly. Restorations are common ways to hide bigger problems, so the client sees the car has more value than it is.
Car dealers may accept vehicles from other countries, which have a higher chance of odometer manipulation. One may expect that the seller has inspected every unit of the lot. But until you hire your mechanic, you’re never sure of what’s in front of you.
Then there are online sites, which may or may not show the reality. But assuming you meet in person and pay after the test-drive, there should be no problem. Any site asking for personal information upfront should be a warning — and that includes phishing websites posing as big automotive brands.
Our advice is, check all three. Because you never know where the next best deal will be. Meeting in person for every opportunity may look like a waste of time. But as you spend more time searching for that ideal car, you have a higher chance of finding it.
What To Look For In A Used Car?
Let’s say you found your opportunity, and tomorrow is your inspection day. You know the seller will try to make the best impression of his car, so how can we estimate the most realistic price?
Look, you don’t need to be a “car nerd” to do it right. You only need to know what to check and what to ask. But first, here are the steps you should NEVER skip when buying used cars:
ALWAYS TEST DRIVE
You don’t know what you’re buying until you test it. Good deals may convince you there is “no risk” and, therefore, no tests are needed. Maybe the seller makes you a better offer:
“If you buy right now, I will give you a $1,000 discount.”
If the seller is dissuading you from testing or gives excuses, there must be a (bad) reason for it. I’d suggest not looking further into it because there’s probably a big hidden problem.
And when you drive, we want to pay attention to the car. Imagine the seller sits next to your driver seat and starts talking or turns the radio. He might try to help, or it may be a distraction tactic.
Learn About The Model Reliability
Some cars start having issues after accumulating 150,000 miles. Others can drive for 300K+ and still look like new. So before you look at the mileage, know how reliable your model is.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy unreliable vehicles. But on negotiation, you can use it to your advantage:
“The price seems reasonable at first. But this model is known for giving lots of repair issues after X miles/years of use. So a lower price would be fair.”
Those who own unreliable cars will probably restore them slightly for a value increase. But that doesn’t fix the structural problems. Just because they changed the paint or the seats, that doesn’t make it worth paying more.
Obviously, reliable models will give less trouble. But because they endure so well over time, it’s sometimes impossible to tell a new car from a seven-year one. And odometers aren’t hard to manipulate.
Hire A Mechanic
Unless you’ve tested dozens of cars, you won’t always know how to inspect the right way.
Remember you’re buying from a stranger, and they know their car better than you. If they choose to hide some problems, only the experts will find out. Each model works differently.
It sometimes feels like a waste of money when everything is so obvious. “What could go wrong?” you know?
I like to look at it as if you’re spending a couple hundred to save thousands of dollars. If the car looks good, you lost a few hundred on a mechanic. But eventually, you will save more than what you spent.
We can’t say that you “must always” hire one because it’s your money. But we strongly recommend it in these cases:
- Restored vehicles
- Electric cars
- Vehicles with 5+ years or 150,000+ of mileage
Sometimes, the seller is a mechanic. Or a large car dealer may have its own one. Hire yours anyway. You need someone who has no incentives in selling you the car.
Think Twice About Guarantees
Guarantees can help you recover the value in case the car has issues after the purchase. But unless those problems existed before the purchase, you may not get the compensation.
Dealers promise to give your money back in case of unexpected breakdowns. If the car you buy is NOT reliable, it’s smart to pay for this insurance.
Mind that car dealers may include it as a default option on their price. So if you don’t need it, ask to deduct the guarantee from the price.
It’s rare to find private owners offering guarantees, and they’re not worth it. While dealerships have a physical business, these drivers can disappear regardless of what they promised on paper.
If you complete the purchase online, you can use escrow or buyer protection to recover the funds in case of fraud. A 3rd-party fee will apply.
How To Inspect A Used Car
A car’s appearance doesn’t usually represent its value. You can always fix the details later, but the functional parts should work perfectly.
Here’s how a used car would look after 100K-200K of mileage:
- Visible wear-and-tear of the steering wheel and driver’s seat
- Slightly worn out brake pads
- Dusty odometer from the inside (points that nobody touched it)
- The tires need/don’t need a replacement (use the penny test)
- When testing the engine, smoke shouldn’t appear
After these quick checks, you can be 80% sure about the status of your vehicle. But if the seller has restored it, these signs become less evident. Your mechanic will get into the details you may have missed.
What To Ask A Car Seller?
Nobody knows about the car more than the seller. While the mechanic may tell you what’s wrong, the seller will tell you why it is.
By far, the biggest question is:
Why are you selling me this car?
The worst answer they won’t tell you could be: “because it’s bad, and I want to get rid of it.”
Translation: I need to lie about this vehicle. Otherwise, nobody will buy it, and I’ll be stuck with it.
Another answer you could get is: “I want to buy a new one.”
That implies there is something they don’t like about the current one. Is it a problem the car has or is it the way it’s built? This isn’t necessarily bad. Each person prefers a different model. So they might buy another vehicle type from their favorite brand and not like it.
If a car is good, sellers don’t get much from selling it. So there must be a strong reason.
The driver’s habits can tell you a lot about the deal. If they don’t drive it much, it’s a good reason to sell it. That also means the car may be almost like new, which makes it a great deal.
Did they use it to drive to work for many years? Do they use it for long trips on vacation? How well do they maintain it?
If the car is old, you could ask:
“If you weren’t selling, how many more years do you think you could keep driving this car?”
You’re not only paying for the car. You want to enjoy it for as long as possible. So even if they maintained it well, you probably won’t use a 25-year car for very long.
How did you get to this price?
Everyone has its reasons to get the best deal. Sometimes you deserve a better price, sometimes you’re asking for too much.
In any case, it doesn’t hurt to learn as much as possible about the deal. Maybe you find out that the car is overpriced. So you show the evidence to the seller, and they will lower the price for you.
Or perhaps you find the owner is selling for just the right enough. If it’s within your budget, you take it. Otherwise, you’d better look for a cheaper car, because there’s no room for negotiation.
You make better decisions when you know more about the car. Ask the driver why they think it’s worth that price, and then contrast it with your mechanic. Does the listing price make sense after the evaluation?
Does this quote include all the fees?
If you choose to buy from a dealership, you may find yourself paying hundreds of fees just to sign the contract. We don’t know whether these are essential or not, but these can add up to $700.
Maybe the car looks cheap, but after adding the fees, it costs just like any other vehicle. Before you think: “This is a good deal!” remember that the dealer may surprise you with last-minute fees. This should be the first question to ask.
The Bottom Line
Buying brand-new cars isn’t always a good investment. You get so much more when buying the right used car. It’s a win-win for both the buyer and the seller.
That gives you control, which is both a good and bad thing. It’s your fault to trust a scammer, but you can always keep looking until you find the best deal.
The reason the car is for sale tells you a lot about whether you should buy or not. Ideally, you want to buy from a driver like you, with the same driving habits. Buyers like sellers who treat their vehicles as well as they’d do, if not better.