Buying a used vehicle can be a smart choice financially, but the process may take a little more research and legwork than when you buy a new vehicle.
"When you purchase a new car, often the biggest concern is the price, but when you buy a used car there are additional considerations to keep in mind," says Kelsey Mays, consumer affairs editor at Cars.com, Chicago.
The best way to keep yourself from buying a lemon is to conduct some research before making the purchase.
Browse the Web or local papers to get a feel for vehicle price in your area. Websites such as Autotrader.com, Cars.com, or Edmunds.com are good places to start. Search surrounding areas as well—there may be a much cheaper price reasonably close, especially if you live in a large city. "When you buy a used car there are additional considerations to keep in mind."
Read Consumer Reports or another review site that can help you understand safety and other durability and reliability specifics of the car you're about to purchase.
You also can review crash-test results and manufacturer information at the National Transportation Safety Board website.
"The Internet has improved the used-car buying experience because it has put the buyer in control as you can find out many details about the vehicle before going to see it," says Mays.
Once you narrow the search, check the estimated value of the car by checking Kelley Blue Book or NadaGuides. These resources typically will outline the value of your car whether you're buying off the lot (retail), selling to a private buyer (private party), or trading in at a dealership.
If you find multiple cars of the same make, model, and year it's beneficial to look at them and take each for a test drive so you can compare and understand which car is in the best working condition.
When you first arrive to see the car, look for obvious damage to the body and any detailing that may have been done to cover up damage to the vehicle. Take special note of body rust and tire wear—general and uneven. Note the condition of the vehicle. Take a look under the hood before you go for a drive. Inspect the engine compartment and look at general cleanliness. Remove the oil dip stick; inspect the oil to see if it's old and dirty and if any particulate matter is present. Also inspect the coolant.
Check the condition of the interior. Is it well maintained? Does it smell like cigarette smoke?
While driving keep on the lookout for noticeable vibrations, whether the alignment may be off, worn brakes, and working cruise control—as well as if all buttons and knobs in the car operate correctly. Make sure the car provides the comfort, power, and size you're looking for.
"Be sure to take the car for a long drive to get the vehicle up to operating temperature and drive over variable road surfaces and conditions," says Brian Moody of AutoTrader.com, Atlanta.
When you return from the test drive, leave the engine running and open the hood to make sure there are no odd smells or visible fluid leaking.
"If the previous owner will not let you drive the car, do not buy it," Moody says.
Next, order a vehicle history report from a site like carfax.com or autocheck.com. These sites give you a record of the vehicle based on the VIN (vehicle identification number) and will help you make sure the vehicle has not had a major accident or been stolen or salvaged.
"These reports are tripped by insurance claims or police reports so it is not guaranteed that all issues will be listed but this is a great tool typically costing $20 to $50," says Moody.
According to Frank Dorman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Public Affairs Department, Richmond, Va., if you're buying from a used-car dealer, make sure the car has a Buyers Guide displayed in the window. Dealers are required by a 1985 law, the Used Motor Vehicle Trade Regulation Rule, to present specific information including warranty.
defer to the experts
Make sure the final sale is contingent on inspection by a reputable mechanic with experience working on the type of vehicle you are considering. This may take an appointment and will cost $25 to $100, but is worth it even if just for peace of mind.
If you're doing a long-distance purchase, the seller should be willing to schedule a vehicle inspection for you. Another option is to hire a service such as carchex.com where an inspector will inspect the car curbside at the seller's home or office. This service likely is not as thorough as bringing the car to a garage but it's better than taking a seller's word for it.
have your cake
You can have some of the benefits of a new car by buying a certified preowned used car. These are late model vehicles that often were leased. They undergo a rigorous inspection by the dealer and offer an extended warranty, often to 100,000 miles or more. These vehicles typically cost an additional $1,000 to $2,000 up front. "If the previous owner will not let you drive the car, do not buy it."
"Be aware, a lot of places will use the term but it means something specific," says Moody. "Often dealerships will purchase a private car maintenance policy for the vehicle and call it certified preowned," even though only new car dealers selling cars directly from the manufacturer can offer certified preowned cars. That designation means the warranty is certified by the manufacturer.
Before hitting the lots, get preapproved for an auto loan at your credit union. Whether you're buying a new or used vehicle, the professionals there can help you with financing.
If you keep these points in mind you'll be able to save money and have a reliable ride.