Buying a Used Car? 10 Tips for a Smart Purchase

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Buying a Used Car? 10 Tips for a Smart Purchase

Buying a car can be very stressful. Any car, even used, is a major purchase, so you don't want to blow your budget with a car that turns out to be a "lemon," a car that you discover is defective after its purchase, or unsuited to your needs. Learn what to look for, as well as what to avoid, with 10 used car buying tips from Steve Hague, the owner of Professional Auto Buying Services, a company that specializes in helping car buyers get the best possible deals.

1. Lifestyle

“Buy the right car for your lifestyle,” says Hague. “Are you looking at an SUV, but you'll be driving alone in an area without snow and with a long commute? Are you looking at a VW Beetle, but you'll be driving your kids to hockey practice?” Be realistic about what you need. If good gas mileage is at the top of the importance list for you, buy something small and fuel-efficient.

2. Budget

Don't stretch to buy the Mercedes when your financial situation calls for a Toyota. According to Hague, “Many people tend to buy more car than they need or can afford and end up with buyer's remorse and climbing debt. Nobody wants to plan for the loss of a job or a new roof on the house, but things happen so you should take a realistic view of your financial situation when buying a used car.”

3. Research

With the plethora of information available online today, there's no excuse for buying a used car and claiming ignorance after you've driven it for a while and experience problems. There are many sites online that review every car available going back many years, such as Consumer Reports and Edmunds. Hague also suggests reading consumer reviews to get real world experiences from people just like you.  

4. Options

Narrow your choices to two or three similar cars. For example, a Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata are comparable sedans. By keeping a few options in mind, you will be able to comparison shop for the best deal.

5. Miles

Generally, the lower the miles, the longer the car has before major repairs are needed, but there are certainly exceptions to that rule. If you can afford it, look for a car with less than 80,000 miles. As for age, three to five years is ideal. Avoid used cars that are more than 10 years old.

6. Seller

Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s time to find a seller. There are many choices for buying a used car.

  • Private parties: This is usually your least expensive option.
  • New car lots: Many new car lots also sell used cars. You will probably pay the most here, but are likelier to get a car without hidden problems.
  • Used car lots: Less expensive than a new car lot, but you might drive away with a lemon.
  • Online brokers: Websites like ProAutoBuying.com do the searching and negotiating for you, finding you the best possible deal. You will pay a fee for the service, however.

7. Test Drive

Never buy a used car you haven’t taken for a test drive. You won’t know how the car suits you personally until you take the wheel and head out on the road. Hague points out that some cars rated extremely well may not be a good fit for a tall driver.  If you have back problems, you'll want to know if you’re going to feel every bump you drive over. Be sure to drive at various speeds, back the car up and make a tight turn. Check all the lights, doors, locks and air conditioning.

8. Negotiate

Haggling is part of the car buying experience. Make an offer that is below what you are prepared to pay, but fair. If you have already looked at another car at a lower price, ask the sales person if he or she will match the price. Be prepared to leave if you are overly pressured.

9. Professional Inspection

Sure it takes time and money ($50 to $75 on average) according to Hague, but isn't it better to find out now that there is $2,000 worth of repairs needed or recommended, rather than finding out once you sign on the dotted line? Make an appointment with a mechanic to have the vehicle inspected, and take it there before you buy. 

10. History

Check the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) before you buy. Sites like Carfax will run a check on the auto’s VIN, showing any history of collisions, odometer readings and service records.

Follow these tips when buying a used car, and you are likely to leave the lot with a vehicle that will provide years of reliable service.

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