In the past, buying a used car often felt like rolling the dice, especially for buyers with little technical knowledge. Although getting a professional inspection and test drive before you buy is still the best way to avoid a clunker, you can get helpful background knowledge before you even leave the house.
By using the resources mentioned below and following the advice in this article, you’ll be well informed about the type of car you’re buying, more confident that a specific vehicle is roadworthy, and better prepared to negotiate a fair price for a used car. (If you’re looking for a new car rather than a used one, see Buying a New Car and Trading In Your Old One.)
The first step when buying a used car is deciding what vehicle works best for you. A Porsche 911 might sound exciting, but might not be the best fit for your lifestyle. Some of the most important factors and questions to consider when considering what used vehicle to get are:
Once you’ve decided on a vehicle that fits your needs, find out if the typical price of that car fits your budget. Various websites—like Kelley Blue Book—provide estimates of car values, depending on the make, model, year, mileage, options, and condition of the vehicle. This estimate can provide a starting point for your negotiations with the seller.
If you aren’t spending cash, it can be tempting to rush into a questionable loan when you’re excited about an immediate purchase. Before starting the search for your vehicle, shop around for the best loan terms and get pre-approved. A pre-approval will expedite the purchase once you find the car you want to buy.
Numerous websites, including Autotrader and Cars.com, are available for finding used cars in your area or elsewhere if the inventory in your area is lacking. Generally speaking, prices for privately-sold cars are lower than for those sold at a car lot.
Used car lots come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of trustworthiness. Do some research on local lots before you decide to buy from one. Purchasing from the used car lot of a dealership or one of the national used car companies, like CarMax, might be costlier, but could provide you with added confidence about your purchase through offerings such as certification or a warranty. (To learn about express and implied automobile warranties and how to enforce them, see Car Warranties: the Basics.)
Once you’ve found a car that looks promising, get the VIN (vehicle identification number). Then, look up the Carfax vehicle history report, which provides important information for the specific vehicle, including the sales history, mileage, service records, collision repair records, recalls, and problems the vehicle might have had.
Even with the many resources available online, you should still have a mechanic inspect the vehicle and get a reliable professional to test drive the car before you buy it. Schedule an appointment with a reputable dealership or mechanic to take a look at the car. While the dealership or mechanic won’t guarantee your purchase, they might find issues—or potential issues—with the car based on their expertise and their ability to thoroughly look it over. The small cost of an inspection and test drive could save you thousands in the long run if you avoid an unreliable vehicle.
Once you’re ready to buy a specific car, use everything you’ve learned from reading this article to get the best deal possible. Start with the fair market value you found online and then mention any problems in the car’s history, maintenance that needs to be done soon, and any issues you discovered in the inspection or test drive to negotiate a lower price.
To learn more about buying a used car, get Nolo's Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, by the editors of Nolo. This handy guide contains hundreds of answers to the average American's most frequently asked legal questions.