7 steps to buying a good used car

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used vehicles parked at carmax lot
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Buying a gently used car instead of a new vehicle is one of the smartest financial moves you can make. Here’s what you need to know before you start shopping.

RELATED: The top 15 cars that people keep for 15 years or more

A step-by-step guide to buying a used car

The key thing to know with used car purchases is that you generally buy “as is” — no matter what condition the car is in. The vehicle and all its warts become your problem. If it comes with any warranty, it’s usually very limited.

After unusual run-ups in cost earlier this decade, the used-car market is once again seeing a return to normal pricing.

My preference is for you to buy a two or three-year-old used car, rather than a new car. Because when you buy a new car, it loses value the minute you drive off the lot.

The loss of value that a new car immediately experiences is called “depreciation.”

Here’s how to understand depreciation in real-life terms: Let’s say you buy a new car for $35,000. Unfortunately, you drive it off the lot and immediately get into an accident where the vehicle is declared a total loss.

Even though your vehicle only has a few miles on the odometer, your insurance company won’t pay you the full $35,000 for the total loss. You’re likely to get several thousand dollars less because of depreciation.

That means if you took out a car loan for the full $35,000, you must now come up with several thousand bucks on your own to pay off that loan.

So that’s how depreciation on a new vehicle can come back to bite you. My thing is, let somebody else eat that depreciation and just buy a used vehicle instead!

Now, let’s take a look at the pre-buying steps you should take when you’re in the market for a used car…

1. Arrange your used auto financing first

Look at credit unions, online banks or even traditional banks. Only take dealer financing if it beats any other offer you have. Of course, I would love for you to pay for an affordable used car completely in cash!

2. Make sure the used vehicle is worth what you’re paying

Check Edmunds.com, KBB.com or NADA.com for the true market value so you come up with a feel for the price.

Honda and Toyota pretty routinely top the tally for car reliability that Consumer Reports does, which means there’s a premium on their resale value.

If you want a really cheap yet reliable used car, skip the Hondas and the Toyotas of the world. USA TODAY recommends you instead look at what are called “second-tier” Japanese brands such as Mazda, Nissan or Mitsubishi.

You’ll also probably want to skip European models but for a different reason. Cars with German engineering, for example, are so finely tuned that they require a lot of upkeep. That’s extra money you’ll always have to be spending in the shop.

A happy medium might be something like the Ford Focus, according to USA TODAY. That particular model from the U.S. automaker has a lot proven reliability, which brings us to our next point…

3. Check Consumer Reports for reliability

The annual Consumer Reports auto reliability survey is the most extensive survey of automotive reliability. Year after year, they’ve done a great job parsing the new models when they come out. 

But here’s the real value for a used car buyer: The magazine also offers detailed reliability ratings for the past six model years on every possible nameplate. These ratings are compiled from reports about 17 common trouble spots in more than half a million cars on the road.

4. Know where to find the deals

When searching for cheap used cars online, check Craigslist, AutoTrader, iSeeCars, the Klipnik message boards and CarGurus, among others.

That last one lets you put in your zip code and the make/model of the vehicle you’re interested in at their website. They’ll comb through some two million listings available on published databases and rate the vehicles available for sale with notations of ‘good deal,’ ‘fair deal,’ ‘overpriced’ and so on.

5. Run the vehicle number

Once you’ve found a vehicle you’re interested in, be sure to run the vehicle identification number (VIN) through a free VIN check tool to find out if it’s a flood vehicle or if it’s been in an accident.

6. Have the used vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic

As mentioned earlier, one of the key things to know about buying a used car is that you buy ‘as is.’ Doing a free VIN check tool alone is not enough of a check; you need to take this additional step.

Never rely on any representations that the salesperson makes about the car, be it a commissioned employee at a dealership or an independent seller in your neighborhood.

You need a mechanic of your choice to check out the vehicle!

7. Don’t forget about no-haggle buying options

It can be tough to find a diamond in the rough and weed out the lousy deals. Try Carvana.com, which has a seven-day no-questions-asked return policy. It’s kind of like the Carmax of the online used car buying world.


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