With used car purchases, you 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 good prices return. 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. Let somebody else eat that depreciation and buy used!
Listen to Clark discuss the car-buying process on The Clark Howard Show podcast.
A step-by-step guide to buying a used car
As with any purchase, you have to do your homework when you’re buying used.
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
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. They do a great job parsing the new models every year 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
CarGurus 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 ‘great price,’ ‘good price’ ‘fair price’ and on down.
5. Run the vehicle number
Once you’ve found a vehicle you’re interested in, be sure to run the VIN though CarFax.com to find out if it’s a flood vehicle or if it’s been in a horrible accident.
There are also a few other sites that will tell you the history of a vehicle.
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.’ CarFax 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.