7 Tips to Buy a Used Car and Avoid Getting Ripped Off
New cars are sleek, shiny, full of impressive tech and have that amazing new car smell. But they also come with price tags that can take your breath away — and not in a good way.
According to Kelley Blue Book, the average price of a new car in May 2021 was more than $41,000. Yowser.
If you’re in the market for a set of wheels that’s more affordable, steer your sights over to the used car lot to save a little money on your next vehicle. Or even a lot of money.
7 Key Tips When Buying a Used Car
The car buying process can be intimidating, especially if you have little to no car knowledge. Then there’s the when and the where of buying a car.
Knowing the ins and outs of how to buy a used car will make the whole process less stressful and, most importantly, save you money.
1. Choose the Best Time to Buy a Used Car
Unlike new car releases, used cars come on the market throughout the year. It all depends on when their previous owners end their leases, put them up for sale or decide to trade in their vehicles.
However, there are certain times when you’re more likely to score a better deal.
Matt DeLorenzo, senior managing editor for Kelley Blue Book, said when dealerships host big sales events for new models, that can also benefit used car shoppers.
“[Dealerships] will have more used vehicle inventory as a result of those types of promotions,” he said.
Think of the big sales that fall around holidays like Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day.
The end of a model year — around September or October — is another good time to shop, DeLorenzo noted, as salespeople are looking to make deals to clear out their used vehicle stock to make room for new inventory.
It’s best to avoid shopping for a car on the weekend when there’s an influx of customers and sales staff is spread thin, Sharifi said. You’ll get more attention from the sales team by visiting on off hours, specifically on weekdays.
“The end of the month (or the end of a quarter) can also be a good time to strike a deal, since dealerships may need to hit monthly or quarterly sales goals,” he said.
Set up a sinking fund to save up to buy a used car in advance of needing to replace your current car.
2. Determine Where to Shop for a Used Car — and Where to Avoid
Where you shop for used cars matters so you can avoid purchasing a lemon.
DeLorenzo recommends shopping at franchised car dealerships that have certified pre-owned cars (CPO cars) — used vehicles that have been thoroughly inspected and typically come with some type of warranty coverage. Non-certified cars aren’t bad — and they’ll typically cost less — but they’re more likely to have higher mileage and more maintenance needs.
Be wary of independent car lots that boast they can make you a deal regardless of your credit or circumstance.
“Typically they’ll try to get you in with a low price, but you may not be getting the best quality car,” he said. “The other thing is that if you get your financing through those types of dealers, they typically charge you a much higher interest rate.”
DeLorenzo recommends pre-qualifying for a loan at a bank or credit union before visiting a dealership. You can compare the offer with the dealer’s financing terms for better negotiating leverage.
For any car dealer you visit, do some due diligence and check customer reviews online. If you know others who’ve recently purchased a car, ask for recommendations.
When you buy a used car from a private party, you may be able to get more accurate information about how they’ve driven the vehicle, the service history and what particular issues it might have, said Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.
However, you also need to be OK with buying the vehicle as-is and securing your own financing. And be sure the owner has clear title and owns the car outright.
If cost is your primary concern, private sellers are likely to offer a lower price. A dealer folds overhead, repairs and marketing into its purchase price.
3. Find a Vehicle That Fits Your Needs
It’s easy to focus on the numbers — age of the car, mileage and cost — but you also want to make sure to buy a used car that fits your needs for however long you expect to have it. If you have a growing family, you might want to rethink that two-door coupe or compact vehicle.
“You want to make sure there’s enough room for you,” Montoya said. “Take a look at the cargo area. Take a look at how easy it is to see out of the vehicle. Test out the entertainment system.”
4. Determine How ‘Used’ You’re Willing to Go
The older a car is, the cheaper it’ll be — but the more it’s likely to have issues requiring repair. Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to what they’re willing to handle. A general rule of thumb is that a car is driven about 12,000 miles per year. A higher average could mean the car has more wear and tear.
Montoya said used car buyers must strike a balance between the age of the car, the amount of miles and how much money they’re willing to pay.
Buying an extended warranty or service plan can give you peace of mind that certain repairs or maintenance jobs will be covered.
Montoya said plans sold by auto manufacturers or reputable dealerships are better options than those sold by third-party companies. Make sure you understand exactly what your plan covers.
5. Make Sure You Get the Right Price
You can also compare similar vehicles to get an estimate of a car’s market value, but keep in mind, no two used cars will be the same due to how they were driven and maintained. Use all this information when you sit down to negotiate for the best price — and don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t think you’re getting a good deal.
When you’re budgeting for a car purchase, make sure you’re factoring in all the associated costs, like sales tax, car insurance and getting the car registered.
6. Check the Vehicle History Report
Sometimes just looking at a car will give you some idea of its history. Rust, worn out pedals and a side panel painted in a different color are red flags.
But don’t just assume a car’s history. Getting the car’s history report, such as through Carfax, is a crucial step when you buy a used car. You can look it up easily if you have the car’s vehicle identification number or VIN.
You’ll have to purchase the report if you’re buying from a private seller, so wait until you’re seriously interested in a particular vehicle. Vehicle history reports cost around $25 to $40.
If you’re deciding between a few different vehicles, you can purchase a package of multiple vehicle history reports at a lower cost per report.
If you’re buying from a dealership, the salesperson should provide a copy of the vehicle history report for free.
Sharifi said to watch out for discrepancies with the odometer reading and if there’s a branded title or salvage title, which indicates that the car has been significantly compromised in some way.
“Severe accidents and instances where a car has been declared a total loss should signal the buyer to use caution,” he said. “That said, a small fender bender shouldn’t always mean that a buyer should walk away from a great deal.”
7. Go for a Test Drive
Always, always, always take a car for a spin before buying it. If you can bring a mechanic with you to get the car inspected on the spot, even better.
“Some general things you can do on your own without being super knowledgeable about cars is [to] turn off the radio [and] listen for any strange noises,” Montoya said. “See if the steering wheel stays straight when you drive down the road. Does it pull to one side? Look at the tires to see how old they are.”
Don’t just look at the tires’ tread. Each tire should include a four-digit number marking the month and year it was manufactured. Tires older than six years can be dried out and need replacing.
For any used car purchases, but especially if you’re buying from a private seller, have your mechanic inspect the vehicle before committing to buy.
Why Buying a Used Car Is a Smart Money Move
If you’ve ever heard someone refer to a car as a depreciating asset, it’s true. The longer you have a car, the less it’s worth. The first year of owning a new vehicle is when depreciation really packs a punch.
Jim Sharifi, formerly a content editor at Carfax, said research shows a new vehicle can lose as much as 10% of its value within the first month.
“In the first year of ownership, depreciation can continue, and that same car could be worth up to 20% less than its original sale price,” he said.
When you buy a used car, the original owner has already taken that initial hit on depreciation and the price you pay accounts for that.
While you’ll save more money when you buy a used car rather than a new one, used car prices are currently on the rise due to low inventory and increased demand.
Just because you’re buying a used car at doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck with a clunker that was manufactured decades ago. Cars that are just two or three years old often hit dealership lots when their previous owners reach the end of their lease.
Those vehicles often have low mileage and are in great condition, having had only one previous owner. Sometimes they even still retain a hint of that new car smell.
Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Former staff writer Carson Kohler contributed to this post.