How to Find and Buy Your Perfect Used Car and Avoid a Clunker
New cars are sleek, shiny, full of impressive tech and smell amazing — mmm, 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 2019 was more than $37,000. 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. Or even a lot of money.
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, a spokesman with 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, so you don’t have to shell out as much cash.
Just because you’re buying a car at a lower price point 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.
So that covers the why. Now let’s get into how to buy a used car.
The Best Time to Buy
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.
Sharifi said 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. 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,” Sharifi said.
Of course, when you need a car might not align with a particular sale or time of month. Shopping for a vehicle before you’re in critical need of one will allow you time to search for the best deal rather than having to settle for something quick.
Where to Shop for a Used Car — and Where to Avoid
Where you shop for a used car matters so you can avoid purchasing a lemon.
DeLorenzo recommends shopping at franchised car dealerships that have certified pre-owned 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 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.
Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds, said when you’re buying from a private party, you may be able to get more accurate information about how they’ve driven and maintained the vehicle and what particular issues it might have.
However, you also need to be okay with buying the vehicle as-is and securing your own financing. And be sure the owner has clear title to the car — in other words, don’t let anyone sell you a car they don’t legitimately own.
If cost is your primary concern, a private seller is likely to offer a lower price. A dealer folds overhead, repairs and marketing into its price.
What to Look for When Buying a Used Car
Knowing when and where to buy a used car is just half the battle. Figuring out how to vet a used car can be tough, especially if you have little to no car knowledge.
These tips will give you some guidance to make a good choice.
1. 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 you’re buying a car that’ll fit 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.”
2. 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 what price 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.
3. Make Sure The Price is Right
You can also compare similar vehicles on the market to get an estimate of a car’s value, but keep in mind, no two used vehicles will be the same due to how they were driven and maintained. Use all this information when you sit down to negotiate — and don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t think you’re getting a fair price.
When you’re budgeting for a car purchase, make sure you’re factoring in all the associated costs, like sales tax, insurance and getting the car registered.
4. Check the History of the Car
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, like through Carfax, is a crucial step when buying a used car.
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. 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, 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.”
5. 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, 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 purchase, but especially if you’re buying from a private seller, have your mechanic inspect the vehicle before committing to buy.
Go Forth with Confidence
Does anyone actually enjoy car shopping? It’s a necessary chore, made slightly easier when you’re armed with knowledge.
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.
Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Staff writer Carson Kohler contributed to this post.