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Buying a used car can be stressful.
But if you empower yourself with just a little bit of knowledge, it doesn’t have to be.
You just have to learn to separate the duds from the diamonds.
With the knowledge I’ll give you in this article, you’ll be able to do that.
Some naysayers will say you can’t buy a decent used car for under $10,000. But if you invest just a little time and effort into your search, you can get one that’s in great shape for under $3,000.
There are tons of reasons to buy a used car instead of a new one. One of these reasons is that new vehicles lose a significant of their value the minute you drive it off the lot.
And, after one year, a brand spanking new car has lost a whopping 19% of its value!
On the other hand, the depreciation curve isn’t as steep with a used car. This means you can expect to find a lot of fantastic used car deals if you know how to look.
Another thing to consider is that automobiles have never been better built than they are now. This means there are perfectly good cars you can buy that have odometer readings of well over 100,000 miles.
If you’re trying to be frugal, buying a high-mileage car makes a lot of sense. Buying used instead of new also saves you money on taxes, depreciation, and insurance.
1. Set a Budget
Most experts say the lowest price you should pay for a decent used car is about $2,500. You’re asking for trouble if you buy one for lower than that. Budget a monetary amount you think you can afford, and then stick to it.
If you’re shelling out actual money, make sure you have enough set aside for registration, insurance, routine maintenance, and repairs. If you’re taking out a loan, put 10% down and pay off the balance within three years.
The total of your monthly automotive expenses shouldn’t be more than 20% of your monthly take-home pay.
2. Know Which Models to Look For
Start with Japanese cars, because they have the highest J.D. Power satisfaction ratings.
However, Honda and Toyota routinely top the list for car reliability for Consumer Reports, so you’ll have to pay much more for these makes. Instead, go with second-tier Japanese brands like Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Mazda.
Consider buying a Ford Focus, which consistently gets high marks for reliability from Consumer Reports. Check the Consumer Reports reliability ratings for the last six years or so for other cars you might want to buy.
3. Choose A Car Based on Reliability
Try to buy a used car that’s high on the reliability scale. That’s because unlike a new car, a used car has been around the block a few times. This makes it more likely to break down.
To judge how reliable a car is, look at its reliability rating from J.D. Power. J.D. Power Reliability ratings are a combination of quality and dependability scores. Quality scores are based on feedback from owners after they first purchase a vehicle. Dependability scores focus on longer-term ownership experiences.
To arrive at a dependability score, the company polls car owners on problems they’ve faced over the last 12 months they’ve owned the car. To check out reliability ratings for a vehicle you’re considering buying, go to https://www.jdpower.com/.
4. Use Exterior Defects to Your Advantage
Look for cars with exterior blemishes that run well, because you’ll get the best deals on these types of vehicles. The more nicks, dents, and scratches the car has, the more wiggle room you’ll have come negotiation time.
However, make sure the tires are in good condition because new ones will cost you several hundred dollars. You don’t want to buy a car that you have to sink money into immediately.
5. Ask Questions of the Seller
When buying a car, ask the seller if you can look at the maintenance records. Also, you should ask the owner the following questions:
- Are you the first owner?
- Are the service records reliable?
- Do you have a title with no liens on it?
- How did you arrive at the asking price?
- Can I have a mechanic thoroughly go over it?
6. Check Out Car Buying Websites
The Internet is a great way to look for used car deals. Here are some of the best sites:
Craigslist is primarily a classified ads site and doesn’t have a lot of fancy graphics or options. But for cars in your area, it’s one of the best resources around. However, you have to watch out for scammers.
Fraudulent postings on the site are now a common occurrence. Some of the red flags for a scam offer are cars listed way below market value, postings that don’t include a phone number, and sellers who are overly anxious to conclude a transaction.
AutoTrader has been around for years and predates the Internet. Because of this, it has decades of trust behind it. They have a vast selection—over three million choices with 40,000 dealers and 250,000 private sellers.
This website has a wide variety of search filters that helps you narrow down your search to precisely the type of automobile you’re looking for. AutoTrader lets you easily filter by year, make, model, price range, and features.
At AutoTrader, people pay to list their cars. Paid sites don’t seem to have as many scammers.
Like AutoTrader, Edmunds started out as a paper booklet available at newsstands. Their search function has more options than most other car-buying websites so you can narrow and refine your results more thoroughly.
There are also a lot of educational articles so you can learn about the car-buying process.
AutoList is an aggregator, so it pulls in information from many different places. You can see details such as the amount of time a car has been on the market and price changes over time.
For buying cars on the go, download their free app. It is one of the highest-rated car-buying apps around.
The app has instant price-drop alerts and high-res photos to help you find terrific deals.
Enterprise Car Sales
Unlike the other sites here, Enterprise exclusively sells cars from one source, and that source is their fleet of former rental cars.
If you don’t mind a vehicle with a lot of miles on it, Enterprise’s automobiles can be an excellent choice.They offer a 12-month or 12,000-mile limited powertrain warranty and one year of roadside assistance.
They take trade-ins and have special programs for college grads and first-time buyers.
CarGurus lets you put in your zip code and the make and model of the car you’ve got your eye on. Its databases contain over two million automobiles, so you’ll have plenty to choose from.
Car Gurus rates each available car deal as being overpriced, high, fair, good, or great. For example, I went to their website, punched in my zip code without typing in a make or model so that I would get the most results.
The first car that came up was a 2015 Hyundai Sonata Sport FWD. It has 42,616 miles, and the asking price is $10,888. The site tells me this car is “$3,364 BELOW” market value.
CarGurus let me know it was a “GREAT DEAL.” They even put it in big letters just like I did.
CarMax has a large inventory. However, haggling is a no-no.
Whatever price is marked on a car is the price you’ll pay. You get a warranty on any car you buy from then. And they offer financing.
When shopping for a used car, these search terms will get you the best deals:
- MODELS: Type in your three top choices.
- PRICE: Whatever your budget is, that’s going to be your maximum amount.
- DISTANCE: Start locally and broaden the search area if you don’t find what you’re looking for.
- MILEAGE: Set a maximum of 150,000 and then increase if necessary.
7. Run A Vehicle History Report
Some car-buying websites give you a free vehicle history report for the car you’re thinking about buying. But if they don’t offer you one for free, buy one.
Looking at a vehicle history report helps you avoid getting an automobile with a salvage title. If a car has been in a fire, flood, or a serious accident, the insurance company will consider it to be “totaled,” and the company will issue a salvage title for it.
A salvage title is a warning to all future buyers that the car will always be labeled as damaged goods. Furthermore, because of the severity of the damage, the vehicle might be concealing a serious problem that could show itself at any time.
8. Learn to Detect Odometer Fraud
An odometer reading can tell you so much about a car.
It lets you know when to schedule routine maintenance. It can tell you if you’re still covered under its warranty or if that was ages ago. It also gives you a ballpark figure of how many years of usable life your car has left.
A prospective buyer trusts that what the mileage says is what the mileage actually is. Otherwise, all the information you glean from the odometer reading is wrong because the odometer reading is wrong.
Then, you might be buying a car that’s worth thousands less than you thought. And, you’ll have maintenance done at the wrong intervals.
Welcome to the shady world of odometer rollback, where fraudsters illegally change an odometer reading to make it look like the vehicle has fewer miles on it than it actually has. This can be done by replacing the odometer without putting a sticker on the car or resetting the device.
Before digital odometers were introduced 20 years ago, odometers had small plastic gears that could be taken apart and meddled with. A scammer could also use a power drill as a time machine of sorts to run the speedometer cable in reverse and magically reset the mileage back to an earlier time.
Auto manufacturers eliminated most of the problem by implementing countermeasures. For example, on some odometers, rolling back the numbers makes it almost impossible to line them back up again.
Then, the tampering attempt becomes visible to all future buyers.
Manufacturers designed the speedometer cable on others to always count the miles upwards whether the cable was turned in the forwards or backward direction. Lastly, odometers were switched over from mechanical to electronic versions about 20 years.
Electronic odometers were touted initially to be absolutely foolproof. Whichever automobile manufacturer’s spokesperson first uttered those words had to eat them soon afterward because this turned out not to be true.
Although it’s harder to change mileage readings these days, it still can be done. And like everything else you want to know, you can find out how to do this with a quick Google search.
The tools for the job are easily acquired at any auto parts store.
An average car in this country is driven about 12,000 miles a year. So if the vehicle you’re considering buying has significantly fewer miles on it, this might be an indication that the reading is fraudulent. Here are a few signs that a car’s unusually low mileage reading is because the odometer’s been tampered with:
- A SHABBY INTERIOR: If the interior of the vehicle has an interior that looks worse for wear, but the miles indicate that this shouldn’t be the case, the odometer probably has been rolled back.
- WORN BRAKE PEDALS: Check the brake pedal. If the mileage is less than 60,000, but the rubber pad on the pedal is completely worn through, you should be suspicious. This could also mean the car was mostly driven in city traffic.
- CARPETS AND SEATS: If there are heel spots on the driver’s side floor mat, but the mileage reading seems a bit low for such wear, consider the possibility that a fraudster tampered with the numbers.
- FADING PAINT AND BODY DAMAGE: Another indication that a seller is trying to deceive you is if there’s more paint fade or body damage you’d expect from a car with that amount of miles on it.
- TIRE TREAD DEPTH: Insert a penny into the treads with Lincoln’s head pointing downwards. If the top part of Lincoln’s head is exposed, there are less than 2/32nds of an inch of tire tread left. This means the tires probably have 40,000 to 60,000 miles of wear on them. If they’re the original set, and the odometer reading is less than 30,000 miles, something’s not right.
You can also ask for the maintenance records and receipts. Each receipt should have the mileage at which the service was performed was done and the date.
Follow the service history to see if the current mileage makes sense. Take note of unusual gaps in dates or mileage, which may be consistent with odometer tampering.
It may also indicate the vehicle was poorly maintained, which is another reason not to buy the car.
You can also sometimes tell if the odometer has been rolled back by looking at the certificate of title. If the seller has a photocopy, demand to see the original.
Compare the recorded mileage on the title with the current reading to see if there are irregularities. If only a photocopy is available, make sure the mileage reading is legible, and it looks like nothing phony is going on.
9. Have A Friend Look at Cars with You
For this part of this process, it’s good to have a second set of eyes. So, enlist a friend to help you—she might notice stuff you missed.
Start the car. Check the emergency flashers and headlights to make sure they’re working. Then, walk around to check for lights that aren’t operational.
Listen for any unusual noises. Take a whiff to see if there is a particularly strong exhaust odor. If you’re actually able to see the exhaust, note its color. Blue or black exhaust smoke could indicate engine problems.
Look closely at the paint job to make sure each panel of the body is the same hue. Paint that doesn’t match could be an indication that the vehicle’s been in an accident. This might be important information to note if the accident didn’t get added to the car’s vehicle history report.
Quickly look underneath the car. See if anything’s hanging down or if fluids are dripping. Inspect the tire treads for wear or damage, and make sure all the tires and wheels all match.
Test your child’s seat to make sure it fits like it’s supposed to. Now, jump into the driver’s seat and adjust the seat, mirrors, and steering wheel to make sure everything works and that you can be comfortable driving this car.
Can you see everything you need to see, or is there a substantial blind spot? If so, are there cameras that can be your set of eyes? Next, jump into the back to see how much legroom your rear passengers will have.
Switch on all interior lights and make sure they’re working. Turn on the radio and check out a few AM and FM stations. Find some music and use the controls to make sure every speaker in the car works like a charm.
Plugin your MP3 player to make sure that it seamlessly connects to the automobile’s sound system.
Check out the heat and air conditioning. Keep the windows closed when you do to see if you can smell any unpleasant odors coming from the vents. Make sure the power windows and door locks work.
10. Take It Out for a Spin
Now, it’s time to take your baby out for a spin. To see what she’s made of, try to put together a driving course in your mind that encompasses all the types of terrain you might encounter in a typical week.
For example, take it over hills, straightaways, rough patches, and curves. Pay close attention as you drive to see how the car handles.
See how the steering feels and listen for any unusual noises.
11. Have a Mechanic Look at It
If you like a car and it seems in reasonably good shape, have it thoroughly inspected before you buy it. This is something the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends everybody do.
This is so you’ll know if the vehicle has any significant problems that could be deal-breakers. If you can, have an ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) mechanic look at it.
If a mechanic has ASE certification, you can trust him to do a comprehensive pre-purchase inspection.
You can skip having your car looked at by a professional if you’re buying a certified pre-owned vehicle (CPO). CPO cars can be certified by a dealer using an automaker’s specifications. Dealers can also certify vehicles on their own.
To certify an automobile, a dealer will have to do a multipoint inspection. They also have to offer an extended warranty. Sometimes, you get a free vehicle history report or roadside assistance when you buy a CPO vehicle.
12. Know How to Use Kelley Blue Book
To see what the market value of your car is, use the most authoritative guide of them all, which is Kelley Blue Book. The words “Blue Book price” have been an integral part of the American vernacular for many years.
The knowledge you’ll glean from this indispensable guide will be useful when it’s time to negotiate.
Kelley Blue Book lists market value prices for all new and used cars. This information is based on what others are paying for a vehicle. It’s adjusted regularly as market conditions change.
Kelley Blue Book has done used car pricing the last 90 years they’ve been in business. So, you can trust them. If you’re buying a used car off a dealer’s lot, start with the Typical List Price.
These are the prices you might see at a dealership. The Kelley Blue Book Fair Market Range reflects the range of prices most people will currently pay for a vehicle based on its parameters.
It’s based on data from millions of transactions. Then, they add in market conditions and their vast industry knowledge. Look at the Kelley Blue Book Private Party Value if you’re buying your car from an individual instead of a dealership.
It’s not a high as the Fair Purchase Price because private sellers don’t have the overhead that dealers have.
This is the price you’ll start out with when you’re negotiating with private sellers.
And if you don’t know which used car you want, go to the Kelley Blue Book website to find used car pricing on vehicles in popular categories like sedans, SUVs, and trucks.
13. Drive a Hard Bargain
It’s negotiation time now, baby!
Bring up any problems you saw with the vehicle’s to try to get the seller to lower his price. Take the seller’s asking price and compare it the average market price you found in Kelley Blue Book.
When you’re ready, make an offer. The seller might accept your offer, Or, he could make you a counteroffer. If his counteroffer seems too high, either stick to your guns or offer to meet him halfway.
When you’re negotiating with a salesman at a dealership, keep in mind that the guy who you’re negotiating has been doing this for years, and knows every trick in the book. Also, don’t fall for the trap of only trying to get a low monthly payment.
Start low but stay in the ballpark—if you try to lowball the seller, he won’t treat you as a serious buyer.
Increase your offer in increments of $250. Repeat the numbers you hear because it’s easy to get confused.
Be aware that some dealers tack on faux fees to regain profit they lost during the negotiation process. If your negotiating partner tries to use this gambit, call him out on it. If it doesn’t look like you’re going to be able to agree on a price or if you don’t like the way you’re being treated, walk away and find someone you can cut a deal with.
After you come to an agreement, take all the time you need to review your deal. Don’t succumb to the high-pressure tactics of slick salespersons. The contract will include the agreed-upon sales price and these items:
- STATE SALES TAX: This amount will be different depending on the state you live in.
- DOCUMENTATION FEE: Some dealerships charge you for the time they spent drawing up documentation.
- REGISTRATION FEES: If they’re registering the car for you.
I’ve just given you a bunch of strategies to make your used-car-buying experience a pleasant one. To be frugal, keep those extra cash reserves in the bank where they belong and don’t buy new.
Buying a used car for cheap isn’t that hard. But, it will require some time and effort.
You may even have to walk a used car lot or two. If you do, be especially vigilant, so you don’t get duped because there are more than a boatload of shysters out there. Look on the web if you can’t find anything you like at a dealership.
What was the best used car deal you ever got? Let me know in the comments!