Guide to Buying a Used Car

Pre-owned or New?

Budgetary considerations top the list of reasons why people decide to purchase a used car rather than new, but there are other reasons. Today's vehicles are designed to run for many more miles than the models of years past. Because of that, car shoppers can buy a quality vehicle, even a luxury car, with lots of extras that might not be affordable to them brand new.

Many people by nature or philosophical bent simply don't believe in buying new cars. Some of the people in this camp balk at the amount of money lost through the depreciation of a new vehicle the minute they are driven off the lot. Others think that buying a new car is simply a waste of money―their focus is purely on the function of an automobile (to take you from Point A to Point B) and hold the status element of driving a new car in disdain. Collectors of vintage cars turn their noses up at the latest models and opt instead for purchasing a classic that can be both transportation and a favored hobby.

Only you can decide if a new or used car is the best choice for you and your family. Spend some time considering your options, discuss the idea with your family and friends, and do some window shopping before you make you decision.

Determine Your Automotive Needs

As you begin to contemplate purchasing a used car, you'll need to consider the purpose of the vehicle. If your family has outgrown the sedan, you may want to consider a minivan. If your job or choice of recreation dictates off road capabilities, you may want to consider a truck or SUV. And, if your last child has moved away to college, you may just want to consider that sports car you have always yearned for.

In addition to deciding which type of vehicle you want, you should also write up a list of car options you simply can't live without. Such items may include features such as an automatic transmission; power steering and brakes; good gas mileage; air bags or adjustable seats. It may also be helpful to write up a second list of options that would be nice to have if you happen to run into a vehicle that comes equipped with those features, but that would not be a deal breaker should they not be included. Some of those features could include: body style, color preference, air conditioning, cruise control, and sound systems.

Decide On Your Budget

Some people purchase a used car outright; others plan to finance. If you are planning to buy a used car outright, you'll need to determine how much you can afford out of pocket.

If buying from a private party, it is unlikely that they will consider financing. After you have saved up enough money to cover the price range of the used car you have in mind, be sure to factor in the expenses that you may not have considered yet such as title transfer and registration fees, and in some states, smog or emissions certification. In addition, your insurance rates may be affected; check with your current agent or online to get a quote. If you plan to buy an older car, or are willing to buy a car that may need maintenance or repairs right away, set up a special fund for those probable expenses.

However, if you plan to shop for a used car through a dealer, you may not have to have the entire purchase price in your account. Most dealers of pre-owned cars offer car financing (their own or through other lending institutions), or you can pre-arrange your own financing through your bank or credit union before ever talking to a dealer.

Once you determine how much money you can spend on purchasing a used vehicle, it is time to start the next step to car ownership:

Used Cars: Preliminary Research

Preliminary research is simply that―a place to get started. Now is the time to poll family and friends to see which vehicles they have been happy with in the past. While their experiences (good and bad) are purely anecdotal, they may help you decide which make or model might work best for you.

As your mind opens up to the process of buying a used car, you'll begin to notice cars on the street that you have overlooked before. Make some mental notes on which makes, models, and years of the cars particularly catch your eye. By this time, you should have a pretty good idea of the style of car you are shopping for. As you go through your day, identify some models that would appeal to you so will recognize the model name as you continue your search.

You'll also want to open up the local newspaper or auto trade magazines to see what the market is like out there, and your computer can be a useful tool as well. Typing in "used car" into a search engine will bring up reams of sites that will show cars for sale, or articles on a wide variety of techniques to help you buy a car.

Take a look at the general types of vehicles currently for sale, what features are available on what makes and models, and what kinds of vehicles you can afford. Spending some serious time at this stage of the process is important to making an informed decision on what type of car you'll be narrowing your search for, so don't skimp on the time you dedicate toward your future vehicle.

Used Cars: Final Research

Now that you have three or four models of used cars in mind, it is time to do some serious research. Whether at your local library or through your computer, the information available to you is astounding. Great resources by year, make and model on such things as safety records, frequency of car repair, maintenance costs, comparison reports, and gas mileage figures are easily accessed.

It is also the time to find out how much some of the "hidden" costs of buying another car will impact your wallet. Many people only think about the price of a car and don't factor in the registration fees, state taxes, and increase (or decrease) in your car insurance rates. A quick search online will provide you the cost of fees, and a quick phone call to your insurance provider will eliminate any last-minute surprises.

If you already have found one car for sale that you are specifically interested in, be sure to hone in on information regarding that make and model. You can easily find a myriad of consumer articles and reports on any type of car. In addition, request that the seller provide you with the Vehicle Registration Number (VIN) for that car. Each car manufactured is issued its unique VIN and the records of that vehicle follow it throughout its lifetime. For a minimal fee, online services can locate the records for that particular car and send its vehicle history report to you.

The type of information you will receive is: if the car has a clear title; if the car has been salvaged; if the car has been involved in a serious accident; how many times the car has been sold; the original sale date; and if there have been any recalls for that car. Investing in a VIN search can save you a lot of headaches (and money) down the road.

When you have completed your in-depth research, you can move along to another critical juncture, deciding where to shop.

Private Party or Dealer Sales?

A major difference between buying a used car from a dealer and a private party is the degree of warranty available. Few, if any, individual sellers offer any type of after sale warranty, while dealers cars range from "as is" to limited warranties to certified vehicles that come with extended warranties.

Conventional wisdom says that used car buyers will get a better deal if they shop for a car through a private party. There is certainly no shortage of used cars being offered by individuals, especially in larger cities and through the car selling websites and auctions online.

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