How To Find the Best Used Car

Even though it usually saves money, many people shy away from buying used cars because they don't really understand how to search for one. When the search is carried out properly, the purchase of a used car rather than a new one could prove to be the best investment.

Finding the best used car for you is much like buying your first auto, and the process can be broken down into four main steps: ask questions, shop around, perform tests, and conduct research.

It's admittedly a time-consuming process, but as technical as it might sound, finding the best used car can be quite simple.

Ask Questions

The person you need to question is yourself, so this is probably going to be the easiest step in the process since you should already know the answers. Figure out what kind of used car you're looking for by examining the reasons you need it, the mileage you expect to put on it, and how long you plan to keep it.

Also take a look at your financial situation. How much money can you afford to spend? This includes the purchase price, as well as how much it's going to cost to keep the car running properly. Think about gas prices, the type of tires the car needs, and how much it costs to repair that model.

Going right along with your budget, decide whether you're willing to do business with a private seller or are planning on only visiting car dealerships. Buying from a private seller could help you save money.

Answering these questions will help you determine not only the ideal model for you and your budget, but also the oldest model you're willing to buy, as well as the highest mileage you're willing to accept.

Shop Around

When making a purchase as big as a vehicle, you shouldn't limit yourself to visiting just one dealership or private seller. Sure, it's possible to find your perfect used car at the first place you look, but it's unlikely.

Visit several dealerships in your area and even beyond, if you're willing to travel. Check your local newspaper for advertisements; this is also a great way to find out about special sales that might be going on. Your newspaper's classifieds section is a good source of advertisements placed by private sellers, as is a trading journal.

Remember, just because a car is "pretty" doesn't mean it's the one for you. So once you find a few vehicles you're interested in, it's time to start testing them out.

Performing Tests

Unless you're quite experienced under the hood, the tests you'll perform yourself are probably going to be limited to giving the car a test drive and listening for any suspicious clangs, bangs, squeaks, or vibrations.

If this is your situation, take a friend along who has a bit more mechanical experience than you―taking an actual auto mechanic would be ideal, but it's not possible for everyone.

If you're purchasing from a private seller, ask about taking the car to the shop just down the block for a quick inspection. If they veto the idea, start looking elsewhere. An honest seller isn't going to deny you the chance to have the vehicle checked out by a professional.

During the test drive, try to drive in as many different situations as possible. We realize that you won't be able to drive in snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night, but you can drive at different speeds, on different road surfaces, and even in different traffic situations to see how the car reacts. Remember to thoroughly test the brakes, as well.

Other things to look for include:

  • Visual inspection: Make sure all paint colors match and there aren't any suspicious-looking body parts or dents. These could all indicate an accident.
  • Mileage: How many miles has the car been driven? Today's vehicles can last a lot longer than before, but if you're looking at a vehicle that's only a couple of years old and has a lot of mileage, you should ask why there are so many.
  • Tire wear: Whether you're buying from a dealership or a private seller, checking the tires will let you know how soon you'll need to purchase new ones. Use the tried-and-true penny test. Turn a penny so that Lincoln is upside down. Then, stick the penny in the groove of the tire tread. If you can still see the top of his head, it's time for new tires. Also look for objects stuck in the tires, and check for valve leaks.
  • Light check: Turn the key to the first position and make sure all the warning lights come on. Then, fully start the car to make sure all warning lights go off.

Conduct Research

This might be the lengthiest step in the process. There are several ways to conduct research when buying a used car, and you should use as many of them as you can.

First, talk with the dealer or private seller. Dealers are supposed to notify you of any circumstances such as salvaged titles; however, private sellers often sell the vehicle "as is" and might neglect to bother with the details.

Ask specific questions, and make sure any answer the dealer or private seller gives you is provided in writing, as well. That way, should anything go wrong down the road, you have proof that you were falsely informed of the vehicle's status.

Next, get a vehicle history report. These reports provide thorough information about the vehicle's title and odometer status, as well as any accidents the vehicle was involved in. If the seller provided you with correct information, the vehicle history report will only reinforce it.

And finally, don't underestimate the power of researching through word-of-mouth―it's often the most truthful form of advertisement. Talk with people who have experience with that particular make and model. There are also many websites that provide owners the opportunity to discuss their vehicles; you might want to search for those, as well.

For additional help researching vehicles and auto sales laws, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

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