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Used Car Buying Guide: What to Look For

Used Car Buying Guide: What to Look For

Everyone has their dream car in mind, but unfortunately, we can't all have the dream budget to pay for it. Luckily, purchasing a new vehicle isn't your only option. If you want to increase your odds of getting a great car for a reasonable price, it's almost always better to buy used. But it's not as simple as opening the classifieds and picking a car that looks decent. Before you begin your car-buying journey, you'll want to take the time to research as much as possible.

Things to Know Before Buying a Used Car

It's always good to get as much information as possible before making a major purchase, and there are certain questions to ask yourself before buying a used car. Whether you go to a dealership or a private seller, learning as much as you can about the car is essential to getting a good deal and avoiding scams.

Question #1: What Type of Car Do You Want?

Before you even begin looking at the vehicle section of your local classified ads or step foot into a dealership, you need to decide what car you want to get. The vehicle you choose should depend on what you do for work, what features you need, and what budget you are working with.

Budget is likely the biggest deciding factor when it comes to selecting a car; the higher your budget, the closer you can get to your ideal ride. Your job is the next most important, as it will decide how many miles, you'll be driving the car on a regular basis. If you have a long commute to work or drive for a delivery or ride-share service, you'll want a car that has low mileage and comfortable climate control. Choosing features based on your budget and occupation can help you narrow down what you actually need, and just what you want.

Question #2: How Will You Be Paying for This Car?

There are three main ways to finance a car:

  • Purchase
  • Loan
  • Lease
Question #2: How Will You Be Paying for This Car?

Which one you choose depends on what your level of income is, your credit score, and how long you intend to keep the vehicle. Buying a car is usually the cheapest decision in the long run, as you avoid the interest and fees that come with leases and loans. The issue is that buying a car isn't cheap, even if it's used. If the vehicle market is hot, buying a car outright could be outside the realm of possibility.

Instead, you may consider getting a lease or loan. A lease allows you to rent a car for a couple of years, making monthly payments and adhering to a couple of rules related to operation. Some leases involve a mileage restriction; be wary of this if you intend to drive your vehicle frequently. A lease can be a great choice for those who aren't really sure what car they want and want to give one an extended test drive.

Getting a car loan involves going through a lender, who will put up the initial capital and allow you to make monthly payments. While both a lease and a loan allow you to make smaller payments over time, you usually don't own your vehicle at the end of a lease. You can calculate what these payments would be with lease and loan calculators, like the free one offered by GoodCar. The calculator can help you determine if the payments work for your budget or if you may need to consider a different vehicle.

Question #3: Where Are You Going to Buy the Car?

Unless you happen to have a friend selling your perfect car, you'll need to search around a bit to find what you're looking for. Your options for finding used cars usually boil down to one of three places: Classified Ads, Online Marketplaces, and Members of Your Community.

  • Classified Ads: It may seem old school, but it never hurts to get out the local newspaper and peruse the classified ads. Those in older generations still use print advertising, and you never know when you might find a hidden gem. There are also online versions of these ads, and you can find many used cars in places like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. These aggregate any posted used car ads from your local area, allowing you to contact sellers safely through email, texts, or phone calls.
  • Online Marketplaces: There are several online options for buying used cars, with places like GoodCar giving sellers a space to advertise their vehicles and connect with prospective buyers. These sites can often offer more information than classifieds, with high-quality pictures and vehicle specs listed with each car.
  • Members of Your Community: If you are a social person and tend to get out to local functions or events, it never hurts to ask around. Let family and friends know you are looking for a used car; you'd be surprised at how quickly you can get a list of vehicles for you to check out.

Question #4: Are you buying from a Dealership or Private Seller

If you choose to go through a private seller, there are several places you can check to find prospective used vehicles. You'll also want to think about how far you'll need to travel to meet your private seller. If someone has your ideal car, but it's a thousand miles away, it may be best to compromise and find something closer. If you simply must have a certain car, factor in how much traveling to get the car would increase your overall price.

If you want a lease or loan, you'll likely need to go through a dealership. Research several dealerships in your area, comparing reviews and finding which you believe will be the most trustworthy. If you can, visit the dealership and browse the stock. Seeing the cars beforehand will make your vehicle research a lot easier.

Question #5: Have You Gotten a Vehicle History Report?

If you really want to find out what to know before buying a used car, the absolute easiest way to do so is with a vehicle history report. It would take countless hours to find all the paperwork and answer all the questions that come along with finding a good used car; with a vehicle history report, you can distill all this information into one easy-to-read document. If you choose a reputable report service, you should receive essential details like:

  • Title Records
  • Junk/Salvage Records
  • Insurer "Total Loss" Records
  • Pricing
  • Sales History
  • Problem Checks
  • Auto Specs
  • Location History
  • NHTSA Crash Test Ratings
  • NHTSA Recalls
  • Awards and Accolades
  • Manufacturer Information

Having your report is the best way to get the upper hand in negotiations. Make sure to compare each fact and figure to the information provided by your dealership or private seller. Accident history is one of the biggest indicators you may be getting a bad deal; if the seller claims a vehicle has never experienced a collision, and a report tells you it has, the vehicle likely has hidden damage that could cost you thousands.

Negotiating and Finalizing Terms

Negotiate and Finalize Terms

In most cases, the purchase price or monthly payments you'll make are subject to negotiation. This is where your vehicle history report comes into play; walk through the vehicle's details and see if they match up with the seller's asking price. You'll also want to make sure you test drive the vehicle to prevent the purchase of a lemon car.

Once all negotiations are complete, you can finalize the terms of purchase or lease. It's especially important when getting a used vehicle from a private seller to make sure they have the car title and a bill of sale. After all of the documents are in order, and you've signed the paperwork, you are good to go! All you have to do is start driving and keep up with your financing plan.

Making Payments and Maintaining Your Car

One of the most important parts of any financing plan is on-time payments and car maintenance. On-time payments will prevent you from defaulting on your loan, which can result in a car repossession. This can have a massive effect on your credit and make it difficult to get another car in the future.

As far as maintenance goes, it's always a good idea to take your vehicle in for routine maintenance. Not only that, but many leases will require you to return the vehicle in a certain condition or be subject to fines. No matter what type of financing plan you have, keeping your car maintained will always save you money in the future.

Used Car Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Best Guideline Before Purchasing a Used Vehicle?

There are several guidelines you should follow when purchasing a used vehicle.

  • Make sure the seller is trustworthy
  • The seller should always have a car title and bill of sale
  • Test drive the car whenever possible
  • Negotiate to get the best possible deal
  • Get a vehicle history report to avoid scams

You'll need to do as much research as you can before purchasing to get a good deal on a used vehicle. This will not only help you negotiate a better price but also avoid buying a vehicle that has major issues or high mileage.

What Should You Not Do When Buying a Used Car?

There are a number of mistakes you can make when buying a used car, including:

You should also look out for common scams that plague the used car market. Many unscrupulous sellers will do anything to get a higher price for their car, including title washing, odometer rollback, or passing off the car as functional (aka selling a Lemon car.)

  • Getting a vehicle outside of your budget
  • Not inspecting the car closely
  • Failing to make payments on time
  • Neglecting to negotiate for a better price
  • Agreeing to terms with high monthly payments

How Many Miles is Too Many Miles when Buying a Used Car?

The mileage you choose to accept with your used vehicle is ultimately up to you. Usually, you'll want to find a car that has been driven under 100,000 miles, but that depends heavily on who manufactures the car and what condition it is currently in. Some vehicles can be dependable for 200,000 or 300,000 miles if properly maintained, and you can often get a much better deal on a high-mileage car. Be wary, though; the higher the mileage, the higher the odds the vehicle will need serious repairs.

How Do I Know if a Car is Good to Buy a Used Car?

The best way to know if a car is good is to take the vehicle to a licensed automotive professional. Having a full inspection can reveal many issues that may have gone missed during previous maintenance and can help verify whether the seller is being honest about the vehicle's condition. If it isn't possible to get the car inspected, you can get a vehicle history report to see important data about the car's history.

What are Good Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car?

Make sure to ask about the car's history of repairs, accidents, and ownership. These questions should include:

  • Has this car ever been in a major accident?
  • How often was this car serviced?
  • What large repairs has this vehicle undergone?
  • How many owners has this car had?
  • What did these owners do with the car?
  • Was the vehicle used for work or driven often?
  • What is the car's mileage?

Many car sellers will lie about these details in an effort to artificially raise the price. That's why it's always helpful to get a vehicle history report. These reports will answer many of the questions you have about a used car without the need to interrogate a potential seller.

What is the Most Important Factor When Buying a Used Car?

One of the most important factors when looking at a used car is the mileage. While the age of a vehicle can often factor into its condition, many older vehicles will sit without being driven for many years. Mileage is the best way to determine the level of wear and tear a vehicle has experienced and how soon it may need repairs. Be cautious when purchasing a high-mileage vehicle, and always negotiate for the best price possible. The higher the mileage, the more frequent maintenance the car will likely need.