How to buy a used car

Buying a Used Car

by John L. White


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You don't need to have the knowledge of a mechanic to find a good used car. The two most important qualities you need are patience and common sense. I spell out the common sense strategies in this article. Only you can supply the patience. Combined, they'll help you know how to buy a used car.

It is critical that you not be in a hurry when shopping for a used car. You have to be willing to do the necessary legwork required. If you feel like you can't devote the required time to this search, much as I hate to admit it, you might be better off purchasing a new car. Don't get me wrong though, purchasing a used car is still a much better financial decision than buying a new one, but only if you are willing to devote the time and effort to do it properly.

With regard to the type of car you want to buy, maintenance history is important. Edmunds.com is a good resource for this. You want to select vehicles that have the best maintenance records, so hopefully you will have to spend less money on repairs over the years. Another thing to consider is gas mileage. If you purchase a gas-guzzler, you will pay for it over the years. Also, try to steer clear of a vehicle's first year of production. There are typically more mechanical problems with first year vehicles.

Once you have narrowed your list down, you can begin your search for a specific vehicle. The classified ads and autotrader.com are where I usually start. I try to narrow the ads down to ones that mention excellent or mint condition. I have no interest in purchasing a car that was not immaculately maintained. You shouldn't either.

After you locate a few ads that look promising, prepare a short list of questions that you want to ask before you pick up the phone and call. You will eliminate unnecessary trips if you ask the correct questions over the phone. Your goal is to try and eliminate the cars that won't meet your standards so you don't waste your time and money driving out to see a car that is a hunk of junk.

Are they the original owner?

Buying a used car from the original owner helps eliminate some of the unknowns you might encounter. The exception to this is if there are full maintenance records from the previous owner. They tell a complete story. The most important piece of that story are the records that will prove the oil was changed on a regular basis. With regard to maintenance history, oil change frequency is absolutely critical.

What is the mileage?

While low mileage is always desirable, there is a tradeoff involved with low mileage vehicles. You are going to pay more than you will for one with high mileage. Conversely, you will be able to get the high mileage vehicle for less money. The reasoning being that there is less life remaining in a high mileage vehicle. While generally this is true, I think there are exceptions you should consider. If you buy a vehicle with a reputation for lasting years and years with high mileage (like a Toyota) and you know that the vehicle has been properly maintained, don't necessarily let the mileage scare you away. However, make sure that the price is adjusted accordingly for the mileage because you can expect more repairs and maintenance with a high mileage vehicle.

Has the car been in any accidents?

This is a critical question. I won't purchase a used car that has been involved in anything but the most minor fender bender. If you know or have any idea that the vehicle has been in an accident, walk away. There are too many unknowns. Is the frame bent? Does everything still seal like it should? Was it repaired properly? Is there any damage you can't see? Your best bet is to play it safe. When in doubt, don't take the chance.

Has the car been regularly maintained and does the seller have records?

If there are no maintenance records, walk away. Don't take the owner's word. You want proof. Make it clear that you will want to review the records if you make the trip to see the car.

Why are they selling the car?

This may seem like an obvious question, but the answers you get may be enlightening. The answer I like to hear is they are upgrading to a new vehicle. Some people just like to have a new vehicle every few years. There have been several times that I have asked this question and the person just started talking and kept going, eventually revealing information that told me I didn't want to investigate the car any farther, or was just so weird that my gut instinct told me to walk away.

If the vehicle does not pass any of these questions, you should be honest and thank the person for their time and end the call.


John L. White is the author of I'm in Debt, Over 40, With No Retirement Savings! HELP! and My Job Sucks and I Can't Take it Anymore! HELP! (The Real-Life Job Survival Guide). He also works full-time as an IT professional for a large International Company. To order I'm in Debt or My Job Sucks visit Amazon.com or call 813-907-2511.

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