The truth is that buying used cars is a tricky business. Always was and always will be. This is why it’s so important to learn how to buy used cars.
This knowledge may mean the difference between driving off as a happy and satisfied customer or with something that you may regret in the near future.
It’s not nuclear physics, but there are certain things you should consider before making the actual purchase.
These tips should help you do that and hopefully, buy a used car to your satisfaction.
1. MAKE A DECISION WHAT YOU REALLY WANT AND NEED
This tip is the foundation if you want to learn how to buy used cars.
You don’t have to make a firm decision at first but have some sort of idea of what you’re searching for.
For instance, don’t end up with a convertible if you really need a station wagon.
Seems unlikely that this will happen, but you’d be surprised how many people succumb to their own wishes (opposed to practicality and financial possibility), other people’s wishes, or some old-fashioned pushing over (like from an experienced seller).
The most important ratio you should set properly is what you NEED as opposed to what you WANT. This is meant without patronizing as sometimes what you want is not really what you need.
How to do this best? Well, perhaps the best way is to note all of the main parameters your future used car should have.
Do you need a bigger car, smaller car, type of engine (diesel, petrol, hybrid), more luggage space, do you need more seats, is it more for short distance or long distance driving…..these are just some of the important factors.
If you decide, for instance, you need an SUV, try to stick to that category. Don’t wander around a lot.
As you’ll see a blurry vision of your future car will start appearing.
2. NARROW DOWN THE CHOICES WHEN BUYING USED CARS
After the first rough filtering, start narrowing down the options.
Some main factors that should help with choosing are:
Gas (petrol), diesel, hybrid, or even electric.
This decision should be mainly based on your annual mileage as well as the maintenance costs.
This is expressed in kilowatts or horsepower. Choose what suits your needs best.
Frequent long-distance travel demands more horsepower while urban driving needs less. This is not a rule but is the usual practice.
Also, in a lot of countries, some of the car taxes are based on the engine power output so also have this in mind when choosing.
Year of production
The younger the car (within the budget) the better.
Nevertheless, don’t underestimate older cars if they are well maintained.
Oftentimes, due to neglect and bad driving habits, a younger car may be in bad condition.
Quality maintenance and good keeping of the car are a higher priority than the production date.
Mileage or kilometers on the odometer
As with the year of production, fewer miles is usually better.
Just make sure there is a valid record of the original mileage so you know it isn’t tampered with.
Number of doors
If you’re alone in the car most of the time consider a two-door or coupe.
With a family or more passengers on a regular basis, a four-door is a solution.
Color is a matter of taste therefore it shouldn’t be discussed that much.
All that I can say is don’t be a slave to it. Oftentimes, you’ll see a used car that’s in good shape and well maintained but you will not like the color.
Don’t let color be the decisive factor as you may miss a good opportunity.
The trim level is a major factor for most people as it dictates comfort and prestige.
Get as a higher level as you can although I would advise some caution. A lot of electronic gadgets may mean future (expensive) problems.
Options that you can’t make a mistake with are alloy wheels, manual climate control, parking sensors, etc. Try to get as many practicalities as you can.
A middle trim level package is perhaps the best option.
3. DEFINE THE BUDGET
By this time, you’ll have a pretty clear picture of what kind of used car you want.
Now it’s time to see what kind of money are you willing to spend. You can’t learn how to buy used cars if you don’t have a prepared budget.
Main things to have in mind:
The budget must include later expenses
These may be immediate maintenance costs (oil change, filters, belts, tires, or else). Besides this, there may be additional taxes to pay. If you want a real budget, this should all be included
Have a ceiling on how much money you’re willing to spend
The used car market is like any other market or store. If you don’t have good control over yourself you can spend more than you anticipated or wanted.
Higher trim levels, nice looks, even the next generation model may send you on a spending spree.
For instance, you’ve prepared a budget of 5000 Euros or Dollars to spend. Once you’re at the dealership, adding some additional money may seem alright for those extra alloy wheels, leather interior, infotainment system, and so on.
But the fact is that you’re going over your budget and can easily end up paying way more than you actually anticipated.
All this can lead to things like bankrupting your home budget or getting into more debt than you wanted or can.
Be prepared to spend the budget to the last cent
The opposite of over-spending is being stingy. Lots of us would like some leftover money to mend some other budget holes.
This is possible if you find a used car in good condition at a low price but this is very rare. When it’s cheaper than normal, it’s usually in a worse condition which means more expenses later.
Having hidden wishes regarding other matters (like household repairs, loan payments, or else) with your car budget means you haven’t planned it right. Consider starting all over again and make a whole new concept of what you want and can buy.
If you want to really learn how to buy used cars, you’ll sometimes have to spend it all even perhaps add a small amount.
But for a good specimen, it’s well worth it.
4. MAKE A SEARCH PLAN
Be aware that, unless you have a concrete offer, you’ll have to do some searching and walking around.
As you’ll see this can be somewhat tiresome and exhausting. Not to mention the expense of driving around especially on longer distances
To reduce this to the minimum:
Search the internet
Visit the most popular used car websites in your country and see what’s happening. Look at the cars you’d like to buy, what are the prices like, nearest locations and so on.
Best filter out what exceeds your budget as well as far away locations. Don’t disregard them totally, rather have them in mind as a reserve option.
Once you do this, you’ll see a search pattern appearing and you can start planning a route for visiting dealerships or private sellers.
Certainly beats wandering around the neighborhood looking if anybody is selling a car.
Ask friends, family, neighbors if they have any experience on how to buy used cars. A good word goes a long way, bad even further. If you hear of a good dealership or private seller, write it down and plan it in your route.
Ads in newspapers are worth mentioning but I think they are all but extinct.
Plan out the travel route
To avoid going up and down the whole town or city, use a map and planner and see what is convenient for you. This goes double if you’re visiting a place you’ve never been to.
If you want to learn properly how to buy used cars, you have to save up time and nerves. Pointless driving around town will do the exact opposite.
Make a time table
Know that buying a used car usually takes time, especially if you’re looking for a better one. Simply, you’ll have to check out multiple cars not to mention talking to people.
This takes time and if you’re in a hurry, you may miss a good opportunity or start becoming nervous.
It’s best to have the whole day ahead of you, free of any other obligations.
5. NEVER BUY THE FIRST CAR YOU SEE
Have this in mind especially if you don’t have a clear vision of what you want.
In ideal circumstances, the best way to buy a used car is to make one run, note down all of the data, let the impressions settle down, and buy the car in the second run.
But lots of people either don’t have the time, will, or patience to do this. They then buy whatever closely matches their criteria, just to finish with the whole „agony“.
This usually doesn’t end up well although there are exceptions. Almost always there is some sort of regret.
Buying a used car demands some patience. More patience means less possibility of a mistake.
6. DON’T BE A PERFECTIONIST
If you’re a perfectionist, you may run into problems when buying a used car.
Perfectionists, by their nature, seek a car in near pristine condition. The chance of finding a used car in that condition is rare.
It is possible, of course, but the problem is that the price usually far exceeds the budget.
The cold truth is that the car you’re going to see and buy includes, higher mileage, scratches, minor dents, foggy headlights, and other imperfections.
These will easily drive off a perfectionist in the hope that he/she will find better. The search will continue for days, even months with no result.
Sort of like a search for the used car Eldorado. It’s out there somewhere….maybe…..or maybe not.
The golden rule to solve this: disregard a couple of scratches or dents, a broken-off antenna, a lower quality stereo system, etc.
If the car is well maintained and in good general condition (no rust, hasn’t had any major bodywork done, a decent mileage, and so on), that’s the car you want to buy.
Minor faults can usually be solved for a small amount of money and the car will be as good as new.
7. CONSIDER PRICE DEPRECIATION AND TURNOVER RATE
When choosing a car, take into account the money you may lose through future selling.
Advice from personal experience in buying used cars: stick to what’s popular in your country.
Yes, there will be cars with more luxury options, perhaps more rare models that are cheaper to buy, and some that you’ll want to buy out of love for the brand or quality.
But the truth is that when it comes to future sales, a rare brand on the market is a tough sell.
It can take months or you may not even be able to sell it at all.
Also, you’ll probably never get the money you’ve asked for and may very well end up selling it to the junkyard or leaving it as a second car.
On the other hand, with a popular brand or specific model, it will all be over probably within a month and in your favor. Simply put, you’ll be the master of the situation and people will pay for a good car whatever you want, sometimes even without bargaining.
It’s not rare to sell this kind of car for the same money you bought it in the first place.
So, when learning how to buy used cars, always think about the future. Don’t let indulging yourself cost you dearly. Find a brand that’s popular and try adjusting your wishes and needs to that.
You’ll be grateful to yourself later, trust me. If you want to learn more about price depreciation, click here for a separate article on that topic.
8. HOW TO CHECK A USED CAR BEFORE BUYING IT?
Having all of the previous tips in mind, it’s time to hit the road and visit dealerships or private sellers.
I must mention that having someone accompany you (especially someone who knows around cars) will also come in very handy, both for inspection and quality decision making.
Some of the main things you should check are:
Exterior condition of the car
Gaps between body panels
Ask to connect an OBD tool (either by a professional or by yourself)
Check the paperwork
Test drive the car before buying
These are the basics and the more thorough you are the better.
I cannot emphasize enough how important this is, especially if you’re in a situation where you doubt the past history of the car.
More attention, in the beginning, means fewer problems in the future.
This is almost custom and should always be practiced, especially with used cars.
A couple of hundred Euros or Dollars chipped off the original price will certainly come in handy.
It can be used, for instance, on further maintenance, buying some new tires, or buying something that you like for the car.
There is a whole article on this topic. You can click here to read it and see how to make a good bargain in your favor.
10. NEVER BUY A USED CAR AT NIGHT OR DUSK
Plan your purchase in the morning, mid-day, or afternoon.
This is important for one main reason: spotting imperfections and hidden problems, especially on the bodywork.
You wouldn’t believe how much a lack of sunlight distorts the actual condition of the car. At night it seems next to perfect while in daylight all the scratches, dents, cracks, or other damage start appearing.
Many times people have bought a car at night, under artificial lighting only to be very sorry in the morning.
Besides this, at the end of the day making any kind of professional check (paperwork, visiting a mechanic, re-checking the maintenance record, etc), will be impossible because most of these companies or institutions won’t work at this time.
This may mean another visit tomorrow which is inconvenient, especially if you’re from far away.
For the final tip: there is no perfect used car nor the perfect purchase.
There will always be a better and cheaper car somewhere and some regret will eventually surface. All of this is normal and is not even that important.
When learning how to buy used cars the main thing above all, is to remember your best interest.
The hardest part will be to reconcile that interest with your wishes. Don’t let a dream car (if there is one) cloud good financial and practical judgment.
At the end of the day, any mistake that you make is paid for by you and you only.
Although most people see buying a used car as amusement and take it lightheaded, it is a serious effort that demands some planning, attention, and caution.
Written by: Sibin Spasojevic
Former car technician, life-long car and DIY enthusiast, author for Despairrepair.com