10 Steps to Buying a Used Car | Edmunds.com

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10 Steps to Buying a Used Car

How To Find and Buy a Good Used Car


The following steps will tell you how to locate, price and negotiate to buy the used car you want. If you don't yet know what car to buy, read "10 Steps to Finding the Right Car for You" and then come back after you have decided.

If you have any questions along the way, please reach out to the Edmunds.com Live Help team for free assistance. The team will work hard to make your car buying experience the best one yet.

Step 1: How Much Car Can You Afford?
A general guideline is that your monthly car payment should not be more than 20 percent of your take-home pay. However, people shop for cars with their hearts as well as their heads, and that can be a little dangerous. That's where Edmunds.com's How Much Car Can I Afford? calculator comes in handy. It can prevent you from getting in over your head when you buy a car. The calculator helps you find an estimated price range in which to shop and will even suggest some cars that would fit your budget. Here's more information on how to set up your automotive budget.

Step 2: Build a Target List of Used Cars 
To save money, consider buying a second-tier car, from the less popular — but still reliable — manufacturers. Well-known vehicles like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry can cost thousands more than a comparable Chevrolet Malibu or Nissan Altima, even though these are good cars. With this in mind, build a target list of three different cars that meet your needs and fall in your budget.

You could also consider buying a certified pre-owned (CPO) car, which greatly simplifies the buying process. If you are really adventurous and in search of a real bargain , read "Can Buying a Demo Car Save You Money" and "Confessions of an Auto Auctioneer" for careful guidance. Also, take a look at "How to Get a Used Car Bargain."

Step 3: Check Prices and Reviews 
To see if the cars you are looking at fit into your budget, check True Market Value (TMV)® pricing. Edmunds.com's TMV shows you what other people are paying for that car in your area. When you select a car through the Appraise a Used Car tool, it takes you to the gateway of all the information you need to make a good buying decision: pricing, reviews, specs, fuel economy and lists of standard features . Also, use True Cost to Own (TCO)® to see what other ownership expenses you are likely to incur. (Note, however, that TCO data is not available for all cars.)

Step 4: Locate Used Cars for Sale in Your Area
Begin searching for the cars on your target list using the Edmunds.com used-car inventory page. You can filter the search by many factors including distance, mileage, price and features to find exactly the car you want. You should also use other online classified ads such as AutoTrader.comeBay Motors.comCarGurus.com and Craigslist.

There are, of course, many places to shop for a used car, such as independent used car lots, the used car section of a new car dealership and, more recently, used car superstores. One such store, CarMax, makes it easy to search its inventory to find a good used car to buy at a no-haggle price.

Step 5: Check the Vehicle History Report
Before you contact a used-car seller, you should get a vehicle history report for the car you're interested in buying. This is an essential first step: If the report is negative, you should not go any further with this car.

You can access vehicle history reports, which are sold by several different companies, by the vehicle identification number (VIN) and even by license plate. AutoCheck and Carfax are the two best-known sources for vehicle history reports. These reports can reveal vital information about the used car, including whether it has a salvage title, which means it has been declared a total loss by the insurance company, or if the odometer has been rolled back.

Step 6: Contact the Seller
Once you find a good prospective car, call the seller before you go to see the vehicle. This is a good way to establish a relationship with the seller and verify the information in the ad. Sometimes the seller will mention something that wasn't in the ad that might change your decision to buy the car. Have our Used Car Question Sheet handy when you're calling to prompt you to ask key questions. You will notice that the last question is the asking price. Although many people are tempted to negotiate even before they have seen the car, it's better to wait. Once you see the car, you can tie your offer to its condition level.

If, after talking to the seller, you are still interested in buying the car, set up an appointment for a test-drive. If possible, make this appointment during the daytime so you can see the car in natural lighting and more accurately determine its condition.

Step 7: Test-Drive the Car
Test-driving a used car not only tells you if this is the right car for you but also if this particular car is in good condition. On the test-drive, simulate the conditions of your normal driving patterns. If you do a lot of highway driving, be sure to take the car up to at least 65 mph. If you regularly go into the mountains, test the car on a steep slope. For more on what details to look for, read "How to Test-Drive a Car."

After the test-drive, ask the owner or dealer if you can see the service records to learn if the car has had the scheduled maintenance  performed on time. Avoid buying a car that has been in a serious accident or has had major repairs such as transmission rebuilds, valve jobs or engine overhauls.
Step 8: Have the Car Inspected
If you like the way the car drives, you should have it inspected before you negotiate to buy it. A pre-purchase inspection can save you thousands of dollars. You can take the car to a trusted mechanic for a thorough inspection or request a mobile inspection. A private party will probably allow you to do this without much resistance. But at a dealership, it might be more difficult. If it is a CPO car, there is no reason to take it to a mechanic.

Step 9: Negotiate Your Best Deal
Negotiating with a private-party seller can be a quick and fairly relaxed process. Negotiating with a used-car salesman will take longer and can be stressful. Here are some basics about negotiating.

  • Only enter into negotiations with a salesperson or private-party seller with whom you feel comfortable.
  • Make an opening offer that is low, but in the ballpark based on your TMV research in Step 3.
  • Decide ahead of time how high you will go and leave when you reach your limit.
  • Always be prepared to walk out: This is your strongest negotiating tool.
  • Be patient. Plan to spend an hour negotiating in a dealership , and less time for private parties.
  • Leave the dealership if you get tired or hungry.
  • Don't be distracted by dealer pitches for related items such as extended warranties or anti-theft devices.

Step 10: Close the Deal
If you are at a dealership, you'll conclude the deal in the finance and insurance (F&I) office. If you are buying a car from a private party, you just have to make sure that payment is final and that the seller properly transfers title and registration to you. In any case, it's important to close the deal so you avoid after-sale hassles.

In both cases, you also need to make sure you have insurance for the car you just bought before you drive it away. Also, the F&I person will probably try to sell you a number of additional items: an additional warranty, anti-theft devices, prepaid service plans or fabric protection. Some people want the peace of mind that comes with extended warranties, so this is something you might want to consider (unless your used car is certified or still under the manufacturer's warranty).

Review the dealership sales contract thoroughly. In most states, it lists the cost of the vehicle, a documentation fee, possibly a small charge for a smog certificate, sales tax and license fees. This Edmunds article lists the fees charged in each state.
When you buy a car from a private party, either pay cash or provide a cashier's check. But before money changes hands, request the title (sometimes called the pink slip) and have the seller sign it over to you. Rules governing vehicle registration and licensing vary from state to state. Check the registry's Web site in your state.

Once all of the paperwork is complete, it is finally time to relax and begin enjoying your new purchase: a good used car.

To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.



  • rpap1 rpap1 Posts:

    You have two links here that don't work, how come?

  • cinbun911 cinbun911 Posts:

    Thanks for the great tips. Craigslist is a great resource, but also a mine field. It is essential to take any vehicle to a mechanic to be checked out and also to run the Carfax. One additional California tip, the seller is responsible for having the vehicle smogged before a sale and a smog certificate is good for only 90 days.

  • msminkck1 msminkck1 Posts:

    Update this please because what I'm finding in what is being asked for used cars is more than ever before.

  • arnelbdr arnelbdr Posts:

    Is it advisable to pay cash when buying used car on dealership?

  • envwluv envwluv Posts:

    I'd like to be reminded to thoroughly seal the deal. What if that occurred during the transaction and my purchase was not completed correctly?

  • ehh2 ehh2 Posts:

    I like to buy a new car and take care of it and drive the wheels off of it. Usually the interest rate is cheaper on a new car and you also know whether the maintenance has been performed and whether it has been in an accident.

  • Very informative article. Thank you

  • wiggum2000 wiggum2000 Posts:

    Someone I know just bought a car from a friend for $10K. Can he just tell the DMV it only cost him $1000? This would reduce his registration fees by over $700!

  • Ok, so a helpful tip here would be a listing of the car models that are comparable (i.e. built for the same market) as you stated in the article: "...You might want to think of vehicles in the same class. For example, if you really want a Toyota Camry, you should also be on the lookout for a Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord or Nissan Altima. These cars were built for the same market..." For those of us who don't follow cars, models or features except when we need to purchase a new/used car, it would help us to know how to compare "apples to apples" !

  • Recent experience has indicated that Edmunds delivers a "Blue Book" price on used cars more indicative of the true market. Unfortunately Kelly Blue Book appears to return a price from $700 - $1800 greater. That's why dealers seem to always show you the Kelly analysis, so you should be prepared to show them the Edmunds analysis that directly contradicts the Kelly Price! As another post said, DO YOUR HOMEWORK prior to getting anywhere close to a dealer.

  • mikeyp53 mikeyp53 Posts:

    This is pretty generic information. The biggest omission in my opinion is the valuation process for a used car. Mention the price from Edmunds to a dealer and they will immediately tell you its nonsense and then use NADA, KBB or some other obscure "black list". The point is most used cars are marked up 30- 50% from their trade in value. If you can't negotiate at least 1/3 off the asking price, walk out.

  • 3t_ 3t_ Posts:

    I am thinking about purchasing a 99 Lexus SC 300 with 100,000 miles. Blue Book value with clear title is around $7500. He is willing to sell to me for only $4800. The car looks great, but the only bad thing is it has a salvage title from a repair made to the back. Is the $4800 a good price for this vehicle with the salvage title? Would you purchase? Thanks

  • canewhite canewhite Posts:

    Buying a used car comes with its fair share of risks, therefore take your time to do your homework before closing the deal. The test drive is your only opportunity to check the car's general mechanical condition and to find our for sure that it meets all your needs.

  • bigedtheman bigedtheman Posts:

    what about, when buying from a private party, how to ensure that their is no lien or loan collateralized by the car?? How do you ensure that is not an issue?

  • nadia2 nadia2 Posts:

    Insightful comment.

  • komrad komrad Posts:

    arnelbdr - Cash is king.Why give money away in interest payments?

  • ruelspot ruelspot Posts:

    Buying a used car can be an advantage, especially if you are try to save money. That said, if you don’t do the necessary research and ask the relevant questions, you could end losing.

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