Buying a used car is one of the smartest financial decisions you can make. You pay less for the car and avoid the depreciation that new-car buyers face the moment the vehicle rolls off the dealer's lot. Buying used has a number of other advantages as well. You will pay less for registration and insurance. Also, the margin for discount is greater when you buy a used car. And if you purchase the vehicle from a private party, you will likely get an even better price than you would at a dealership.
Edmunds.com has an in-depth 10-step guide to buying a used car, but this article streamlines the process into five essentials for people on the go. You also can print out this article or save it on your smartphone and use it as a checklist as you're shopping.
1. Research your prospective used car.
The used-car market is like a huge haystack, and while it may seem tough to find that needle, a bit of online research cuts the legwork and speeds the process considerably. First, go to Edmunds' used car section. From here, you can either input the car you want, or scroll to the "Select a Make" section and click on an automaker you are interested in. You'll then get a list of cars to choose from, sorted by model year. Click on any given year and you will see a model review (if there is one available). Read the reviews from different model years to understand any significant changes that have occurred.
The next thing to do is get an idea of maintenance costs on any car you're considering. Proper maintenance is especially important on a used car, since it may not have a warranty to protect it if anything breaks down. People buy used cars as a way to save money, but often overlook the cost of maintenance, which might end up pushing them beyond the limits of their budget.
2. Get your financing in order.
Once you find the car you want, you'll want to move fast so it isn't sold out from under you. So it's a good idea to get your financing set up before you begin searching for your car. If you're paying cash, there is little to do except make sure you have the funds available to withdraw cash or get a cashier's check when it's time to do the deal.
If you are financing the vehicle, it is a good idea to get preapproved for a loan. This way, you'll know your purchasing budget and the interest rate for which you will qualify. Some lenders won't offer an auto loan if the vehicle is past a certain age. In this case, your next move might be to apply for a personal loan. Just be aware that those interest rates are typically higher than for auto loans.
3. Figure out where to shop for your used car.
There are a number of places to purchase a used car. This article goes more into detail, but for now, here's a quick rundown. CarMax offers no-haggle pricing and cars that are in good condition, but its prices are a bit higher than you'll find elsewhere. Private-party sellers have lower prices and can be negotiated with more easily, but the burden is on the buyer to get the car inspected. Major dealerships sell certified preowned cars that are in excellent condition and backed by factory warranties. This will appeal to buyers who want to minimize the risks of buying a used car and are willing to pay extra for it. Independent used-car lots are another option, but can vary wildly on price and the condition level of their cars.
On Edmunds.com, you can now check your area for vehicle listings. Clicking the local listings link takes you to our used-car inventory tool. The inventory tool has listings for used cars at participating dealerships. If you want to browse private-party listings, you can go to sites like Autotrader.com or eBay Classifieds.
4. Test-drive and inspect the vehicle.
Once you've narrowed the field down to a couple of candidates, it's very important to thoroughly check out their condition and take them for a test-drive.
A thorough vehicle inspection can shed light on potential problems or tell you whether the car has been in an accident. Don't hesitate to bring your mechanic to see the car, or to request a mobile inspection. Take the car for a spin to listen for any unusual noises and to see if you like the way it drives. If you are an audiophile, now is also the time to test-drive the audio system.
A vehicle history report from services such as AutoCheck, Carfax or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System is worth the money and could help tip the scales in favor of one car over another.
5. Negotiate and close the deal.
Don't stress out over a little bit of haggling. If you've done your homework on the car, you will have the information you need to negotiate. You should be able to determine a fair price for the car you've settled on by appraising the vehicle and getting its True Market Value (TMV®), also known as the average price paid, for the vehicle in your area. Make sure you input the correct miles and choose the applicable options. Edmunds' TMV tool will show you what you can expect to pay for the vehicle, depending on whether the seller is a private party or a dealership. You'll also get the car's estimated trade-in value.
Keep in mind that TMV is an average. You may end up above or below the price, but as long as you get reasonably close, you've paid a fair price. Also, know that the margins for used cars are greater than for new cars at dealerships. Don't be afraid to make a lower opening offer than you would if you were shopping for a new car.
Most private sellers aren't as experienced in negotiating as a dealer would be. Use this to your advantage and make a fair but aggressive offer. If the seller turns it down, be persistent and counter with a slightly higher amount.
When the time comes to close the used car sale, there are a few important items to take care of. Have the seller get a smog test for the car, if it is required by your state. Check the registration to ensure it is current. Make sure the seller gives you the title (also called a "pink slip"). If the owner still owes money on the vehicle, you may have to contact his bank or credit union to complete the transfer of ownership. Some states require the seller and buyer to complete a bill of sale. This document is good to have in case you are pulled over and haven't yet registered the vehicle. To prevent any hassles like that in the first place, go to the Department of Motor Vehicles as soon as possible to register the vehicle in your name and pay any appropriate taxes.