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How to Buy a Used Car – a Frugal Guide

Getting a Great Used Car

I grew up always buying used cars. I was taught how to do this by my dad who grew up on a farm in Ireland and knows how to find a good value. I thought everyone knew how to do this, but over the years in talking to many of my friends I realized I was wrong.

Many people, if they do buy used cars, go to a used car dealership thinking they’ll get a good warranty or at least they’ll be assured that the car will be in good running order. That may be true, but often it is not. And the bottom line is you are paying for that middle man. Here’s a better way as taught to me by my frugal, bargain hunting, Irish dad.

How to Buy a Used Car and Get the Best Deal

  1. Determine your budget. Calculate in these costs as well:sales tax, registration fee, insurance, and possibly minor fix-up costs.
  2. Research and choose the model of car you want to buy. Choosing a model that is know for longevity is a good idea, because chances are you won’t have as many expenses over the years. Longevity cars: Toyota’s, Honda’s, and Volvo’s. Even older Mercedes can be a good choice if it has been maintained well. Check out Edmunds to research the model that will be best for your needs.
  3. Search for cars for sale your local paper or Craigslist.
  4. Talking to the Seller. For best results try to find a seller who sounds mature and has all the maintenance records for the car going back over time. Try to find a one-owner car or perhaps a two-owner car. If you feel uneasy over the phone, either you feel they’re telling lies or you feel unsafe, move on to the next car on your list. Some questions to ask:
    1. What is the car’s condition?
    2. Mileage?
    3. Any problems: leaking oil, transmission fluid, does a/c work, rust, ever been in accident?
    4. Are you the original owner?
    5. Do you have all the maintenance records?
    6. Why are you selling the car?
  5. A quick safety note: use your best judgement. If you are uncomfortable, move on. If you want to be safe you can ask to meet at a public place and it’s always smart to bring someone along with you, preferably someone who knows about cars.
  6. Test Drive. Drive for a long enough distance to get a good feel for the car. Test the radio, but drive without it on so you can listen for problems. Notice these things:
    1. How does it brake?
    2. How is the alignment and suspension? How does it handle around corners and over bumps?
    3. Anything sound funny?
    4. Ergonomics: does the car fit you? Can you see out the windows, are the seats comfortable?
    5. How is the transmission? Automatic: does it shift smoothly. Manual: how does the clutch feel? Does the pedal go down very far? That could mean the clutch might be on it’s way out.
    6. Review the Car. Check for all these things that can be negotiating points and also safety issues:
      1. Rust, if so is it surface or deep body rust?
      2. Doors and trunk do they work?
      3. Body: do you detect repair work such as different color paint on the car?
      4. Tires: is there wear on the treads and are all tires the same size?
      5. Trunk: any signs of water leakage such as dampness or mildew smell? Is there a jack and spare tire?
      6. Interior: water leakage signs? try all the electronic and manual controls such as adjusting the seat, windows, etc.
      7. Undercarriage: any signs of oil leaking, how does the muffler look.
    7. Optional: check the car’s history by asking to review the VIN (check that it matches the Title document) and then you can purchase a history of the vehicle. If you’re spending a lot of money this might be worth it to you.
    8. Additional information for inspecting a car: Used Vehicle Inspection Guide by Autotrader.
  7. Mechanic Inspection: Ask your mechanic to check for things you’re not qualified to review.
  8. Negotiate Price. You should research the approximate value of your car first. Kelly’s Blue Book is a good online resource.
    1. Mention drawbacks: the things that you feel are negatives about the car, and also the fix-up costs you will incur after buying the car.
    2. Make your first offer. It should be lower than your maximum.
    3. Be silent until the seller responds with their price.
    4. Negotiate to a final price in smaller rather than larger increments. When you get to your maximum tell the seller that is your final offer. Try not to go above your maximum unless it is a small amount. Don’t be afraid to walk away. You can leave your phone number. You’d be surprised how often you’ll get a phone call later saying let’s make a deal.
  9. Seal the Deal. Write up a bill of sale with names, phone numbers, car model, VIN, price, date and any conditions. Have the owner sign over the title to you. Pay the owner. The only caveat: If you feel uncomfortable, listen to your gut, and walk away. Get another person’s input. You can always come back later. And there’s always another car!
  10. Register and Insure the car.
  11. Enjoy Your Car.

 Beautiful Used Car

Please share your comments and tips on buying used cars. Anyone have any funny stories, cautionary tales, things to look for? Let’s hear them!

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41 Responses to How to Buy a Used Car – a Frugal Guide

  1. Jay June 23, 2007 at 11:00 pm #

    What do you think about buying cars at government auctions as compared to just buying them like on craigslist or from the buyer?

    Can you get better deals this way?

  2. agentsully June 24, 2007 at 4:27 pm #

    Hi Jay – thanks for that reference. I don’t have any experience with them, but sounds like it might be a good idea to look into.

  3. Anderson June 30, 2007 at 9:31 am #

    Very useful, excellent information..

  4. agentsully June 30, 2007 at 1:52 pm #

    Anderson – so glad you found this helpful!

  5. Online shopping junkie October 4, 2007 at 3:13 pm #

    These are great tips. I never would have thought to look in (or smell) the trunk! I will keep them in mind for my next used car purchase.

  6. agentsully October 16, 2007 at 2:35 pm #

    Thanks Online!

  7. Used Cars November 12, 2007 at 8:39 am #

    Great article, pretty comprehensive stuff too! The only thing I can think of to add is when you go to look at the car, make sure it is during the day so you can have a good look around the car.

    This time of year the nights draw in earlier and people still have to work. In this case make an appointment to see the car at the weekend.

    You don’t want to notice dents and bumps AFTER you have bought the car.

  8. Richard Brown November 13, 2007 at 4:45 pm #

    A VIN check is an important part of any used car purchase. There are several sources for VIN Decoders that can provide you with vital information about any used car.

  9. BRE November 21, 2007 at 11:54 am #

    I’ve had a bad experience when buying my first car. It was perfect, body was recently done, engine was purring, no leaks. A month later I discovered that the previous owner used aluminum tape to cover up the rust and some body filler to smooth it out. Now I don’t buy cars that were recently resprayed. I’d rather budget for that as well and have the job done myself.

  10. Benny McKee January 25, 2008 at 8:22 pm #

    I could not have said it better myself..that’s how I run my dealership…give my customers straight forward information..enjoyed the post..

    Benny McKee

  11. Buy a Used BMW March 18, 2008 at 2:32 pm #

    You can also get some great deals from online auctions on ebay. Just be sure and research the feedback and reputation of the seller before bidding. A good tip to finding out more about a seller is to simply google their business name, email, physical address, or phone number and see what comes up – you would be surprised at what you can find sometimes.

  12. Salvage Cars for Sale April 22, 2008 at 2:14 pm #

    I’ve always bought used cars too (well except for once and that car died at 86k miles!)
    I’ve always had good luck with used cars. Right now I’m driving a salvage title car that was repaired. I saved thousands of dollars and got a great car, been driving it for 6 years now.

  13. denny May 21, 2008 at 5:10 pm #

    I bought a used car from private party for less then half a price of book value.

  14. Auto New Car June 16, 2008 at 3:30 pm #

    Every time I go to craigslist for check price before,Thanks for great tips.

  15. Rolls-Royce June 16, 2008 at 3:31 pm #

    Thanks for more information.

  16. Auto New Car June 16, 2008 at 3:33 pm #

    Every time I go to craigslist for check price,Thanks for your great tips.

  17. batman2008 July 7, 2008 at 10:23 am #

    Thanks for good information

  18. Coeur d'Alene Auto Repair August 15, 2008 at 9:37 pm #

    These are some great tips! If you are unaware of what you are doing sometimes it is a good idea to pay a professional shop that is ASE certified to do a buyer inspection for you.

  19. My Auto September 1, 2008 at 1:52 pm #

    Great tips about used cars buying. Have you ever heard about Manheim auto auctions? It is possible to buy good used car there for less.

  20. Penny@Penny Saving September 18, 2008 at 9:15 am #

    Very nice comprehansive list of tios for buying a used car. I especially liked, ‘Be silent till the seller responds with a price.’ I’m sure so many people just talk themselves into paying higher prices because it is so hard to say nothing at all.

    Remember too when you do get your hands on that second hand car to apply the principles of hypermiling to save on petrol costs and preserve the useful life of your new wheels.

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