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Buying a Used Car: 3 Steps to Help You Buy Like a Pro

Be on your guard...

Buying a used car is still a tricky transaction.

Buying a used car is still a tricky transaction.

It's Harder Than You Think

Are you good at poker? What about chicken? Believe it or not, buying a used car involves a little bit of skills from both games.

There are so many things to consider. If you go into the whole process knowing what is a good price, you'll know when to pull the trigger on a good deal and when to walk away.

While you might have your heart set on a particular make and model car, I highly recommend you keep an open mind. Just like garage sales, you never know what kind of deal you might stumble upon. So keep a short list of car types and manufacturers that would satisfy you needs and wants.

Things to consider regarding any car purchase:

  • price
  • reliability
  • fuel economy
  • mileage
  • condition
  • resale value

It's a fine balancing act of all of these factors that will enable you to get the best possible deal.

My final bit of a warning, BE PATIENT. This is not an overnight process. It can take weeks and even months, depending on how high your budget is. Be picky, be cautious. This is a large purchase and deserves a great deal of attention.

Step 1: the Money

What is your budget? Are you paying in all cash or are you financing? If you're financing, get that amount and interest rate settled ahead of time. Your local credit union is the best place to find the lowest interest rate. If you get your financing from the dealership, you might wind up paying 15%+!

Know your bottom line. Many states charge sales tax, even for private sales. Here in Georgia where I live, they have done away with a yearly ad valorem tax to a one-time percentage-based fee. Some dealers also charge fees for things like transporting the car. Wherever you buy, be sure to ask up front what all fees are.

The sticker price of every vehicle is always a bit inflated so always look at a price point that is a bit over your real budget.

Your bible when car shopping

Your bible when car shopping

Step 2: the Hunt

Where do you find these cars? Of course, I prefer the internet. Gas is too expensive to drive all over town. Plus, you can go into the lot knowing the real value of the vehicle.

Here's the best places to look for a used car online:

These sites often feature cars from local used lots. From there, you can usually get linked onto those company's inventory.

If you've ever lived or visited overseas, then you know that the price is open to negotiation. Used cars follow this same principle. So, when you look for a car, always look a little above your real budget. Most cars are overpriced. The ones at car lots are typically higher priced than are private sellers, but sometimes that is not always the case.

How do you know if you can truly afford the car? How can you be sure it will be a reliable choice?

  • Kelley Blue Book What does that number mean? KBB shows the AVERAGE sale price of a car based on it's condition. They also have reviews.
  • Edmunds. While they tend to lean toward the newer cars when it comes to value information, this is a great place for reliability breakdown.
  • Black Book. This site is mostly for dealers since a subscription is required. Vehicle values are updated on a weekly basis and are again, based on real sales.
  • Compare fuel economy. A certain car might be taken out of the running if fuel economy is important to you.

Knowing a car's real value will keep you from overpaying. Most of us purchase a car because of our emotional connection. Beware. This will lead to overpaying almost every time.

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I mentioned earlier that you need to keep an open mind when it comes to getting a used car. You might go to a lot because of one car and then wind up considering others instead. People selling cars are famous for inflating the car's condition just to get you to come to their showroom. If that happens, look around. Maybe you'll find another car that will fit your needs.

As you move from car to car, pull up KBB and check it's value. There's a mobile app for Apple, Android, and Windows Phone 7. Upload it before you go to any dealer.

Repaired or rebuilt title. You'll see this phrase often, especially if you search for cars on Craigslist. This is when a car is totaled in some way but is then repaired and certified by the state. A car could be totaled because its damage is of greater value than the car's worth. This totaling could be minor or it could be major. Here's what to ask:

  • See if the owner knows why it was totaled.
  • Ask how long the owner has had the car.

This could possibly be a great way to get a car since a rebuilt title will always mean a slightly diminished value. The mechanic I took a car to with a rebuilt title said to always run the other way. It's a crap shoot. Make sure the car is safe by having it thoroughly inspected by a professional.

Step 3: the Negotiation

If you recall, I mentioned purchasing a car uses skills similar to playing poker and chicken? This is where you use it. If you're like me, I'm not so good at it. So I brought someone who is not only good at negotiating, but also knows a bit about cars. Wise negotiation starts with knowing the value of a vehicle, added fees associated with the sale, and your budget.

The test drive. Never buy a car without inspecting it all the way around in person as well as test driving it. For most cars, all you need is a five minute spin around the block. Listen for strange noises. Test the brakes, headlights, steering, wipers, and all windows. If you like the car, hide your enthusiasm. When you get back, point out the flaws as a means of getting the price lowered.

Vehicle history. If you like the car, it's time to take it to the next step. Many larger dealers will offer a Carfax that shows the car's history. Accucheck is another service that offers a similar service. While you can get a Carfax on any vehicle by purchasing a one-time thing or a more economical monthly subscription, the BEST assurance is something completely different. Take the car to a trusted mechanic. For less than $100, this is your best bet at getting a safe and reliable vehicle. In my opinion, skip the Carfax, see the mechanic.

The price. Always start below its KBB value. Emphasize how much you'll have to put into the car. Since you never know how long the dealer or individual has been trying to unload that car, start low.

Don't be honest with the dealer when they ask what your budget is. Cars are listed much higher than the price the seller hopes to get. Always start LOW. This leaves room for negotiation without going over your real budget.

Timing is everything. The new model years generally begin in mid September for most cars. That means after that time but before 12/31, every car is technically one year older.

Good times for car shopping:

  • End of the month
  • End of the year
  • February (typically a slower month)

Closing the deal:

  • Be prepared to walk away. Always.
  • Be prepared for this process to take a long time, especially if you have a smaller budget.
  • Don't "blink". Stick to your budget but be flexible with your price. For a little more money, you might be able to get a much nicer or newer car. Remain tough regardless.

The Best Deal EVER

Here's my secret for getting the absolute BEST deal you'll ever get on a car. It requires a bit of patience and networking. Considering most of us keep our cars for 5 years or more, it's worth it.

Ask around and try to find a friend or acquaintance who is about to trade in their car. Chances are that the people you know take decent care of their car. Many times, people around you can't be bothered with selling their car by themselves so are willing to take whatever amount of money just to be done with the car.

My family was able to do this recently. We were able to get a car with incredibly low mileage and for way under Kelley Blue Book! The car was immaculate!

While there's no perfect way to purchase a used car, there are smart ways to do it. I'd love to hear your suggestions.

Good luck! Hope this blogs helps you in your search.


Cynthia Lyerly (author) from Georgia on July 06, 2013:

Thanks for the comment and for reading the hub.

rose-the planner from Toronto, Ontario-Canada on July 06, 2013:

Excellent information and important tips everyone should know before purchasing a used vehicle! Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

Cynthia Lyerly (author) from Georgia on July 06, 2013:

Awesome!! That's exactly why I wrote the blog. Information is power. Sadly, the car industry still deserves it's sleazy reputation. Thanks for the comment!

mjkearn on July 06, 2013:

Hi Cynthia

Great advice here and a job well done. I even learned things which shows that I don't even know my own trade, LOL.

Voted up and shared.


Cynthia Lyerly (author) from Georgia on July 05, 2013:

Thanks. The advice that I gave is unlike that on other blogs sites. It's the reason I wrote it. Thanks for the vote up!

Firoz from India on July 04, 2013:

Great hub on Buying a Used Car. Voted up.

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