Squawkback: What Are Your Tips for Buying Used Cars?

It has been a while since I’ve posted a Squawkback reader question. I’d love to hear your tips, gotchas, and tricks when shopping for and buying used cars. Ever since my “better half’s” 2005 Subaru Impreza was in a crazy accident and declared a total write-off by the insurance company, we’ve been in the market to replace our wheels.

Buying Used Cars

The challenge is, I have no idea how to buy a used car. We’ve looked for used cars online, used cars by owner, and checked out various used car dealers. I’m stumped. I’m not loving the “wheelin’ and dealin’ games” and I want to avoid buying an expensive lemon.

So if you’ve got some ideas on how to save money on a quality used car I’d love to hear from you.

What are your tips, tricks, and gotchas for buying used cars?

Your two cents:

  1. Ray May 1st, 2009

    First of all I would NOT buy from a dealer no matter how nice they are.

    2. Make sure the car is not from out of province, if it is make sure you get ALL the information you can get your hands on. A friend of mine purchased a car he did not know was brought in from a different province and when he got in an accident he had major issues with insurance company.

    Recently saw an episode of Marketplace about this i’ll c if i can find it.

  2. Amphritrite May 1st, 2009

    Where to start:

    Ask your friends and family where they bought their used cars, and whether they were happy with the result.

    Then, decide what you can afford, at what interest rate or whether you’ll be buying with cash.

    Figure out what styles you want, whether buying domestic is important to you, and what your lifestyle needs are in way of type of car: truck, SUV or Car.

    Break it down into little steps and swallow them one by one. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

  3. Ray May 1st, 2009
  4. Sara May 1st, 2009

    After deciding you think you want a particular car, take the car to your usual shop and get it inspected. Carry the inspection results back to the seller and use that to negotiate a better price if something needs fixing. Or, you might not want the car at all after the results of an inspection! Totally worth the $100-150 it will cost.

  5. Kerry May 1st, 2009

    @Ray Ohh I saw that CBC Marketplace episode a while ago, something about the “Car Fax” report being a bunch of bunk. Update: Ahh, you beat me to the comment. Nice! Thanks for digging those details up!

    @Amphritrite We’ve pretty much decided to replace our 2005 Subaru Impreza with another Impreza of same vintage. We have all the winter tires and racks for that model already – plus my “better half” really loved that car.

    @Sara Great point. We do have a trusted mechanic lined up! Phew!

    On Twitter I’ve had a few people tweet to not buy from a dealership.

  6. Beth May 1st, 2009

    foxy,
    my better half, mister fixit, buys a used car about every 6 months. being the mister fixit that he is, he specifically looks for ones that have labour intensive work to be done on them and fixes them up, sells them and lathers, rinses and repeats.
    before you look for your pre-loved car, figure out what you need in your car and how long you plan to own it. do you want to own it forever? if so, make sure the major maintenance has been done regularly. make sure that regular oil changes have been done! if the timing belt hasn’t been done by 100,000K, that’s a) something that you’re going to need to get done and b) a fairly decent sign that the car hasn’t been serviced and maintained regularly. if the previous owner has all their maintenance records, ask for them, look them over, even give the shop that does the regular maintenance on that car a call and ask about it.

    a tip for those who are going to sell their car is that if you take your car to the same garage regularly, when you’re selling your car, they are usually more than willing to provide you with a printout of all the maintenance done over the years for you to provide to prospective buyers!

  7. Melanie Reformed Spender May 1st, 2009

    While you can sometimes get a better deal by cutting out the middle man, I would not go as far as to say never go to the dealer. A good dealer has minimum standards and has access to a lot of cars that you would never find in private sale. For my last car, I found a good used car dealer and when I couldn’t find anything on the lot that suited my tastes in my price range, the dealer produced a list of cars available at a forthcoming private auction to see what we could work out. The next week, he came back with the car I wanted at a price I could afford.

    Regardless of the dealer (or private seller) always be thorough in your inspectiion of the vehicle before buying. Check under the doors for signs of rust. Scratches are actualy good because they’re a sign of original paint (thus no major accidents). Test drive with the radio off to listen for any funny noises. The interior of the car is a good tip-off to how the car was treated in its past life. Owners who take care of the car on the inside were probably also good at getting oil changes and not running the car into the ground. Most importantly, if anything seems off, walk away.

  8. TStrump May 2nd, 2009

    Craigslist is always a great source but beware of lemons.
    Watch our for rebuilds – they are cheaper but have usually been in accidents and may not drive the same.
    BETH makes a great point about developing a relationship with a garage – I use the same mechanic all the time.
    While he isn’t the cheapest, he is honest and tells me what I need to know.

  9. Mr. NtJS May 2nd, 2009

    Fox-
    We did quite well selling a car and buying it’s replacement on Craigslist. That was also in a large city with a very active online community (lots to choose from). If you’ve got some time to kill, then go visit a dealer, otherwise, I wouldn’t waste your time.

    CarFax reports aren’t a bad thing, but you need to know how to read them. Our month-long login caught a dealer’s lies (that truck had been worked like a dog), and confirmed a individual’s story of a vehicle’s history (the one we ended up buying).

    The only hard part about buying from an individual, is havng the paper work lined up – title, bill of sale, warranty transfer…. – don’t assume that the seller will have their act together. Since we had just sold a car we knew just how to do all af this. Check your local government’s web site for more info.

  10. Alex May 2nd, 2009

    I second Ray on buying from dealers – don’t do that.
    I tried it – it never worked quite well. I now always look if I like the person who is selling the car. If I don’t, I don’t buy from him even if I really like the car.
    I also don’t sell my cars to dealers, btw.

  11. Orion May 3rd, 2009

    I’m a Licensed Automotive Technician that knows this industry well from the inside. These are what I consider to be the important steps to finding the right car for you!

    Start with some research, find out what you need from a car and determine which make/model fits your need. And browse your local classifieds to get an idea for pricing in your area. Don’t leave out the dealerships and used car lots in your search to find the right car. With our economy the way it is, some of the best deals can now be had at these places. The value of all vehicles has dropped considerably in the past 6+ months due to the lower costs of the new models. I find that a lot of private sale vehicles are priced a lot higher than used car lots. This is generally the case because the private seller has an idea of what there car was worth last year, and has likely invested more money in the car than it will ever be worth in today’s economy. Used car lots are hurting for sales these days and they need to move vehicles to stay afloat so do bargain with them.

    Now having said that Dealerships and Used Car Lots are a great place to find a car, the most important step in purchasing a vehicle is GET IT INSPECTED!!!! Please do this before you buy it. If you miss this step, chances are you will have purchased a lemon, that is just the way it works out. The key here is to bring it to your local mechanic. I am not going to go into how to find a mechanic at this time, but if you are a regular customer, they will have your best interests in mind. Good shops offer a Prepurchase Inspection and will go through your car mechanically and electrically. A good Tech will be able to tell if you car has been in an accident, is out of province, or just poorly maintained and whether or not any of that really matters to the integrity of the vehicle. They will let you know where services or repairs need to be done and can provide an estimate for repairs. Now you are armed with real bargaining power!

    Now all you have to do is bargain down to the right price, and bargain you must. Everyone wants top dollar for their car but that has changed in the buyers favor. Use your acquired vehicle inspection and local market research to get the price down to a fair value.

    It is absolutely amazing what you can get in a vehicle for you money these days. So before you buy that vehicle you have been dreaming of, don’t forget it’s future maintenance costs. As a general rule the more expensive a vehicle was new the more it costs to keep going.

  12. Doctor S May 3rd, 2009

    To me, buying a car is such a crap shoot. I purchased my first car 3 years ago out of college. I bought a certified pre-owned Mazda vehicle with 20k miles. I had no idea I would be driving as much as I have been over the last few years. In hindsight, I should have gotten a car with better gas mileage but the bang for my buck that I got was great.

    The key to buying a car is knowing exactly what your needs are and how often you are going to drive the car. Also, the key to longevity on a vehicle is what type of driver you are and you knowledge of maintaining the vehicle often and timely.

    I just do not see the value in buying brand new cars when used cars with 10 miles on them are 30% cheaper. Research and the internet have changed the way car buying takes place, even ebay is a good marketplace for finding a nice car in your agrea. Put in the amount of research and you will find a car equating to your efforts.

  13. Hayden Tompkins May 3rd, 2009

    If they won’t let you take it to a mechanic, then walk away. You can always find another deal!

  14. Spending It May 5th, 2009

    Here is my advice for shopping for a used car.

    1. Know what kind of car you want to buy.
    2. Know the average selling price for the make, model and year.
    3. Find online dealers who have a car on their lot fitting your description.
    4. Send an email to around 30 car dealers who have your car for sale. Tell them what you want and that you are sending a similar email to 30 competing dealerships and that you are going to buy from the dealer that gives you the best price.
    5. Once you get offers, then you play each dealer off the lowest offer until none will drop the price any more.

    This has always worked for me. It is time consuming, but it can be done in about one week.

  15. FupDuckTV May 5th, 2009

    I’ve heard that Ebay is also a good place for purchasing a used car. I have mulitple friends that have used Ebay and parleyed the purchase into a new car + vacation. I like to buy new cars, but that is just me.

  16. Treva May 6th, 2009

    I bought a used car last summer from a dealership. Before I bought it I did a LOT of research on the edmunds.com, kbb.com, and consumerreports.org (well worth my weight in gold for the subscription price). I unfortunately only had 2 weeks to figure out what to do and I would have preferred a full month. I checked out a few cars, found one I liked, took it for a test drive and then had my mechanic (trusted and have known him 1/2 my life, maybe longer) who gave me a gold star for picking out a good car. I had no choice in financing b/c my previous car was totaled when someone hit me and I was not at a place in my life to pay cash. The good news is that my car payment is well within my budget and my insurance dropped $20/month. I’ve had the car only a year now, but it runs beautifully and I’m following the recommended maintenance on it. It’s an 06 model that was purchased new by the previous owner in mid-05. We’re hoping it will last us until at least 2015, bearing in mind that we are a 1-car family so our mileage is not stretched between 2 cars like most American families.

  17. s1mp13m4n August 7th, 2010

    OK this come from someone who enjoys cars as a hobby and does all his own car work. I am in the US as well so some of this may not be relevant to everyone. Purchase your car from a private owner not from a dealership. You avoid the markup and sales pitch. Buy a domestic vehicle not an import brand. The reason for this is over all repair costs are cheaper, parts for example are less expensive. To me vehicle history reports do not mean much because they only show what has been reported on the car as far as its history, so they are not an accurate gauge of what you are buying. Have a trusted car nut friend go with you while you are looking that way you save money on having the car looked at by an auto shop. Save up and pay cash for the car that way you avoid interest and loan payments. Forget the mag reviews such as Consumer Reports. What you think, see, and feel matter more than some review in a publication.

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