Buying a used car can be a very nerve-wracking experience.. Nobody wants to drive a lemon off the lot. But there are steps you can take to turn the used-car buying experience into a glass of sweet lemonade.
The key is to equip yourself with some knowledge about your rights as a consumer, and about the vehicles you’re thinking of purchasing. You want to be able to make an informed decision, not an impulsive, emotional choice that could come back to haunt you.
All too often used car shoppers get caught up in finding their favorite colors, or just the right sound system. Those are good things to think about, but don’t overlook concealed evidence of an accident, evidence of engine or transmission problems, or odometer tampering.
1. Make a List of Potential Used Vehicles: Read reviews of different, types of vehicles you’re looking for, including reliability histories, such as a sedans or crossover SUVs. Consider several brands, and try to narrow the list to you top three choices. If you’re looking at vehicles that are less than 5 years old, consider the factory Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) options. These cars undergo rigorous inspection, and usually come with a healthy warranty backed by the manufacturer.
2. Compare Prices: Prices will vary based on where you live. Be sure to use online resources to get the latest market value. Sites like Edmunds will show the average price paid for a car in your area.
3. Check the Vehicle History Report: Unless you’re buying a car from a trusted friend or family member, obtain a vehicle history report. The two main services are Carfax and AutoCheck. These reports will show mileage and service reports, accident history if any, and could reveal problems like a “salvage title”.
4. Contact the Seller: For a private party sale, call the seller and ask a few questions about why they’re selling it and if there are any major problems. For a dealer, make sure the car is still on the lot before you venture out.
5. Test Drive the Car: Using your senses will tell you a lot about the vehicle. Touch both the interior and exterior of the vehicle. Does the air conditioning and heater work? Try the car out; make sure it fits you and the people who will be riding with you. Look for signs of rust, or leaks of oil or other fluids, dents, scratches, tears in the seats or carpet. Listen for squeaks, rattles, rough idle, or brake noises. Sniff for signs of leaking antifreeze or oil, or water damage in the interior and trunk. Don’t taste anything, though.
6. Have the Vehicle Inspected: Work with a local trusted technician for an inspection. They may have had experiences with that particular model that could be very informative. An inspection may run $100 or so, but it could save you from a lot more down the road if you’re making a bad decision. Most private party sellers and dealers will allow you to take the car for a few hours. CPO cars have already been thoroughly inspected, so it may not be necessary in that case.
CAUTION: It’s a huge red flag if the seller won’t let you take the car for an inspection. It’s OK to walk away in that case. There are plenty of used cars available.
7. Get the Paperwork Done: A dealership will handle this for you, ensuring you leave with the temporary registration and tag. You’ll likely pay a documentation fee to cover their work. They may offer you an extended warranty, fabric or paint protection or other add-ons.
For a private transaction, make sure the seller has the title in hand, or can work with their lender if they still owe money on the car. Rules vary state by state, so check with your local department of motor vehicles to make sure you have what you need to transfer ownership with a minimum of hassles.
Once you have your new vehicle, now it’s time to start thinking about preventive maintenance. Work with your local trusted auto shop to keep your new vehicle running for many miles to come.
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