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How to Buy a Used Car: the Tips to Take and Traps to Avoid

How to Buy a Used Car: the Tips to Take and Traps to Avoid

November 6, 2017

Everyone has the image of a used car salesman in their mind. Likely fast-talking, slick looking and looking to sell you a lemon that you don’t have a chance to get the skinny on until you’ve signed on the dotted line. However, these days buyers have a lot more power. And a lot more information at their disposal to make an informed decision about a car before they purchase it. Online resources have made it possible to research cars, sellers, and parts. This helps to make sure that when you buy a used car, you’re starting with a clean slate.


Check the VIN number


Since 1981, car makers around the world have used a complex system of coding called Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) to describe a vehicle. The VIN tells you things like the manufacturer, year and place of production, and the vehicle characteristics (pre-1981 cars may also have VINs, though they may not follow the same system, so you really need a specialist). This 17 digit code is usually located on the dashboard as well as on the driver’s side door jamb sticker. Think of the VIN as a car’s social security number, and with it you can find out pretty much everything about its history. There are plenty of websites that will help you look up a car using a VIN, and you’ll be able to tell how many times it’s changed hands, what kind of damage it’s suffered, and any odometer rollbacks. Moreover, you’ll be able to check any product recalls that might affect the car and in the wake of scandals like the Takata airbag recall and the injuries that were reported, this is information that could save your life. If you’ve seen a car you like, this should be the first move you make.


Know your model, and know your (real) budget


Shopping for a car can be absolutely overwhelming, as choices are very nearly limitless, so the more precise you are about what you want, the more likely you are to come out a winner. This is particularly important if you’re going to a dealership, as you’ll be confronted with a wide range of models and likely enthusiastic sellers who will likely steer you towards the models they want to sell, rather than the ones that most likely fit your lifestyle. If you need a commuter car, make sure you’re looking at which ones are the most fuel efficient, and which offer the most comfortable ride. If you want a family car, be realistic about how much trunk space you need, and how many people can fit in the car before it becomes a tight squeeze. And of course, have a budget that you know you’ll stick to, and that will include all of the additional costs you’ll incur in the process. Buying a car also means buying insurance, getting it checked out, and any other fees. If you wipe out your savings on a car before you’ve factored all of the other costs in, you might find yourself with a very nice lawn ornament.


Look for used car auctions


Auctions can be a great way to find a car that might normally have been way out of your budget for a price that you can handle, and if you’re looking to pay cash, this is a real option to consider. However, auctions come with the enormous downside of not being able to inspect a car before you buy it, so there is a much higher risk involved for the potential reward. However, even if you can’t inspect the car with a mechanic you can still catch it’s VIN and do a check, which will give you vital information about the car’s history. Moreover, if you know the make and model you’re looking for, you can do some advanced scouting to make sure you know the blue book value of a car so that you don’t get caught up in a bidding war for a car that’s not really worth it. On that last point, it’s always best to go to an auction with someone you trust, and someone that you will listen to if you do start to get carried away. Remember, it can be a thrilling experience to be at an auction, but you don’t want to get stuck with a bad decision as a result.


Bring a mechanic along or have the vehicle pre-inspected by a mechanic you trust


Most of us can look at a car and take stock of things like damage, rust, or repair and more than a few of us know how to check the oil and know if it needs to be changed. However, there are a million little details that make a car tick, and if even one or two of them are off, you could find yourself saddled with repairs that might have either been the responsibility of the seller to fix before the purchase, or which may have caused you to avoid the car altogether. If you have a regular mechanic with whom you’ve worked and you trust, they can come with you to check out a car or schedule a time to have the car brought to them for inspection. If you don’t have a mechanic on speed dial, look for forums in your area that might recommend someone, or don’t be afraid to reach out to your own network of friends, colleagues or family to see if they have a contact. The important thing is to have a mechanic that is impartial and has no stake in whether you buy the car. They’ll be able to tell you if any bugs are big problems, and whether a vehicle is a good investment.


Make sure you have a checklist when doing the inspection (and make sure it's detailed)


Just because you bring a mechanic along doesn’t mean you should sit by and idly watch while they do their thing. There are plenty of vehicle checklists available that even the most cursory searches online will bring up, and they often contain hundreds of points to inspect before buying. If your mechanic already has a checklist, all the better, but familiarize yourself with the contents nonetheless, even if you’ve got no idea what half of the document says. The excitement of buying a car is understandable, and you may want to believe that you’ve found the car for you. But no amount of wishful thinking makes a car pristine, and even if it’s been well taken care of, there are bound to be things that wear out over time. Going over a car with a fine-toothed comb is the best way to ensure that there are no surprises once you’ve got the keys in your hand, and it helps you make the best decision about how to spend your money.


Go for a test drive, and try to do it under not-so-ideal conditions


All of the inspection in the world is not going to replace the actual feeling of being behind the wheel, and a car has to feel comfortable for you to drive if it’s going to be the one you take home. Any responsible seller will allow you to test drive a vehicle, and when doing so, you’ll want to test it out as if you were driving it normally. Getting a feel for the transmission and engine power is important, and if the clutch is loose or the brake pads need changing, you’ll feel it as you put the car under some stress. You obviously don’t want to be reckless with any car but don’t be afraid to test the limits of the car to make sure that it hasn’t been patched up just enough to be driven off the lot. In addition, see if you’re able to drive it in adverse conditions like rain, wind or snow if that’s a condition under which you’ll find yourself driving at any point, or if you can drive the car at night. You’ll want to test the grip of the tires, the turning circle, and braking on wet roads, as well as the lights and high beams.


If it's a private sale, get to know the owner (but not in a creepy way)


Buying a used car is really a question of trust, and when you don’t have reviews of dealerships to go on it can be difficult to know if a seller is credible. This doesn’t mean that you have to steer clear of private buyers, but you’ll do well to exercise caution and take the time to find out more about the sellers. This doesn’t have to mean stalking them on social media or becoming great friends with them, but it does mean that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask them questions about their use of the car, even if it feels awkward. Why are they selling it? What were they using the car for? How many cars have they owned? If you’re reading an ad and find that they’ve used vague terminology to describe the car, or won’t answer more specific questions, this is usually an indication that there is some undisclosed information somewhere. When you make an appointment to see the car, make sure that it’s in a public place and that you don’t go there alone, and don’t be afraid to articulate these points to a seller. If they’re serious, they might be as skeptical of you as you are of them, so being upfront is often a good way to indicate that you’re interested and credible. Remember, this is a business transaction, and it pays to be professional.


Don't be afraid to negotiate, and don't be afraid to walk away if the seller won't budge


If you’ve got a definite budget in mind and you have as much information about the car in question as you can possibly get, you’ll be able to make a fair offer that you can stand behind. Very often, sellers or dealers are willing to negotiate on their price, and you can often agree to a deal that satisfies both parties. However, sometimes sellers are stuck to a specific price and won’t budge, whether or not logic is on their side. If you find that after all is said and done that the car is out of your budget, or is simply not worth the money they’re asking, it’s time to walk away from the sale and start looking again. As in any negotiation, if the party selling knows that you’re interested they’ll usually hold fast in the hopes that you’ll make an emotional decision which doesn’t require them giving in. If you’re able to walk away from a sale that you know is not to your benefit, you may find that the seller reconsiders their position and contacts you again. If not, it’s onto the next car. While it can be an exhausting process and you’ll often find yourself with a need for transport that is great than the time you have to wait or keep looking, it’s always better to hold out for the deal that is right for you.

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