How to Buy Used Cars? A Definitive Guide to Buy an Excellent Used Car Without Overpaying

Before we answer this commonly asked question, just think about what is better for you. It is obvious that you have 2 options; a brand-new car or a used car. As a well known fact, buying a brand-new car can make you lose some money because the price of the brand-new car will be depreciated as soon as you buy that new car, but buying a used car can make you avoid that depreciation.

With a large selection of used cars nowadays, there is no greater value than buying a used car. However, it is also the highest risk, especially if you have no idea about what you should do to get the best deal without getting scammed by the unscrupulous people who are ready to cheat you. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you arm yourself with all the needed research and collecting the most possible information about the specific used car you wish to buy.

Buying a used vehicle is a big challenge, especially if you have no idea about the car you are going to buy, so it’s highly recommended that you take your time to collect the needed information and research via the internet to arm yourself before going into the battle of buying used cars. To avoid the pitfalls of buying used cars, do your research online and through multiple dealerships and used car lots.

According to my research there are easy, but powerful steps that will enable you to buy the used car you need. Read them carefully and imagine yourself doing them while reading to memorize them quickly and to be able to implement them effectively in the real life to get the best deal like never before.

Consider the benefits of buying a used car

According to the experts at Kelly Blue Book, “In three years a brand-new car could depreciate by as much as 73 percent of its value. At the best it will retain only 62 percent of its value after three years. That’s one major advantage to buying a used car.”. Therefore, why do you throw money away with buying a brand-new car while you can get a high-quality and recent model used car.

Here are some other good reasons that encourage you to do that:

Skillful used car buyer can explore bigger deals.

Certified used cars are widely being sold nowadays, such as certified pre-owned cars which you can purchase with peace of mind because they have been thoroughly inspected and are covered by warranties.

Used cars are now more reliable than ever before.

Used cars from 1 to 3 years old are generally still covered by factory warranty.

You can find the history of the used car by using the car VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and by using the vehicle history report. And you can get that report easily from CARFAX or Autocheck.

Online, you can check the safety ratings and crash tests for almost any used car.

Set a budget for your purchase

Next, you will need to consider how to finance the car before you go for shopping. Use online tools to help you with that and make a financial plan that suits your budget. Experts at edmunds.com say “Make sure that your monthly payment does not exceed 20 percent of your salary”. It is essential to see how much your specific car really costs. Tools like True Market Value (TMV), True Cost to Own (TCO) on edmunds.com and website like kbb.com will help you with that.

By using affordability calculator and other online calculators, you can determine how much you can pay as a monthly payment. Determine how much you can pay as a down payment for the car if you are going to take out a car loan. It is important to realize that you will not pay only the car price, but you should also consider the other costs of vehicle ownership, such as insurance rates, extended warranties, maintenance, and fuel costs.

There are two ways to buy a used car; either you pay cash or you take out a loan. Taking a loan to buy a car is also called financing the car. You can finance for your used car through a bank, online lender, credit union, or a dealer. It is highly recommended that you finance through the first three, especially bank and online lender.

Choose the right used car

Used car buying has become very popular nowadays, so you will find a large selection of car models to choose from. Search on T.V, magazines, internet or at used car dealerships. Consult friends or relatives. Nowadays the Internet has become the most valuable tool. You can research the large selection of different car models and prices.

Make a list of several used car models that you are interested in and then narrow your list down to 3 or 4 cars. Before you take your list of preferred cars and go to the dealership or private party to purchase, research the car and collect as much information about the car as you can to arm yourself with all the needed knowledge that will save you money and make you get the great deal without getting scammed.

Before you decide on the car model, you should decide whether you will pay the price of the car in cash or you will finance on the car and pay monthly payments. Ask yourself does that car suit your needs? How big you want the car? Does it have headroom and legroom for you and the other passengers? How many passengers will ride in it? Do you need cargo room or towing capacity?

Once you have decided the right model or body style that is excellent for you, you should start collecting detailed information about that specific used car using its VIN. The VIN is included in many online car listings. Websites such as CARFAX OR Autocheck can help you do so easily. Use this VIN to get the vehicle history report which is vital to know the overall condition and history of the car. You will know whether that specific car has ever been totaled, flooded, stolen or whether the odometer has been rolled back.Those are essential information when you consider buying used cars.

If you want to save money, read the consumer reports and car reviews of the model that you are interested in. Compare Kelly Blue Book values, research resale values. By doing your research up front, you can avoid any model if it has a potential issue.

Best places to find used cars

There are a lot of places where you can find used cars, such as online websites, CarMax, dealerships, Auctions, and private party. Each place has its own pros and cons.The certified pre-owned cars are the most expensive used cars. If you want to know more about them you can check out the certified pre-owned vehicle programs at edmunds.com. Make sure that you do not buy a lemon used car.

Test drive and inspect the used car

Test driving and inspecting the used car that you have decided to buy is a very important factor in determining whether or not you proceed with your purchase, you may keep this vehicle for years to come, so make sure that the car is reliable and high performance. Try it in different roads to explore any potential problems you may find later, after you will have bought it.

After you collected the necessary information about the car, contact the seller and arrange an appointment to test drive the used car.When you go to test drive the car, bring along a mechanic because it is highly recommended that you take a mechanic with you to inspect the used car.

When you test drive the car, make sure that the engine is cold because doing that will show you whether there are any chronic issues or not. Bear in mind that it is your chance to test the car, so take your time to judge whether it is a good fit and it is in a good condition or not. Consider the following:

How does it feel when you drive the car?

How does it feel on bumpy roads?

Does the car have the acceleration levels you want?

What about the suspension, is it comfortable and even?

Does the car pull to one side or another or not? If it pulls, so it may be a problem with alignment or brake. Consider trying the brake.

Does the car inside have enough headroom and legroom for everyone who will ride?

While you are driving turn off the radio or C.D player to focus on the driving experience and to be able to hear any unusual noise especially from the engine.

Make sure that you get the service records from the seller or dealer. Stay away from the used cars that have been in a serious accident or that have been undergoing major repair work such as engine overhauls, valve jobs or transmission rebuilds. You should also check the VIN of the car, it is located in many places on the car depending on the car model. Make sure that all of the VIN plates on the car are matched not mismatched. Take a trusted mechanic with you to check things more accurately and professionally for you. If it is a CPO (certified pre-owned car) there is no reason to take a mechanic with you because those kinds of cars have undergone a thorough inspection before they have been brought for sale.

Negotiate the price

Your negotiation will largely depend on your research and the information that you have collected from famous car websites and dealerships. Stick to the prices that you have on hand in your list and show the price quotes to the dealer or the private seller to make them feel that you are educated buyer, so they cannot overprice the used car.

Read carefully before you sign

Before you sign, read carefully the clauses of the contract. It is recommended that you take a lawyer with you to finalize the paperwork for you. Avoid signing “as is” when buying a used car, because once you sign that, any problem with the car becomes yours. If you have to do that, make sure that you researched the information and got the Vehicle History Report on the used car. Make sure that any promises are written not just spoken.

Finally, by doing the above steps, you will become the educated buyer who knows exactly how to buy an excellent used car and how much you can expect to pay for it.

Master the Craigslist – Used Car Buying Tips

Why buy used?

A used car (be it 1000 miles or 100,000 miles) is much cheaper than that same car when bought brand new off the lot (obviously). Craigslist, aka private party, lets us find these cars for the best price. Read on to learn how to become a master of the used car buying and selling process.

Finding the right car

First, find a budget that you are willing to work with. If you do not have the cash, and if the car qualifies, a bank or credit union may offer a loan.

Always refer to KBB (Kelly Blue Book) for the current private party value of the car you are purchasing. This will give you a better idea on how much you should be paying for the car, as well as potential negotiating power to lower the price.

If not familiar with cars, we suggest finding a shop to do a Pre Purchase Inspection. That way you know the mechanical condition and can use it as negotiating power. The thing to remember with all used car buying tips, you must always negotiate the price.

Pro Tip Most people expect to get lowballed, so they set the price much higher than what they would really like to get.

A Note on Smog

If you live in a state that requires a SMOG check, make sure that the seller has a smog certificate included. Verify that the smog was completed within 90 days, otherwise it is not valid for transfer of ownership (CA).

Double check to make sure the registration is current. A lot of times, people sell their car for a cheap price only because they cannot smog it due to a Check Engine Light, or other issues.

Setting up for finding the right deals

On the Craigslist page, navigate to your location’s web page, then click Cars and Trucks by Owner. In the search settings, set the range from $0 – (Your Max Limit). I like to add about 20% to my max limit to allow for cars that can be negotiated within the budget.

After you save your search settings, and refresh your page, you will see all the vehicles in your area that are for sale.

Pro Tip Save this Craigslist page to your home screen on your phone and your computer, that way its quick access and you do not have to mess with the settings again.

If you have this on your home screen you will see it more often, reminding you to check the listings and therefore increasing chances of finding the killer deal.

Contacting the seller

Remember, these used car buying tips apply for all private party car buying platforms, not just Craigslist. When I sell a car, the biggest thing I hate is when people ask “is the car still available?”.

Be polite, but do not waste anyone’s time. Contact the buyer through phone call when possible. If it’s a smokin’ deal, it will NOT last on Craigslist. The phone is the quickest and most direct method. Do not dilly dally around and have the sweet deal scooped up by a car dealer!

When buying a car, I look at the person selling me the car just as much, if not more, than the car itself. Mainly, it shows me what kind of treatment and service history the car received. If the person was older, spoke intelligently, and looked wealthy, we found that most times the car was in great shape to match.

Most Important Questions to Ask

“How long have you had the car?”
“What kind of maintenance have you done with the car”
“Why are you selling the car?”
“Are there any leaks or major mechanical problems?”

Ask these questions over the phone, and try to get a general understanding of the car’s shape before going out to see it, especially if its a long distance.

Saving time is key, you would be surprised how often people say “The car is flawless” on the ad. Asking these questions lets you determine if they are honest.

Set up an appointment to see the car if you feel like the information you’ve gathered about the car matches what you’re looking for.

Getting Ready to Meet and Test Drive

When meeting with a seller, I always bring:

Scan Tool for Monitors / Codes
Powerful Flashlight (I recommend Streamlight flashlights)
Pivoting and extendable mirror to check for leaks
My Drivers License / ID
Cash (I bring cash with me, but leave it in the car. I only do this if the amount is under $3000. Anything past that I just go to the bank with the seller and get them the cashiers check or cash when the deal is done).

Anti-Lemon Used Car Inspection Checklist

Before the meeting

Verify the sellers has the necessary paperwork, aka Pink Slip, proof of registration, and smog certificate (if required by state). Although not necessary, print out a copy of the bill of sale form.
Use CarFax or Autocheck to run a VIN background on the vehicle. This is key!
Set up personal guidelines to the maximum amount willing to spend on the car.
Make sure you have the funds ready, or instant access to them in the payment form the seller prefers.
Advise the seller you want the car to be COLD for your test drive. We want a cold engine to get a complete analysis. This is a key part to the used car inspection checklist!

At the car

Engine Inspection – Use the combination of the pivoting mirror and flashlight mentioned above to peek behind components and around the valve cover, checking for leaks. Inspect everything carefully, pay special attention to the serpentine belt area and leaks around the valve covers.

Check for Codes – Connect the scanner and make sure there are no engine codes. Make sure the monitors for smog are all completed – if not, be suspicious.

Check the body panels and paint, does it all look even? Is the texture the same everywhere? Look for panels that are a slightly different color or hue, which may indicate a sign of collision that was already repaired.

Check all the paperwork before starting the drive – make sure they own the car and that they have a pink slip with their name on it.

Check tires. Are they a matching set? Good Tread? Any signs of uneven wear? Could mean bad alignment or an accident in the past that prevents proper alignment.

Check brake pad thickness through the wheels if possible.

Check maintenance records (see if big service items have been done, like timing belt and water pump if the engine is a timing belt engine)

Check condition of oil. Open the oil filler cap and look under for any foamy, milky substances, which MAY indicate sludge or head gasket issues.

Upon vehicle start up, check the exhaust pipe for smoke. Listen to the engine for any uneven running aka “misfire” and try to smell for coolant or oil burning off which would indicate a leak.

Look over the serpentine belt(s) and all other engine components for any signs of damage, wear, or leaks.

Peek under the car to check for leaks, rust, and damage.

During the Test Drive

Engine Check – Make sure to use some power and get the engine to a high RPM (don’t redline someone else’s car). Have the windows down and constantly monitor for noise from the engine, as well as the suspension. Note how the vehicle idles, it should be smooth for the most part. Keep checking the instrument cluster for warning messages as well as overheating. Be keen to any burning oil or coolant smells.

Brake Test – Come to some stops at different speeds/intensities and try to listen for screeching or grinding noises

Alignment Check – During the test drive, while on a somewhat even road, let go of the steering wheel for a few moments and see if the vehicle drifts to one side. Keep in mind, most roads have “road crown” and will slightly cause all cars to drift to the right, but a barely noticeable amount.

Transmission Check – Make sure the test drive takes at least 15 minutes, ask the seller for permission first. This will allow the transmission to fully warm up. For automatics, issues could potentially arise online when hot, and not be present when cold. You will feel jerkiness when the auto transmission is malfunctioning. For manuals, do a clutch test by engaging 4th gear at a slow speed and go wide open throttle – see if the clutch slips (the rpms will climb extremely fast like you are in neutral).

Wiggle Test – At about 30 mph roll down your windows do a few quick left to right steering wheel maneuvers. Listen to the suspension and chassis – it should not make ANY noises while doing this.

Suspension Check – Go over some bumpy roads, and take some angled driveways / turns. Listen for any binding suspension components which will present itself with a loud knock. Also listen for failing wheel bearings by rolling up all your windows and checking for a loud whirring rotational noise.

Interior and Features – Finally, check all the features. This means A/C, reverse camera, navigation, etc. Check all window motors by rolling up and down the windows. Make sure everything is working to your desire.

During the Test Drive, DO NOT:

Drive the car like you are taking a hot lap around the Nurburgring
Go on an extended period test drive unless agreed upon with seller
Do anything that would put you or the car at risk, cosmetically or mechanically.

Remember – an honest seller will often also have a car that is in fairly decent shape. Verify that the story they tell you matches the clues you see with the car.

Ask one of the previous questions to see if the answer remains the same this time around. If something doesn’t match up, chances are the seller is hiding something, and I would investigate further.

“Gut Feeling” plays a big role in this game. Be alert to your senses and you will not buy a lemon. This is one of the key used car buying tips.

Inspecting the Car

If inspecting yourself, print out and follow our Inspection Checklist

Make sure to find a professional shop to do a Pre Purchase Inspection if you are not mechanically inclined. Anything wrong with the car, especially when NOT told about by the seller, can be potentially used to reduce the selling price or to save you from thousands of dollars in losses.

One of the used car buying tips I want you to take away from this is that any car can be a “good deal” so long as the issues within the car are discovered and price lowered to compensate.

Seal the Deal

First, before anything else, make sure they have the pink slip, as well as the smog certificate. Verify they are the owner by asking to see their ID and matching it to the name on the pink slip.

Make sure the smog certificate states that it has been completed within 90 days, otherwise its invalid for title transfer. Other states may have more paperwork so get familiar with your states requirements.

Reach a price that both parties can agree to.

Do NOT be afraid of throwing out an offer. They just spent their time showing the car, and people hate to lose time. Most times they will take a substantial amount below asking value as long as you show them things they have left out in their ad.

Sellers usually prefer cash money, but if the car is more expensive you should pay with a cashier’s check. Since there is a lot of check fraud going on, sellers are typically sketched out.

Invite them to come to the bank with you while you have the cashier’s check made out. If both seller and buyer have the same banking company, an instant transfer can also be arranged.

After completing the transaction, make sure to save the sellers phone number for any further questions. Also ask them for any sets of spare keys, and service records they have.

Thank you very much for reading

My name is Anton and I’m from California. My website CarLifeDaily.com is an auto repair and used car buying and selling advice blog. Check out the website and make sure to subscribe to receive exclusive member-only content weekly!

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Electric and Hybrid Cars – The Wave of The Future

It seems like we’ve been waiting forever for electric cars to come along, but after more false starts than you’ll see at the London Olympics this year, it looks like the electric car is finally here to stay.

Now, we need to start with some boring terminology: A true electric car (EV, for Electric Vehicle) has no petrol engine as backup, so you are reliant on the batteries having enough charge to get you to where you need to go. The Nissan Leaf is the best-known (and best) electric car currently on sale.

A regular hybrid uses an electric motor and/or a petrol motor, depending on the circumstances. You don’t plug it into a wall socket as the batteries charge while you are driving. A typical journey, even a short one, will use both electric and petrol power to drive the wheels. The Toyota Prius is the most popular and best-known hybrid on sale around the world.

A plug-in hybrid, “range-extending” electric car, is technically more of a fancy hybrid than a true EV although it drives more like an EV than a regular hybrid. In practice it might be a huge difference or none at all, depending on how you use the car. A range-extender, or plug-in hybrid as it’s more commonly known, has a petrol engine which can be used to power the electric motor once the batteries have drained, but the petrol engine does not directly drive the wheels*. The Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt twins are the leading example of this type of car, and they claim an urban fuel consumption of 300mpg (yep, that’s three hundred. Not a typo!)

A car running on an electric motor is usually very quiet (eerie silence or a distant hum instead of a clearly audible petrol engine) and smooth (no vibrations from engine or gearbox). The response from the car away from rest is both immediate and powerful, as electric motors generate huge amounts of torque instantly. They’re quiet from the outside to, to such an extent that the EU is considering making audible warnings compulsory in the future as pedestrians simply won’t hear an electric car coming.

In terms of exciting handling, electric cars are usually not brilliant, it must be said. They tend to be very heavy and usually run tyres & wheels more beneficial for economy than handling. But as a commuter vehicle around town, they are zippy and efficient. Plus they generate less noise, heat and pollution into the street so a traffic jam of Nissan Leafs in the city would be a lot more pleasant for passing pedestrians.

The batteries on a typical electric car only give it enough range for a few miles (although a true EV will have a bigger battery pack as it doesn’t have to fit a petrol engine & fuel tank as well), so the cars use various means to charge the battery while driving. Usually this involves converting kinetic energy from coasting and braking to electric energy to store in the batteries. The Fisker Karma even has solar cells in its roof to charge the batteries as well.

However, a longer journey will inevitably mean that the batteries are drained. In a fully electric car that means you have to stop and charge the batteries, so hopefully you parked near a power socket somewhere and have several hours to find something else to do. In a hybrid, the petrol engine will start up to provide the power. In a regular hybrid like a Prius, the car effectively becomes an ordinary petrol car, albeit with a fairly underpowered engine pushing a heavy car around so it’s not swift. In a ‘range extender’ like the Ampera/Volt, the petrol engine provides energy to the electric motor to drive the wheels, which is more efficient in both performance and economy. Depending on how you’re driving, any spare energy from the petrol engine can be used to charge up the batteries again, so the car may switch back to electric power once charging is complete.

So what does this mean in the real world?

Well, how much of the following driving do you do? We’re assuming here that the batteries are fully charged when you set off.

Short trips (<50 miles between charges).

These sort of journeys are ideal for electric cars and plug-in hybrids, as the batteries will cope with the whole journey and also get some charge while you drive. A regular hybrid will still need to use the petrol engine, although how much depends on how you drive it and how much charging it is able to get along the way.

Medium trips (50-100 miles between charges).

These are the sorts of trips that give EV drivers plenty of stress, as the traffic conditions may mean you run out of juice before you make it to your charging point. A plug-in hybrid or regular hybrid will be fine because they can call on the petrol engine. In a regular hybrid, this means the car will be petrol powered for most of the journey. In a plug-in hybrid, it will be mainly electric with the petrol engine kicking in to top up the batteries if needed late in the journey.

Longer trips (100+ miles between charges)

Not feasible in a fully-electric car, as you will almost certainly run out of electricity before you get there. The regular hybrid is basically a petrol car for almost the whole journey and the plug-in hybrid is majority electric but supplemented by petrol in a far more efficient way than a regular hybrid.

The pros and cons:

Let’s summarise the three types of electrically-powered cars:

Regular hybrid (eg – Toyota Prius)

PROS: cheaper, no charging required, no range anxiety, regular petrol engine makes it feel like a regular petrol car

CONS: only very short journeys (a few miles at best) will be fully electric, small battery pack and weak petrol engine means relatively poor performance compared to a normal petrol car or a fully electric car, poor economy when driven hard (like most Prius minicabs in London…), not very spacious for passengers and luggage due to carrying petrol and electric powertrains in one car

Fully electric car (EV) (eg – Nissan Leaf)

PROS: powerful electric motor gives much better performance than a regular hybrid, larger battery pack means longer electric running, no petrol engine reduces weight and frees up a lot of space, £5000 government rebate, electricity is cheaper and usually less polluting than petrol, privileged parking spaces in certain public places

CONS: Still expensive despite rebate, minimal range capability due to lack of petrol engine backup, resulting range anxiety is a real issue for drivers, question marks over battery life, technology advances will make next generation massively better and hurt resale value, some driving adaptation required, lengthy recharging required after even a moderate drive

Plug-in Hybrid / range-extender (eg – Vauxhall Ampera)

PROS: powerful electric motor and backup petrol engine give best combination of performance and range, most journeys will be fully electric which is cheaper than petrol, no range anxiety, privileged parking spaces in certain public places

CONS: Very expensive despite rebate, question marks over battery life and resale value, wall socket charging is still slow, lack of space and very heavy due to having petrol engine and fuel tank as well as electric motor and batteries.

Electric Car Economics – is it all worth it?

For most people, an electric vehicle is difficult to justify on pure hard-headed economics. Even with a £5,000 rebate from the government, an electric car is expensive. A Nissan Leaf starts at £31,000, so after the government gives you £5K you have spent £26K on a car which would be probably worth about £15K if it had a normal petrol engine. That could conceivably buy you a decade’s worth of fuel! And there are still question marks hovering over the long-term reliability of batteries and resale value, which may bite you hard somewhere down the line

Electric Cars and the Environment

Buying a hybrid or electric car because you think you’re helping the environment may not be helping that cause as much as you think, if at all. Producing car batteries is a dirty and complicated process, and the net result is that there is a significantly higher environmental impact in building an electric or hybrid car than building a regular petrol or diesel car. So you’re starting behind the environmental eight-ball before you’ve even driven you new green car.

Beware of “zero emissions” claims about electric vehicles, because most electricity still comes from fossil fuel sources (like gas or coal) rather than renewable sources, so you are still polluting the atmosphere when you drive, albeit not as much and the effects are not as noticeable to you. If you have your own solar panels or wind farm to power your car, this is much more environmentally friendly.

Range anxiety

The biggest electric car turn-off for car buyers (other than the high purchase price) is the joint problem of very limited range and very slow recharging. In a petrol or diesel car, you can drive for a few hundred miles, pull into a petrol station and five minutes later you are ready to drive for another few hundred miles. In an electric car, you drive for 50-100 miles, then have to stop and charge it for several hours to drive another 50-100 miles.

If you only take short journeys and can keep the car plugged in whenever it stops (usually at home or work), this may never be a problem. But you can’t expect to jump in the car and drive a couple of hundred miles, or get away with forgetting to plug the car in overnight after a journey. You have to be much more disciplined in terms of planning your driving, and allow for recharging. Away from home this is still a big problem as there are relatively few power sockets available in public parking areas for you to use.

A plug-in hybrid like the Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt gets around the range anxiety problem, as does a normal hybrid like a Toyota Prius, but you are carting a petrol engine (and fuel) around all the time which you may not need, adding hundreds of kilos of weight and taking up lots of space, so it’s a compromise.

So as you can see from all of the above, it’s not at all straightforward. You need to carefully consider what sort of driving you will be doing and what you need your car to be able to do.

*there is a complicated technical argument about whether the Ampera/Volt’s petrol engine directly drives the wheels under certain circumstances, but it’s really boring and doesn’t really make any difference to how the car drives.

Stuart Masson is founder and owner of The Car Expert, a London-based independent and impartial car buying agency for anyone looking to buy a new or used car.

Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for nearly thirty years, and has spent the last seven years working in the automotive retail industry, both in Australia and in London.

Stuart has combined his extensive knowledge of all things car-related with his own experience of selling cars and delivering high levels of customer satisfaction to bring a unique and personal car buying agency to London. The Car Expert offers specific and tailored advice for anyone looking for a new or used car in London.