Buying a user car.
March 15, 2012 12:32 AM   Subscribe

I have not bought a used car before by myself. I need some help.

I have bought cars that were used before but always from someone I knew well, and I didnt really have any issues. I did the prudent thing and have a mechanic look it over and check it out.

Currently I am looking for a Toyota Tacoma, and I do not have any friends who are selling one. I think its a pretty reliable truck, hopefully. I had a Tundra for a while, but it gulped gas, and because of the economy I sold it.

So anyways, I have been looking at used cars and I am confused.
I look on many different sites, and I m confusion is that the advertised
price for the used cars, even some that are 3-4 years old, seem more expensive than buying a new car. I have been told that if you buy a new car and drive it off the lot you loose quite a high percentage of its worth.
If the car is a couple of years old or more I would expect the price to be lower than buying a brand new car.

I am missing something but I am not sure what. Can anyone
explain this to me?

I know this has to be most people know and understand so I feel foolish having to ask.
posted by digividal to Shopping (19 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Are the "new car" prices you're comparing to the ones in the newspaper? While I have never bought a new car, I have noticed that sometimes those newspaper ads have fine print telling you that the price in big numbers is actually the price after trade-in and money down, or something like that.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:07 AM on March 15, 2012

Ask around at your work or circle of acquaintances, if they can recommend reliable car dealers. This might be less risky in your case than finding a private sale cold.

You may want to consider going to the Toyota dealership to buy a used one. It'll probably cost more.

Otherwise the best option for any used car is to have your potential purchase checked out by your mechanic. You can either arrange to borrow the car to take it there, or have the present owner take it himself (you pay for the checkout either way).

Otherwise I agree a 1,2 or 3 year old car is a better value IMHO than a brand new one, it's still new but with the main devaluation taken off. Look for a recent model year with high mileage rather than a later year with lower mileage.

For prices they expect you to haggle. They ask a high price, you counter with a lower price. And some clowns selling things (cars, stereos etc.) are not being realistic over the true value of what they're selling.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 2:12 AM on March 15, 2012

edit: sorry if advice was off-topic. Too early, not enough coffee
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 2:14 AM on March 15, 2012

Buying cars is awful.

You need to be prepared for this process to take several days. Don't even think about buying a car on your first trip to the dealer.

Go to a dealer that has a car you're interested in and talk to a sales person. Tell them you're interested in the car. Test drive it and let them know if you like it, but tell them the price is too much. They will come down in price a laughable amount. Say thank you, but I think I can do better elsewhere and LEAVE. Do not let them keep you, tell them you have other errands to run if you need an excuse.

They WILL call you with a better offer. Tell them you appreciate the call, but the price is still too high and you are planning to go look at a similar car at another dealer on the weekend.

They will call you back soon with an even better offer. Tell them you'll think about it, but you still think it's a little high.

Be patient, ice in your veins. Hold out until they drop the price significantly. Don't buy a car until you've been given new offers over the course of 3-4 days.

This is the only way. Do not falter. They will try to trick you. they will put things into fabulous payment plans. Ignore this. The only thing that matters is the final selling price.
posted by j03 at 2:59 AM on March 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

Not a foolish question at all. Buying a car can be very complicated and stressful. Here are a few tips off the top of my head and in no particular order:

1. With used cars you will pay a few grand more at a used-car dealer than through a private party. (Used cars that are “certified” by an official dealer of the car’s maker are typically the most expensive.) I suppose the idea is that you’re more likely to get a reliable, clean used car through a used dealer than through a private sale. From my experience, you are just as likely to buy something with a mess of problems from a dealer. I recommend buying privately.

2. Check out The Kelly Blue Book is THE standard for car prices (used and new). If you find a car that you’re interested in, find out as much info about it as you can from the seller (miles, trim level, body and mechanical condition, etc.) and enter this information at for a quote of what the vehicle is really worth in the current market. Print it out and take it with you when you go to negotiate the sale. Walk away from anyone who refuses to meet the KBB quote.

3. As suggested up thread, have a mechanic check out the vehicle before buying it, even if it costs you a little money up front. I skipped this step when buying a sports car in college and found out when I tried to smog it that it had been illegally modified. It cost me almost what the vehicle was worth to have it road worthy again. Speaking of emissions…

4. Check out your state’s law regarding whose responsibility it is to smog the vehicle. It’s usually (perhaps always?) the seller’s responsibility. DO NOT buy a car from someone who doesn’t have a passed smog slip in hand or who asks you to smog it.

5. Don’t buy a car with a salvage title. It means it at some point sustained more damage than it was worth and was claimed a total loss by a previous insurer. It may have been completely restored, but it’s not worth the risk. (Plus the resale value of salvaged vehicles are horrendous.)

6. Have a Carfax check run on the vehicle. This will tell you (roughly, depending on the age of the vehicle) how many owners it has had, whether it’s been in any reported accidents, and other important details.

7. If buying through a private seller, be prepared to pay up front in cash or cashier’s check. You’d be surprised how much money you’ll be able to talk down a seller by saying “I’m prepared to pay X amount (a few hundred less than seller’s lowest price) in cash today!”

8. Also regarding money and general safety for private transactions: don’t carry the money in cash with you when you first meet the seller. You can keep it somewhere safe, and if the deal goes through, have the seller wait while you go to pick it up. Also, meet in a public place. I always ask to meet a seller in a parking lot in a busy commercial district somewhere between our two homes. Take someone with you. Perferrably someone who is A) experienced in buying used cars and B)doesn’t look like a pushover.

9. Test drive it. Take it up to speed on the highway. Test the A/C, audio, everything you can think of. When driving at speed, roll up the windows and turn off the air/radio/whatever. Listen very closely to what you hear. Any repeating squeaks? Belts and/or pulley probably need replacing. Any grinding or whirling? The suspension system probably needs work. Any tapping from the engine? Your timing could be off, which could be very expensive, depending on the cause. Pay attention to how the car pulls and turns as well. If it’s a manual transmission, a rough gear change indicates the need for a new clutch. If it’s an auto, and thuds or lurches when the transmission switches gears indicates that the tranny is going. Steer clear.

10. Look over the body & paint very closely. Look for any signs of paint or repair jobs. Check the engine bay for signs of overspill where painted surfaces meet unpainted surfaces. Look at the gaps between the different body panels. Even cheaper Toyotas are usually pretty tight with their body work, so if you can squeeze an entire finger between two adjacent panels, there may have been work done there. (Tacoma bumpers, like most truck bumpers, however, usually have a pretty big gap from the rest of the front body work. Be worried about gaps between the fenders and doors.)

11. Research as much as you can about the vehicle you want before you start talking to sellers. Find out what the common mechanical issues are. Have there been any recalls? How many miles does the engine usually last? (Toyotas are usually good for 200k+)

12. Ask the seller before meeting to prepare all of the work records he/she has on the vehicle, and be wary of sellers without detailed records. These are valuable for two reasons: 1) your mechanic (and you) will have a better idea of what condition the car is in, including whether or not it’s had regular oil changes, check ups, etc; and 2) an owner without any service records is unorganized. Unorganized people are more likely to neglect things like regular checkups & oil changes.

13. Engine bay: Any visible oil? Fresh oil puddle under the vehicle? Avoid.

14. Finally, don’t let yourself have any emotional attachment to the vehicle until you’ve already bought it: it can cloud your judgment about the true value and desirability of the vehicle. I don’t care how much you love the color. There’s tons of quality used trucks out there, so don't settle. Wait until you find that perfect car that meets every one of your requirements.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a ton, but hopefully that was of some help. To sum things up: Be patient and do your research and you’ll soon be a happy owner of a nice car in your price range. Good luck!
posted by Kevtaro at 3:18 AM on March 15, 2012 [19 favorites]

Oh, and check out the tread on the tires. If the tires are unevenly worn it indicates balancing or suspension problems. If the tires are worn to the point that they look like they’ll need replacing, get an estimate on the replacement and have the seller subtract that from the listed price.
posted by Kevtaro at 3:22 AM on March 15, 2012

Read: Don't Get Taken Every Time

It is so useful. I found a copy at my local library. But it is well worth every penny if you have to buy a copy.
posted by HMSSM at 3:38 AM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Advertised new car prices are usually for the most bare-bones, no-options models possible.

My sense (having never been a car dealer before) is that they make a lot more money and have a lot more leeway on the pricing of used cars. They don't have to account for any manufacturer issues or financing. Thus, the used cars are more profitable.

They start negotiations (as others suggest, because everyone expects to haggle over a used car) much, much higher than they expect to sell it for. If someone walks in willing to pay the advertised price they're going to make a lot of money.

Here's a good read: Confessions of a used car salesman
posted by GPF at 4:16 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Don't Get Taken Every Time. I read it before my last car purchase, and it transformed the whole process.

I have been told that if you buy a new car and drive it off the lot you loose quite a high percentage of its worth.

You can lose just as much, or even more, when buying a used car. But you don't have to. When you look at used car prices on Edmunds or KBB, you'll notice that the difference between trade-in value and dealer retail is typically two or three thousand dollars. Thne when you go shopping, you'll see that many dealers put sticker prices on their used cars that are even higher than the typical dealer retail prices. Those markups are the value you lose when you drive a car off the lot. Of course the dealer does not invest thousands of additional dollars in each used car before selling it. They can sell any given car for just a few hundred dollars over the trade-in value and still make money on that particular transaction (though they can't afford to sell EVERY used car at such a small margin).

One of the things the book will tell you is that the sticker price is essentially bullshit -- a bluff they hope you'll take. Pricing these cars ridiculously high means they might luck out and find a buyer who's willing to pay full price and give them a huge profit margin. It also makes it possible for their salesman to close a sale with a more reluctant buyer by knocking off a thousand dollars or more ("I'm gonna do you a favor, and this is really, wow, I'm amazed the boss is letting me do this...") while still making a healthy profit. Or, they can have those big sales where they mark down a bunch of cars and try to attract a crowd... again, still selling cars at a very healthy profit.

When I was car shopping I followed local advertisements for a few weeks. One dealer that advertised used cars heavily on Craigslist neglected to delete old ads when re-listing a particular car, so it was easy to find several ads for the same car. The asking price would often drop by thousands of dollars over the course of a few weeks.

No dealer is going to offer you a great deal on a car. They will do everything they can to make a large profit margin. The only way you win is if you put them between a rock and a hard place, where they have the choice between making just a little money or no money at all.
posted by jon1270 at 4:17 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My favorite intro to used car buying is here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.
posted by jet_silver at 4:22 AM on March 15, 2012 [10 favorites]

I bought a used car for the first time about two years ago. I talked to my dad a lot about it. Maybe you have a friend or relative who has bought and/or sold used cars before? But there is lots of good advice in this Ask already.

I had a broader range of cars that I was interested in so that made searching a little bit easier, but I also had a time constraint that made it harder (I had no car and I was taking a new job and moving to a place where I would need a car). Although I had never bought a used car before, I had sold one (private sale, off or craigslist or something).

Anyway, what I did was watch craigslist and; I contacted some dealers but I never ended up visiting the dealerships. I also contacted some scammers. You might want to set up a temporary email address, since dealers will continue to contact you for months once they have your email. I looked at one car (private sale) but I had neglected to ask if it was manual or automatic, and it was manual, and I wanted automatic, so that was a waste of my time and the seller's time. Oops. So make sure that if there are features that are important to you, you ask about them before you go look at the truck.

Finally, time was running out; I don't know if I was just lucky or if things always fall into place this way but I ended up getting in touch (via craigslist) with a guy who was selling a car for his son who had moved to Singapore (this was good, because he had less of a stake in the ultimate price the car sold for). I drove out to check out the car and test-drove it; the guy and the car seemed non-sketchy. We talked about the price; the high end of my price range and the low end of the range his son was willing to consider overlapped and matched up with the KBB/Edmunds/etc. prices, so we agreed on that. I came back a day or two later with a cashier's check and photocopies of my license, etc., and he let me take the car to get checked out by a local mechanic (I picked one from the Mechanics Files on, but I'm not sure how I feel about how well they checked the car out... they told me the brakes would need to be replaced soon, but that has not proved to be the case).

One thing to keep in mind if you buy a used car in a private sale (not from a dealer) is that you have to do all the running around getting it insured and registered and inspected yourself. So after I handed over the cashier's check to the guy I bought my car from, then I had to run to an insurance agent (it's possible to do this online, but much more expensive in my case), then run to the RMV to get it registered and pay sales tax, and neither the insurance agent nor the RMV could take credit cards (!) so I ended up cleaning out my checking account (and having to semi-frantically transfer funds from savings). I think I had a week to do the inspection, and the place where I got it inspected took credit cards, yay.

I still preferred all the running around and borderline bad checks to sitting in the dealership for hours while fifteen salesmen pitched me different kinds of financing and rustproofing and what have you (which is what it was like when I bought a new car, and I assume what it's like when you buy a used car for a dealership as well).
posted by mskyle at 7:38 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just a data point: used car prices are currently in a bubble, primarily because so many people can't get new car loans, so they're falling back on used car loans at a higher interest rate (there are other reasons as well.) So if prices seem surprisingly high, that's why.
posted by davejay at 8:20 AM on March 15, 2012

The cash-for-clunkers program got a lot of older cars off the road, and there is a shortage.

I just bought a used car. Getting cars inspected saved me from a lying, thieving seller - there had been serious damage, and it needed a ton of work. The car I bought passed the inspection w/ no trouble. Prices in my area seem to run higher than kbb or
posted by theora55 at 9:26 AM on March 15, 2012

There have been a couple of really good points and some not so good points brought up here. I worked in the new car sales department of a chevrolet dealership for a year while trying to save up for University. It was a VERY enlightening experience. Although I was permitted, I could never bring myself to talk to anyone about a used vehicle because I always felt slimy doing it. Anyways here's a couple of my tips:

Note: I'm working under the assumption that you're looking for a recent model with reasonably low km's that you will have to finance with a small downpayment

1) The numbers you should keep in mind are: Final selling price INCLUDING FEES, Interest rate being offered, and Monthly payment and term. Make sure they all add up on a financial calculator that you can find online. For example, if the sales guy is trying to tell you that a $30,000 truck will cost you $250 a month for three years you can see right away that the numbers don't add up.

2) Go to a dealership, not a dirt lot and not a stranger unless you know a lot about cars yourself. Furthermore, go to a dealership of the same brand. The reason for this is simple, if you have a problem with the vehicle, a stranger or "small-town motors" sales guy will not be able/willing to do anything at all for you. At the very least a brand name dealership has a shop that can work on the vehicle. Buying a Toyota from a chevrolet dealer means that if there is an issue with the vehicle the sales-guy will have to send it to a toyota dealership... this usually = shitty service, even if it's not the sales-guys fault.

3) Don't rule out a new vehicle. I often found that if a customer was looking at 2 vehicles, a used one for $25,000 and a new one for $30,000, it quite often worked better (for the customer) to put the customer into the new vehicle. The reason for this is always interest rates. I could usually offer them a new vehicle for a very low interest rate (0%, 2%, ETC.) whereas used vehicles they were stuck at 6 or 7% interest. I'm not saying absolutely buy new, just make sure you do math. If the difference is $20/month think about how nice warranty is.

4) Don't play stupid games with the sales guys. None of them work and most of the sales guys have seen them all before, do your research and go in prepared. If I or my manager felt that someone was jerking us around we lost interest in the deal pretty quick. If someone came in and was as respectful of us and our time as we tried to be of them and theirs, they ALWAYS got the better deal. If you decide to look at new vehicles there is usually about 13%-14% markup on them. If you can get a 10% discount off of sticker price BEFORE dealer rebates, that's pretty fair for everybody. As noted above, used vehicles are much murkier. Look at the KBB values, they are typically from auction marts and pretty close to what the dealer would've paid on trade in. You will never leave paying that amount, but try to get close.

5) If you do settle on a used car, drive it several times... day and night, rain and sun. Take it to an independent garage and pay the money to have a very detailed inspection on it.

6) Turn down a lot of the "extras" they try to sell you. Extended warranty is usually worth it but very little else is.

Wow, I could go on but I think I've written too much already

Good luck!
posted by Beacon Inbound at 11:23 AM on March 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Former car salesman here, you can look at some of the other questions I've answered for a ton of useful advice but I want to point out a couple of things.

1. If the price of the used car seems to be higher than the price of the new one, you're not looking at the same car. The new one is likely a stripped out, bare-bones, entry-level model that they only have one of so they can put it that price in the ad while the used one might have a bigger engine, more options etc. Or the new car price might assume a trade in.

2. is a great guide to figuring out what a new or used car should be worth but keep in mind that it is a guide. When bidding on trades most dealers will use the Manheim auto auction site because that gives them some good, objective data on what it would cost them to buy the same car for at an auction. It's usually in the same ballpark as Kelly Blue Book but not always. Neither of those offer hard and fast pricing. Sometimes cars have something that makes them worth a little bit more or less. A trade in from a customer that bought the car new and had it serviced at that dealer is probably going to be worth more than the same car with unknown history bought from an auction.

3. You won't necessarily get a better deal messing around with multiple trips and phone calls and they don't always have a ton of room on the advertised prices. The used car department at one of the dealerships that I worked at usually advertised their cars pretty close the lowest price they could sell them for. It let people haggle some since most people expect it on a used car (though there are some "no-haggle" dealerships in my area) but it kept things from getting to stressful and the manager would often show people his inventory records so they could see how much he owned the car for and most people liked that.

Most of the rest of my "standard" advice boils down to this:
1. Don't be afraid to show interest in the car but, as long as you're in the ballpark on budget, don't even talk about price until you're ready to buy that car.

2. Use the phrase, "If you sell me the car for $X, I will buy this car right now." If price is only thing keeping them from making a deal, they'll meet your price if they can, you just need to stick to your guns on that price.

3. Your salesperson has sold more cars than you will even buy, they know the score and they know there will be some negotiating, you can do it without playing games, without being a dick, and without getting ripped off.

There are plenty of good, honest, salespeople and dealerships around but there are plenty that are the opposite too. Some of it depends on the area (most of the dealers in Minnesota are pretty good). If you happen to be in Minnesota or Western Wisconsin, memail me and I can probably make a recommendation or send you to someone I know. If not, a referral will benefit you greatly.
posted by VTX at 11:27 AM on March 15, 2012 [8 favorites]

Thirding the bubble. I bought a new Mazda3 in 2009 because it was almost $3000 cheaper than a comparable used one.
posted by just sayin at 12:57 PM on March 15, 2012

Response by poster: I thank you all for your help.

I am looking for a Tacoma as I said, I would buy a Tundra if it was as cheap.
So the prices I see for new cars seem go to from 17K - 30K. Now I am sure
you can add some stuff to it, so lets say you add another 5K for that.

So we have a range from 17K to 35-39K for a brand new one.

I saw a buy advertising a 2 year old Tacoma for 49K.

he must have added a lot of extra.s

I really want one that is the basic model. I have found a basic one at two new dealers.

I would think as fleet vehicles etc some of these models would have been sold
but I have a hard time finding any used ones.
posted by digividal at 5:47 PM on March 15, 2012

If you're looking at new, the process "should" get much easier. Go to the website for the dealership you're looking at and bring up the vehicle that you want. Then go the or and build that exact vehicle. Make sure that the MSRP matches the truck exactly to the dollar. Look at the invoice price and offer to buy the truck for $100 more than that (less applicable rebates) then stick to that number. If they really won't sell the truck for that much, walk away.

It isn't necessarily true everywhere but that was the about the best deal you could get at every dealership I ever worked at.
posted by VTX at 6:17 PM on March 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Any chance you're in southern california?
posted by just sayin at 9:56 PM on March 15, 2012

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