What tips are there for buying a used car?
June 12, 2015 7:55 AM   Subscribe

I've always bought new cars and driven them for 15+ years. Need a car for my teen and have no intentions to buy new. I've never bought a used car. What tips/tricks do you have for the buying process regardless of whether it's from a private party, used car lot, or from a dealership?
posted by teg4rvn to Shopping (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I always buy used, typically from a dealership since I've found dealing with people on Craiglist to be incredibly frustrating. You'll get a better deal privately but I just don't have the time.

Some notes:
1. Always have an independent mechanic inspect the car before buying. Dealerships that really balk at this are dealerships I would avoid. I actually had a guy drive the car I was interested in over 40 minutes to my mechanic once and I ended up buying that car (after a week of email negotiations, sheesh).

I've heard too many horror stories (heard one just this week!) to forgo an independant inspection.

2. At least where I am, used car dealers have become a lot less willing to wheel and deal over prices over time. Not sure why this is, maybe the market or maybe I'm just losing my touch. Either way I've found the best way to get a better price is go someplace with less wealthy customers. I usually drive about 30mins north of where I live and out of the city and I find much better deals on identical cars. Not sure where you are but it's worth contemplating.

3. In terms of safety, bear in mind that the US phased in ESC as a requirement between 2009 and 2011 so starting around 2010 a lot of extra safety stuff started being in cars standard. That was a factor when I bought my Focus; that model year I just got a bunch of extra crap for "free".
posted by selfnoise at 8:16 AM on June 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Seconding a trusted mechanic giving the car a look-see.
Also, whatever car you're looking up, consider looking at this list from LemonAuto so you can find out what issues have cropped up with the vehicle.
posted by plinth at 8:56 AM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

My credit union offers a great "tutorial" on car buying that has a lot of tips both for new cars and used cars. Not all of it may apply to you, but it's certainly a good starting point and translates some of the language of the average car dealer.
posted by dellsolace at 9:38 AM on June 12, 2015

You might find my similar question from last year helpful.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:40 AM on June 12, 2015

Teens are at much higher risk of accidents, so prioritize safety. Conversely, I suppose, not too big a car. The more kids in the car, the more opportunities for distraction.

My last several used cars have come from craigslist. I've had a clear idea of what I wanted so was able to narrow it down. Taking cars to a mechanic has saved me a lot of money and headaches.

The last time I bought a car from a dealer, I shopped mid-month, was interested in a specific car but was mulling it over. At the end of the month, got a good offer from a salesguy who needed to make goal.
posted by theora55 at 9:55 AM on June 12, 2015

There's a book: Buying a car(used car?)for dummies. Worked for me...lots of simple checklists and stuff.
posted by sexyrobot at 5:40 PM on June 12, 2015

Best answer: I'm a former used car salesman and I my father, an uncle, and a cousin are all still in the car business. It might be worth a look through my posting history on ask.me as I've written tons of advice about it in the past. Though I think it's been a while since I've answered a question like this.

What a lot of it boils down to is, a motivated buyer can get the best deal. If you really want a car and the price is the only thing keeping you from buying it, the dealership will be very motivated to make that price work. So don't be afraid to be honest. If you like the car, say so. Despite what it may feel like, you're in control and can leave at any time without buying a car.

-Every single part of the purchase of a car is negotiable.

-The standard closing question is, "If we can make the numbers work, would you take this car home today?" If they ask it, and you want to buy the car, say so. A lot of salespeople are too afraid of rejection to ask that directly so don't be afraid to tell them, "If you can make the numbers work, I'll buy this car right now." Otherwise, as long as the car you're looking at is in your budget range, don't worry about the price until you're ready to buy, just assume that they'll make it work. That's basically what they'll tell you if you ask, anyways, it's almost certainly true, and you can still walk away if it's not.

-If you're looking at a "bread & butter" car, like a 4-cylinder Toyota Camry with the most popular options package at a Toyota dealership, it will priced pretty competitively. Whatever that brand's most popular new car was a few years ago, every dealership will have a dozen or two of them so they have to price them competitively or you'll be able to get a better just by driving past a competitor's lot. For everything else, there is really no telling how much they'll really sell it for unless you work there.

-Feel free to skip the mechanic's inspection if you're looking at a two-year-old lease return or a rental return, either of those will have been pretty well maintained and inspected before the dealer got them. On anything else, it's really cheap peace of mind. You can make it part of telling them you want the buy the car. Something like, "I'd like to have my mechanic inspect it first but if you can make the numbers work, I'll buy the car." Then negotiate the price, then the inspection, renegotiate based on what, if anything, the mechanic found, then commit to buy it.
-If they ask you for a check before you've started negotiating the price, don't be afraid to give them one, they have to give it back if you don't buy the car.

-Go to your bankor credit union to get pre-approved for an auto loan but also let the dealer take a crack at beating their rate, they'll almost certainly do it. They might also be able to beat that rate through your own bank or credit union, they often can.

My dad swears by rental returns, especially as a first car. The rental companies meticulously maintain them so they're usually in mechanically in excellent condition but they'll have higher than average mileage and it drives the prices down father than their condition merits. Personally, I like lease returns. They're usually in nearly new condition. You pay a bit of a premium for them but I, like you, tend to keep my cars for as long as they keep meeting my needs (10+ years) so the difference isn't all that much more than a similarly aged trade in over the life of the car.
posted by VTX at 5:47 PM on June 12, 2015 [10 favorites]

Get carfax! (Once you subscribe you can run the VIN and it will show you the vehicle's history, if it's been wrecked, etc.) I test drove a car where, when I ran it through carfax, it showed the odometer had been clocked. Obviously I didn't buy that car, or anything else from that dealer.
posted by Violet Hour at 10:16 PM on June 12, 2015

If you're buying from a dealership, definitely get a third-party mechanic to check out the car first. I know too many people who have been scammed by dealerships. Carfax is also definitely helpful to make sure the car doesn't have any major incidents that the dealership is reluctant to disclose.

If you want a Toyota, make sure you go to a non-Toyota dealership for that used car. You'll get a better deal, they are usually more motivated to get rid of cars that aren't theirs.

Lastly, seconding having your financing sorted out beforehand. Don't go with the loan at the dealership, you can always get a better deal going through your bank or another party that'll get you a loan.
posted by the_wintry_mizzenmast at 5:03 AM on June 13, 2015

Don't go with the loan at the dealership, you can always get a better deal going through your bank or another party that'll get you a loan.

This is just not true. Have financial sorted out before hand, yes, but that is a backup and gives you something to compare the dealer's rates to. Having sold several hundred cars myself while working at various dealerships and having seen several thousand sold, I've only seen a customer able to beat a dealer's rate a bare handful of times and even that is hedging my bets. I can recall exactly one instance when a customer got a better deal on their own than financing through the dealership.

Once they've agreed on price, leaving the dealership without buying a car for any reason, even just to pick up a check at the bank, gives a customer more opportunity to change their mind than the dealership is comfortable with and they make some money on the back-end if you finance through them so they have a considerable incentive to get you a better deal through them. Additionally, they produce significantly more loan volume than you do, they can shop around really easily and quickly, the finance managers are better at shopping than you (it is, after all, their job) so the banks compete really hard and the dealership has a lot more bargaining power than you.

The legally required "Truth-in-lending" box will make it easy for you to compare apples-to-apples on the terms of the loan they offer vs. the one from your bank (specifically, the APR). Besides, even if it was true, it costs you nothing to let them try to beat your rate and fail.

Oh and a lot of dealers will run a carfax report on every car they sell so you don't need to run it yourself. I suppose that the dealership could falsify the report but if the dealership that you're at seems like the kind of place where that is a possibility, just leave. There are plenty of honest dealerships that you can buy a car from and it's dumb to lie about something that's so easy to debunk.
posted by VTX at 6:09 AM on June 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

We just bought a used car last week so I can't report on how it's worked out but the process was fairly easy. We picked the car we wanted (mazda5) and then focused exclusively on that. Looked at listings online and dealers. With so much information online it's easy to know what the price range for the miles should be.

We found a car we liked, negotiated a price and then took it to a mechanic for a prepurchase inspection which is so so key.
posted by betsybetsy at 5:17 AM on June 14, 2015

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