BUYING A CAR > Essential Tips for Buying a Used Car

Essential Tips for Buying a Used Car


How to Buy a Used Car From a Private Party Without Getting Ripped Off

Buying used cars takes a careful eye, solid research and an inspection by a trusted mechanicWell, here I am, ready to buy another “new” used car. I’ve done this way too many times – it’s part of my car addiction. I think I have the bright shiny car syndrome, which is similar to bright shiny object syndrome, but much more expensive. If it looks cool, I want it. But at least I know it. In this post I am going to cover my tips for buying a used car from a private party.

So what are the steps a true used car buying addict goes through? It’s quite a process to do it right. It involves some solid research on the car you want to buy. Let’s jump right in and check out what I have learned over the years. I hate to age myself here, but I’ve done this for a very long time with tons of different cars – the first one being back in 1978. Who in their right mind buys and sells more than 40 cars? Me!

How Do You Determine What a Used Car is Actually Worth?

Once I find a used car I am interested in, I do some exploring on what the car is worth. To begin I head to three different websites. I start my homework assignment on Craigslist. I hated homework in school but unlike that homework this type pays off in cash. First, I look at Craigslist to find similar vehicles and their price range. The price range I use on Craigslist when searching is my minimum price to $500 higher. This will produce a list of what cars are selling for in my area in my price range. I can then compare options and mileage to get an idea of the market. If you put your price range in and don’t find the car you are looking for, change the range. This is your first clue the car you are interested in may be more than you can afford. (Happened to me several times in my early days)

The second step is to check on Kelly Blue Book ( This is a site that gives some very good price information that is tailored to your local geographic area. The site prompts you to list all of the features and options the car has along with how many miles are on it. This is a good source of fairly accurate pricing. Don’t worry if you don’t know every little option, but make sure you get the big ones included.

The final place I go is to a site called, where you can select vehicles either in your specific area or all over the country. Redo the same research you did on Craigslist but look at wider area. Sometimes driving 200 miles for a car yields a great find. I have driven over four hours to get a great deal on the right car. Once drove all the way from Washington to California to buy a classic mustang. It was worth the drive. Make sure you do your homework. You don’t just want to go on a road trip and get ripped off.

Make Your Money Buying the Used Car Not Selling It

When it comes to buying a good used car everyone wants a deal. Now that you have the average price calculated from the three sources I mentioned above, you are in a good negotiating position. I personally need to snag a used car for a price that will be low enough for me to come out on top when I go to sell it later on. You usually make your money on the buy, not the sell. That’s a trick I learned years ago from a crusty old auto broker I met while running my auto detail business. He explained that if you got the new rig for the lowest possible price you will come out on top in the end. Earl stuck in my mind not just because he called everyone honey but because he always came out on top, which was impressive since he was at least 90.

Making Sure You Are Actually Buying a Used Car, Not a Squashed Lemon

Once I have checked out several good used car candidates online I pick a few cars to see in person. It can’t all be done online. You need to see it, touch it, and sit in it. Don’t forget to listen to how it runs..

As I have mentioned elsewhere on my site, I try and buy cars with service records. This gives me a good idea of how the car has been maintained. Also, have the seller pay to get a Carfax vehicle history report. This lists any known accidents, how many owners the car has had, if it has a clean title and what states it has been registered in. If an owner won’t show you the report, then move on to the next car. No Carfax, no deal. Also watch out for cars that come from regions where they salt the roads in winter. I have bought a few rusty cars and hated myself later, especially the one used car I bought in the dark. The next day I was unhappily surprised  that I could see the ground through rust holes in the floor board. That’s a story for another time!

How to Evaluate a Used Car on a Test Drive

If the car looks good inside and out, it is time to take a test drive. You want to see how it drives on different surfaces and speeds. Check out the ride by hitting a few bumps. See how it accelerates, then hit the brakes firmly to see how it stops. It needs to stop in a straight line without any squeaks or grinding noises. Also, pay attention to how it shifts. Gear changes should be smooth without any clunking or funny noises. Drive on the freeway to see how stable it is at highway speeds. Check to see if it rides in a straight line – this can tell you how the alignment is and gives an idea of whether it has ever been in an accident. If the car weebles as it wobbles, return it to Fisher Price. Wobbly cars are going to be strewn with issues.

Spend some time driving it – I like to drive it under all conditions and all speeds. Also, I try out all the controls – windshield wipers, headlights, turn signals, heater, air conditioner, electric windows and power locks. These little things don’t stop me from buying, but become strong negotiating points later on. Check out the post on my 37 point inspection list for used cars. I even make sure the radio works – I need my music loud. I’m old and lost my hearing running an electric car buffer for 25 years.

Have a Professional Check it Out

Once I have taken it through all my personal tests, I have to decide if it is good enough to have a professional buyer’s inspection done. These should be done at an auto repair shop you trust. You want a mechanic to check out all of the car’s systems – brakes, suspension, wheel bearings, lights, electrical system, engine compression and more. This really tells if it is a good one to buy. I have been known to take a potential car to a body shop to see if it has been in an accident. Also, if the car has a problem or two (and they are minor) you can negotiate a lower price. I have seen prices for inspections run from $150 to $200. So, I make sure it looks good before I open up that wallet. If I’m buying a junker car for my son for $400, I skip this step. At that price, if the engine starts it’s a good deal and I’m buying. If it is really a great vehicle and everything checks out with the mechanic, l have probably have found my next car.

How to Negotiate a Used Car

Now we have to cover how to negotiate the price of a used car. I am never afraid to offer a much lower price than is being asked. I can always come up in price. I am never too timid to go with a lower offer – I am not there to make friends. You’re making a big purchase and you need to look out for your best interests. Go over what the inspections found with the seller. Tell the seller how much these items cost to fix and say you’d like to deduct that from the asking price. If the seller balks, and you really want the car, offer to pay for half of the fixes. This positions you as being “fair” and rational, rather than being emotioinal. Or in my younger days, it saved me from looking like a total ass. Remember at some point this car could have been their “baby,” so you don’t want to be insulting. Insulting the seller doesn’t make for a good negotiating stance.

What to do After You Have Purchased your “New” Used Car

A lot of people have asked me what to do after they buy a used car. There are a few things that I always take care of right away. First of all, I always get all of the fluids changed – that covers the engine oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, radiator fluid and gear oil. Next, I replace the windshield wipers because I live in Seattle and you won’t see anything without good windshield wipers here. My next step is to read the owner’s manual to see what it recommends for maintenance based on the car’s mileage. If you don’t have the manual, look online. Sometimes doing the little things really pays off in the long run. Remember you likely will be selling this car later.

So I have discussed the three sources for vehicle pricing information for a potential car you want next. I have gone over the importance of having a professional inspection done and negotiating the best price. It’s time to fork over the cash and hit the road in your new used car. Just be sure not to drive like me.


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