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11 Essential Things to Know Before Buying a Used Car

Do your research, know what questions to ask, and keep an eye out for red flags.
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Shopping for a used car can be stressful. Not only is it a big purchase, but you want a good deal on a safe and reliable vehicle that won't cost a lot of money in repairs. To help you out, here's 11 tips you should know before you head to the dealer.

Research Used Cars and Prices

You can view local available cars in classifieds and through sites like Edmunds and Cars.com, according to Jeff Ostroff, consumer advocate and founder of CarBuyingTips.com.

'Knowing how much the car has sold for [in the] last 30 days on eBay gives you a great haggling advantage because many dealers sell on eBay.'

Edmunds has a True Market Value (TMV) pricing tool that shows you what other people in your area have paid for a car, as well as an app with the TMV tool, a price calculator, live help, and other useful tools. To help find a reputable dealership, you can read Edmunds reviews of area dealerships.

Ostroff also recommends visiting eBay to lay the groundwork for later negotiations. "Knowing how much the car has sold for [in the] last 30 days on eBay gives you a great haggling advantage because many dealers sell on eBay, so showing them what other dealers have sold this car for this month means they can't use smoke screens to trick you into a higher price," he says.

Know What Questions to Ask

Before heading to the dealership or contacting someone who is selling a used car, be prepared to ask the right questions. Edmunds offers a helpful used car questionnaire.

Consider Financing

To help determine a price range, Edmunds also has a handy "How much car can I afford?" calculator that takes into account the cash down payment, possible trade-in value, and how much you may owe on your old car.

However, Ostroff says selling your car yourself can increase your profit and help you avoid potential scams. "They [dealerships] offer you $4,000 to $6,000 below market value for your trade-in," he says. "We suggest selling it yourself to maximize sales proceeds. Combining the two transactions of trade-in and purchase give them more tricks and smoke screens to pull on you."

SEE ALSO: Should You Buy a Car With a Credit Card?

If you're taking out a loan, keep in mind that banks typically won't give loans for cars that are more than four or five years old, and the APR for used car loans tends to be at least 2% higher.

Ask About Fees

Whether you're buying from a dealership or an individual, make sure to budget for all the necessary costs. "There are certain fees that everyone has to pay when buying a car — things like [sales] tax, registration, documentation fees," says Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds, which also has a car-buying fees chart. "Always ask for a breakdown of the fees," Montoya says. "Don't be afraid to ask if you don't recognize a fee."

Don't Forget Car Insurance

Many dealerships require proof of insurance before selling you the car, Montoya notes. When buying a used car from an individual, remember that you'll need to be insured before you drive it.

Run a Vehicle History Report

Once you have the car's vehicle identification number, or VIN, you can run a vehicle history report with companies like CARFAX or AutoCheck. If a dealer or seller is reluctant to provide the VIN number, consider it a red flag.

If a dealer or seller is reluctant to provide the VIN number, consider it a red flag.

While there are visual tip-offs that the car might not be in the best condition — for example, new carpeting might indicate the car was in a flood — a vehicle history report will reveal the car's accident history and whether it has a salvage title (meaning it's been declared a total loss by an insurance company).

The report will also show if the odometer has been rolled back — something that occurs in one in 10 U.S. vehicles, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Have the Car Inspected

Even if you ran a vehicle history report, it's still important to have the car inspected by a mechanic to find potential issues, such as leaks, and to determine if the car has been in an unreported accident.

Some companies do mobile checks, where an inspector looks at the car on-site. However, Ostroff recommends an inspection at a shop, where the mechanic can put the car on a lift to look for damage underneath the car.

"Seeing the car from underneath will show any damage that was not repaired," he says. "Body shops often don't fix the parts of the car that you cannot see." Ostroff estimates an inspection costs $50 to $100. While some shoppers skip this step to avoid the cost, it could save you a lot of money in repairs in the long run.

Create a Test Drive Checklist

In addition to the usual things one considers when test driving a new car, such as legroom and visibility, your checklist for a used car test drive will have a few more items. Red flags include things like problematic noises and even strange smells.

SEE ALSO: How to Prepare Your Car for Winter (And Prevent an Auto Disaster)

As with any test drive, look at the car in daylight hours and drive in conditions that mirror those of your day-to-day driving. (For example, consider whether you often drive in stop-and-go traffic, on the highway, or through hilly areas.) Some experts recommend bringing equipment you'll be traveling with often, like car seats, to make sure your items fit.

Be Prepared to Negotiate

When negotiating the price of a used car, your most powerful tool is knowledge, Ostroff says. This includes knowing the number of previous owners, the car's accident history, failed inspections or emissions, and the current condition of the car, as well as the price cars of the same make and model have sold at in the past 30 days.

For those who are uncomfortable with negotiating, consider contacting the internet sales manager first for a price quote. "The internet manager is usually more upfront with pricing than a floor salesperson," Montoya says. This can save time and money, as the internet department's incentives are typically based on volume of sales versus a price-based commission.

Another option for buying a used car with less haggling is to consider a former rental car. According to CarBuyingTips.com, buying directly from the rental company typically involves a set price. "The way to get the best deal is see what the rental company is selling the car for, compare it to recent sales of that car on eBay Motors, and compare it to what the dealers are asking for that same car," Ostroff says.

Get the Car Title

If there's no loan or lien on the used car, then the individual or dealership should have the title. "If the dealer does not have the title, I'm suspicious, and the few times we have heard from users falling into this crack, it's weeks of waiting after empty promises from the dealer that the title is in transit," Ostroff says.

If there's no loan or lien on the used car, then the individual or dealership should have the title.

If you're buying a car from someone who still owes on the car, Ostroff says, "you can tip the odds in your favor by making the check out to their lender to pay off the car, that way the cash does not go to the seller." The lender will then send the title to the seller, who will give you the title.

In the case of electronic titles, CarBuyingTips.com recommends checking with the local DMV to verify ownership and transfer the title. (Also check the ID of the seller to make sure it matches the owner listed on the title.)

Know if the Car Is Covered Under a Warranty

You'll often see the term "Certified Used Car," which typically means the car is covered by the manufacturer's warranty. However, some cars are advertised as certified when covered by a third-party warranty.

It's also important to know what the "as is" sign in the car window means. "Virtually all dealers sell the car 'as is,'" Ostroff says. "The law requires the paper to be on the window to let you know legally that they will not cover anything once the car is driven off the lot."

Sometimes, a dealer will promise to make repairs on a car, but if you purchase the car with the "as is" paperwork, then the dealer is not responsible for the repair work promised. "Bottom line is you should assume the deal is 'as is' so always thoroughly check out the car first to ensure it has no problems before you buy it," Ostroff says.

SEE ALSO: Your 9 Biggest Warranty Questions — Answered

If a car is more than three or four years old, then the car is most likely no longer covered by the manufacturer's warranty, and you may want to consider an extended warranty, Ostroff says.

"Getting an extended warranty is a personal decision," Montoya says. "Some people buy them for peace of mind and others take on repairs as they come. Ask yourself these questions to help with the decision: Have you used warranties in the past? Are you buying a reliable car? Will you stress out over it if you don't get the warranty?"

Navigating a used car sale can be tricky, but always trust your instincts, and don't be afraid to walk away if something doesn't feel right. "You might not get the same exact car if you're buying used, but ultimately there's always another car out there," Montoya says.

Readers, have you successfully bought a used car? Do you have any tips about navigating the process? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Contributing Writer

Josie Rubio is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance editor and writer. She has visited five continents so far and loves to write about travel, food, nutrition, health... and pretty much everything. Follow her on Twitter at @JosieRubio.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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25 comments
Fall Guy
I already touted you as the high school dropout so please come up with some original material. I am not a car salesmen but a successful professional in the field of finance. Your language here reflects your education and status in society which is low. Yes there is such a thing as Ford F150 XLT Specal Edition. If you cant find the vehicle then how do you know how much i can save? It is a vehicle you could never afford in your life. Truecar is the best price and it is clearly not as evidenced by responses on this thread and my experience Again...it is good for people that dont want to bother negotiating or for generally lazy idiots like you that are duped into feeling they are getting the best deal. Please put down your 6th diet coke and take a breath. You didn't get the best deal possible on your vehicles. In your low price vehicle range, you probably left at least $750 on the table. Think how many times you cold have gone to Applebees with that much money!!!
maydepot
I've finally figured out who this "Dumb Guy" is... a sleazeball salesman. They're always the bitter losers who badmouth Truecar cause it makes their pathetic existence even more useless and obsolete. Keep using Truecar so roaches like him don't get even a penny of my money. ;)

Funny how this clown doesn't even understand how referral program works. Sign of a HS dropout, which explains why he's a lowly Ford salesman. Click any deals posted here and link shows dealnews as a referral... but they don't make any money from it this idiot says. LOL!

Btw, the car he claims to have bought doesn't even exist. Plus this idiot doesn't even know how Truecar works. A simple change to a nearby zip code could save a real Ford buyer additional thousands in savings over the zip he listed.
Bigslam
I sold cars for 10 years. Ottoman's strategy is by far the best. This is exactly how I recommend my family members buy their cars. With dealer holdbacks and other promotions they are running from the manufactorer, the dealer will sometimes even lose a little money on one car to get one more deal for the month.
vmnrao
Just being honest here: maydepot, you sound like a shill posting so many positive comments about Truecar and then asking for proof when nothing short of an authenticated bill of sale can prove anything (and even that can be forged when viewed online).
Fall Guy
Dealnews makes money off advertising not referral fees...so even an idiot like you can realize that you can use the true car pricing without turning in the certificate which nimrods like you do. If the dealership doesn't have to pay the $299 then they likely can give that to a dimwit like you. Valuable services? Only for lazy buyers like you eating Bon bons on your couch. Business 101? I am sure you never got out high school....you didn't get anywhere close to the best price on your little Honda since your gave up your right to negotiate because you know you are no good at.

Msrp $52,925. Zip 93446

I realize this price is as much as your last 2 cars but you have to be good at business to make $$$.
maydepot
Wow, couple of country bumpkins who don't have a clue about Business 101. Referral fees are common practice in every business from real estate to car sales. How do you clueless idiots think this site Dealnews makes money? Referral fees they charge businesses when we make purchases through this site! Again, nothing wrong with Truecar, Costco, Carsdirect and other buying services charging referral fees for their valuable service.

Again, you provided no useful info. What's the MSRP and zip code of that supposed F-150?
Fall Guy
Agree that is a tool and good for people that are uncomfortable with dealing with the dealership. If your goal is to beat the Truecar price then that is easy as you can go to a non true car dealership with your pricing in hand....even competing Truecar dealerships will undercut the price.

One of the dumbest comments is why should you care if Truecar is charging the dealership...really?

2017 Ford F-150 Supercrew Special Edition. 10 speed TTV6. Everything but the moonroof.

As far as the dealership..don't spend more than an hour there. After the dealership the remaining negotiation took about a week Via email and texts. One dealership refused to drop....the other did after a week.
dtrudea
FallGuy, I've heard that TrueCar charges $300 too. Something fishy there. I think that maybe there's a happy medium here. TrueCar is useful as a tool only. So is Costco. You find out what their lowest price is then use that avg price to negotiate more. Also think it's a smart idea to do as much online as possible. Less time wasted at the dealership. I respectfully disagree that TrueCar is the holy bible to car buying.
maydepot
Still no proof from the con-man. Can't even answer a simple question of make/model/zip. Gee I wonder why!

Why would anyone have a problem with Truecar charging dealers a small referral fee? They get extra exposure and customers they normally wouldn't get so it's obviously worth it to them. But why would a customer care since it's FREE to use? Get the best price at no charge... what a great concept!

Why don't and your "buddies" peddle your scam somewhere else.
Fall Guy
Apparently you can't understand English. $4,000 not 20,000 and Jaopnik not me suggest using true car as the base when negotiating.

Negotiating 101...never give up your right to negotiate. 20 years of negotiating and you have learned nothing. You actually are so bad at it that you are having the dealership pay $299 to Truecar to do it for you! You are a lazy uninformed buyer that has never had any negotiating skills at all. If you did you would have taken your lazy Truecar price and asked the dealership for at least $500 off of that since that saves them $299 that would have gone to Truecar.

Please get a life..
You have been soundly defeated on this thread.
ps....thanks for buying all your vehicles at a good margin for the dealership....your lack of savings are passed on to skilled buyers.
maydepot
Hmmmm still no proof from the con-man. I saved $20k below Truecar but I will provide NO PROOF because I am a liar and a con-man! LOL!

Also funny how he says Truecar is worthless yet admits to checking them and using them as a negotiation tools. If their prices are so high, why bother? What a JOKE! LOL!

Ask any dealer which they prefer and they ALL say Negotiation over Truecar because they get MORE while making morons think they got the best deal just to feed their egos. Keep losing money and wasting hours of negotiations while paying more. There's a reason why Truecar is so popular. I know how Truecar works very well, been saving BIG with them for many years. Remember work smarter not harder.

Btw, site should do an IP check on these 3 clowns below... I bet they're all the same. ;)
Fall Guy
warning....uninformed lazy Truecar buyer below. The dealership pays true care $299 for each car bought via their certifictate and you are getting the dealerships best price? There are countless articles on Jalopnik where auto sales consultants advise using true car as a tool but getting the certificate price may be the dumbest thing you can do as you just cost yourself another $300 savings on the car. If you want hassle free and are too old to negotiate then Truecar is perfect for you.

Proof of my deal? What do you want....me to attach the bill of sale? There is a certain price the dealerships won't go below? you don't even know what that number is? If you did know then you wouldn't need Truecar. Your logic and points reflect your lazy buying strategy.

Dtrudea I would be glad to share my strategy with you so please let me know how I can get in contact with you. we still need useful idiots to keep using Truecar so that we can save big.
maydepot
Every Tom, Dick and Harry who claim to beat Truecar by thousands have 1 thing in common... ask for proof and they can't provide any cause they're usually talking out their rear. LOL!

20+ years of negotiating taught me one valuable thing: work smarter not harder. Dealers have a rock bottom price they will not go less than no matter how many hours you try. So why waste my time when Truecar beats that price with no negotiating required? Only an egomaniac who just likes to act like a badass would choose to negotiate when they don't have to.

BTW, Truecar is NOTHING like Costco's. Only a clueless person who has no idea how either works would believe that.
dtrudea
Great posts Fallguy and Ottoman. I agree completely with your assessment of TrueCar. FallGuy, will u please share your strategy? I'm very interested and know that TrueCar sucks. It's only useful if u don't like negotiating.
Fall Guy
You clearly know no tricks at all if you are forfeiting negotiating and using Truecar. Truecar pricing is about the same as Costco pricing. If you are using Truecar the. Dealerships love you. If Truecar was such a great pricing tool the new why do nearly all dealerships accept it...reason....because it's not great pricing. 20 +'years buying vehicles and use resort to Truecar...you learned nothing in 20 years. I have all the data since I just bought the car and crushed Truecar pricing. Please keep using Truecar...it helps real aggressive buyers like me get phenomenal deals.
maydepot
I'e been buying new cars for me and my family for 20+ years so I know all the tricks and scams. Yet I've never had an easier time buying cars thanks to Truecar. Some great deals: $5k off on Honda Civic, $9k off on Hyundai Sonata and many more. There is no way anyone including me would have gotten these deals even with hours of negotiations. As for getting $4,300 more off than Truecar.... yeah right. What make/model/zip code? I bet this guy doesn't give any details cause it's all made up.
Fall Guy
Maydepot you didn't even come close to getting a great deal if you used Truecar. True car compares the prices paid for each vehicles. 80% of the buyers are completely uninformed so the average price true car shows is the average price an idiot pays for the car. If you get it at a great price the new that price is a step above the idiot price. It is good for people that don't want to negotiate and that is what the dealers want. I just bought a new vehicle last week. Per true car a great deal was 46,600....I got it for 42,300 and only compared it to true car after I bought it. Agree with Ottoman...true car is useless unless you are a lazy uninformed buyer. Now I do have a very simple way to buy a new car that is foolproof but not sure if I want to share because when people like you buy cars at the prices you do then
it allows the dealership to have a lot of room for extremely informed and aggressive buyers like me.
maydepot
Truecar worthless? LOL! Try getting $4k-$6k off on popular Hondas and Toyotas with your silly outdated emails that dealers won't even honor. All I gotta do is enter make/model I want, print out the guaranteed Truecar pricing and go pick up the car. No negotiating required!
Ottoman
True car is worthless. So are invoice prices--complete fiction when dealers receive all kinds of hidden kick backs. The only way to buy a new car is to email all the dealers in a fifty mile radius and get their very best out the door price which includes all taxes and fees. Make sure the numbers are broken down and make sure they know you're buying a car that week. Don't mention a trade. Do say you need new tags so you can see all their fees. You will have to make allowances for differences in options--no dealers are going to have the exact same car. Then go back and see if they can beat the best offer you got. Then go to the most convenient dealer with the best price with numbers in hand and buy it. Don't forget to bring a calculator and add up the numbers on the contract. Dealers love dummy fees like anti-theft and etching and seal coats which should NOT be in your out the door price. Also, it's supposedly best to do this the last week of the month when dealers are hitting sales goals.
maydepot
Buy new cars is easy now thanks to Truecar. Every car my family buys is thousands below invoice.
Fall Guy
I would say knowing how to buy a new car is more important. Amazing what people pay versus what they could get have paid.
maydepot
Basic knowledge. Didn't learn anything new.
Pandp
With Harvey ruining half a million cars and now moving on to LU again, if your needing a ride better get searching now as the prices will be going up for many of the below $10k cars when Texas dries up
mach5jeep
Exactly. Buy one now before all of the flood cars hit the market
Kyser_Soze
There's going to be a lot of slightly wet cars coming out of Texas!
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