There are many reasons to buy a used car. Some of us have a choice in this, while for others it is the only option. But, that doesn't mean that you can't get a great deal. You just need to do a little work up front.
When it comes time for me to find some new wheels, deciding on what I want is absolutely the toughest thing. There are a lot of great cars out there and, usually, plenty of them to choose from. If you have a general idea of what you need - for example, sedan versus coupe, or crossover versus pickup - you can start with a short list of possible models.
You may shorten the list even further by cutting out a few manufacturers that you wouldn't buy from, but you might want to do a little research before honing that knife too sharply. Sometimes an individual model may have a reputation that is significantly different than the overall perception of the company.
Take advantage of the online web sites that maintain current information about used cars. You can do a lot of research from home before ever setting foot onto a used car lot, or making that first phone call. Places like Edmund's Automobile Buyers Guide, AutoSite, Kelley Blue Book, Autoguide.com, CarPrice.com and NADAguides.com have a lot of information that can be useful in your research.
Government and industry web sites are authoritative places to find information on a particular model. Recall history for any vehicle sold in the United States can be checked through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Crash ratings can be looked up at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Center for Auto Safety common defects and problems on a wide range of vehicles.
It's not a bad idea to check on the insurance costs for the model you have in mind either. More than one buyer I have spoken with saw their rates go up when buying a less expensive model. It seems that people are more expensive to fix than cars, so if the crashworthiness is reduced, the insurance premiums go the other way.
Once you have an idea of what you're after, finding the right one is the next challenge. If your choice is a popular one and you live in or near a major city, you could easily find a hundred of that model available at any given time. They will show a range of prices, equipment, condition and mileage. Sorting them out is going to take some work, but finding the right deal is the reward for doing the footwork up front.
The last time I went through this, there were thirty examples of the model in just one model year, so on a Saturday morning, I sat down and put the key data into a spreadsheet. Engine, transmission, mileage, cost, important options and whether safety and emissions checks were included in the price, made up the important criteria. I also noted color, just because I really didn't care for a couple and there were a couple others that I would tolerate for a really good deal.
With the information in a spreadsheet, you can sort the cars by several criteria at one time. For example, sorting on price and mileage will show you how the local dealers account for mileage, usually forming a trend line. Look for examples that don't follow the trend and understand why they don't. They could be bargains, or overpriced examples that can be negotiated over. If you can, take your time with the data and come to understand what the local market is for the car(s) that you're interested in. If you are looking for a bargain, this is the best way to do it. Don't fall for price alone, but look at cars that don't sit on the trend line.
When something does come up, give the seller a call. Ask about the vehicle's history and whether they are providing a used car report. These are available commercially and may also be available from your licensing office. If there is one thing that you must not do, it is to buy any vehicle without seeing its history report. They are not foolproof, but they go a long way to removing the fog of the past.
Once you are strongly considering a purchase, you should take the car for an inspection, if it has not already been done by a competent authority. You can use an independent mechanic, an Auto Club inspection center, or even a retail dealership for that brand of car. It may cost you thirty to a hundred dollars for a thorough shakedown, but that's a lot less than what you might face after buying a lemon.
Things that people say to avoid might actually make for a good deal, depending on the circumstances. For example, a car that has been in daily rental use is not considered prime material. But really, if the car is a six month old, four door sedan with automatic transmission and 12,000 miles on it, how much damage can really be done in that time? It comes with a warranty, so as long as body or interior damage is not a problem, the chances of power train issues is pretty small. If it was a sporty V8 coupe with standard transmission, it could be a completely different story, though.
Cars that have been in accidents are more troubling, however. There are a lot of unknowns, so unless you are a competent car evaluator, it is probably best to avoid these. Same thing for flooded cars - there is just too much that could go wrong.
There isn't enough room here to fully cover every aspect of used car buying, but doing your research will take you a long way towards a good deal. Knowing the market better than the seller does give you an advantage that can translate into dollars left in your pocket. If you're in a situation where you'll have to start taking the bus next week, well, take it. A couple of weeks won't kill you but a bad decision on a used car will surely kill your wallet.