The phrase "used car" might bring to mind images of sleazy men trying to pass off hunks of junk as well-running machines, but that's hardly the case anymore. With new cars depreciating in value the moment they're driven off the lot, buying a good used car makes financial sense. But what should you look for? How can you get the best deal?
The key to getting the biggest bang for your buck is research. Research your finances. Research the types of cars that work well with your life -- and how their value holds up. Research the specific car you want to buy.
It's never fun to take a look into your bank account and finances with a scouring eye, but if you're going to purchase a vehicle, that's what you must do. Be honest and firm about it; spending more money than what's feasible will only make you miserable in the end. Remember to check out different payment options as well.
Once you have your finances figured out, start researching the cars that best fit your lifestyle. Do you drive more than 35 miles a day? Or do you just need a car for running errands on the weekend? Will you be ferrying around kids, or is it just you? Think about the features you need and what you'd be willing to sacrifice. It's great to have a wish list, but don't let something you could do without hold you back from getting a great car.
If a particular car make or model interests you, consider buying a certified pre-owned, or CPO, vehicle directly from the dealer. The car will be less than five years old and have fewer than 75,000 miles on the odometer. Generally, the dealers can offer aftermarket warranties, and sometimes, CPOs also include maintenance.
Plenty of places, however, specialize in plain old used cars. Carmax is a nationwide chain of used-car lots. They also have a great website you can peruse and learn which vehicles are available at the lots nearest you. Often, if a car is at a lot but not nearby, Carmax will transfer it for free. The biggest boon to going through Carmax is getting the vehicle's history and safety report.
If you go through a private seller, ask for a complete vehicle history. Ask why the car's being sold. Going through a private seller can be a great way to get a deal on a used car, but it also means that if you get a lemon, your recourse is limited.
Now it's time to start actually seeing cars and doing road tests! Obviously, you should never buy a car sight-unseen and without test-driving it first. Make sure to go during daylight hours so that you're able to thoroughly inspect the car. Look for any dents, dings or paint inconsistencies, which could be the sign of an accident. Record the vehicle identification number, the 17-digit code unique to each auto. It's found at the base of the windshield on the driver's side of every car. The VIN will also allow you to get a detailed Carfax vehicle history report, which can be invaluable.
Other physical defects to look for: uneven tire wear (a sign of poor alignment); excessive wear on the pedals, clutch or steering wheel (an indication of careless driving); water damage under the instrument panel (possible proof that the car survived a flood). Take the car to a mechanic you trust for a thorough inspection before you put any money down.
On the road, note how the car handles. Are you comfortable in the seat? Are there any funny sounds coming from the engine? Can you adjust the climate-control dials, mirrors, radio and other settings without taking your eyes off the road?
While driving a car that isn't yours with a passenger who is trying to sell it to you can feel intimidating, make sure the test-drive is long enough to get a good feel for the ride. You aren't going to notice everything if you just go for a spin around the block.
Now it's time to negotiate. Come prepared. Know the vehicle's blue-book value and life expectancy. More and more car lots are going "no-haggle," which means there isn't much room to negotiate. But you never know what you can get until you ask. Just remember, don't take it personally if the answer is no.
Good luck, and happy driving!