How to Shop for a Used Car

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” the old saying goes. That’s hard to do if the lemon in question is the 3,500 pound used car you just bought.  Here are ways to avoid having a sour experience when buying a used car:

Know where to buy

Probably the best place to buy a used car is from a new car dealership. Many dealerships now offer Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicles. These are mostly late model cars that new car buyers have traded in.  They usually have less than 50,000 miles on them, and are thoroughly inspected and serviced before being parked on the lot [1].CPOvehicles often have a portion of the original manufacturer’s warranty left, and the dealer may also offer separate coverage. These are the cream of the used car crop, and are priced accordingly.

Used car lots can be a bit dicier, as they tend to end up with higher mileage cars. Dealerships typically auction off trade-ins that don’t meet their more stringent criteria, and those vehicles often appear at independent used car lots [2]. That doesn’t mean there aren’t deals to be had; you simply have to take a little more care in researching the car you have your eye on. Buying from a private owner is the riskiest way to go, because you’re buying “as is”.

Do your homework

Make a “short list” of cars you have in mind. Just don’t fall in love too quickly, and be sure to have several cars on your list [3]. There are many resources you can consult for reviews including Consumer Reports, Kelley Blue Book, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and JD Power & Associates. These will all give you a good idea of what to expect in terms of performance and reliability. Kelley Blue Book will also give you an estimate of what you should pay based on mileage, and working accessories [1].

Once you’ve decided on a particular car, get a vehicle history report. They cost around $30, and it’s a wise investment. Keep in mind that these only cover reported issues. In other words, if the car was in wreck, but wasn’t reported to an insurance company, it doesn’t show up [2]. It’s a good idea to have your own mechanic, and possibly a body shop, look the car over before you buy [3]. They will be able to spot potential issues, as well evidence of previous damage.

While it’s nice to drive a brand new car, used cars can often have a better value, especially for more reliable models. In fact, Consumer Reports found cases in which a three year old used car had about the same, or even fewer problems than the average new vehicle [4]. While chances of an expensive repair are higher, you can save on registration and insurance which are often tied to a cars value [5].


[1] Peters, Eric. “Tips for buying used cars.” CNN Living,20 Mar. 2009. Web 1 July 2011

[2] Paulsen, Ray. “New-Used-Car Buying Tips.”, Web.1 July 2011

[3] Magliozi, Tom and Magliozi, Ray, “Car Talk Interview: Deep Plaid.” Web.1 July 2011.

[4] “Used-car reliability: Some used cars have fewer problems than newer models,” Consumer Reports, April 2011, Web.01 July 2011,

[5] “New vs. Used, the Right Choice for You,”,1 July, 2006, Web.1 July, 2011

So, have you bought a used car before? What tips can you share?


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