How to Buy a Used Car

I have tried to buy new cars, but the price tag is so staggering, the investment so depreciating, and the impact on the environment so great, that I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it. Instead, I’ve always bought used cars directly from the seller, and I’ve always had great experiences. If you are thinking about buying a used car, be sure to do your homework. “Caveat emptor,” a Latin phrase meaning “let the buyer beware,” is especially relevant to used car purchases. They don’t come with warranties or return policies. When buying a used car, you alone are responsible for assessing the quality of the purchase, so arm yourself with research and know-how. Here are some steps you can take to help ensure a good purchase.

my most recent used car puchase

My most recent used car purchase

Step 1: Figure out what you want
Start by making a list of everything you need and want in a car. This is an initial wish list, so you can include anything and everything. Appropriate items for your list might be: make and model, color, size, safety features, reliability ratings, gas mileage, air conditioning, stereo system, etc…

Step 2: Prioritize your wish list
Go through your list and order it by priority, putting the one thing you absolutely cannot live without at the top, the second most important item should be number two and so on until every item on your list is assigned a value. This will help you zero in on the right car for your needs.

Step 3: Make a list of cars that meet your needs
When I organized my wish list, my top priorities were: safety, reliability, and fuel efficiency. I also needed a car that comfortably seated a family of four, had air conditioning, and was not beige (my husband hates beige). There were other nice-to-haves on my list, but I focused on the top five when I started my research. I consulted Consumer Reports to get a reliable assessment of different makes and models of used cars. Consumer Reports ranks cars according to safety, reliability, size, fuel efficiency, and price range, so I was able to quickly come up with a list of cars that met my needs.

Step 4: Figure out what you can afford
Look at your savings account and figure out how much money you can afford to spend IN CASH for your new used car. Whether it’s $500, $5,000, or $15,000, write that number at the top of your prioritized list and commit to getting a car for that price. Do not take out a loan to buy more car than you can afford. This is a difficult goal to stick to, especially when you start seeing the pretty cars you can get with just a few hundred, or thousand, dollars more. You’ll be tempted to take out a loan, but try to stay committed to a cash deal so that you aren’t saddled with monthly car payments. if you don’t have enough cash, and your current car is still drivable, consider saving up for a few more months.

Step 5: Zero in on the car that meets your needs and fits your budget
Go to Kelly Blue Book or Edmunds and look up each car on your list. These free online resources are industry-standard. They will tell you exactly what you should expect to pay for a used car. The main factors that determine the price of a used car are: make, model, year, mileage, and condition. When I did my search, I started with the make/model, chose “good” condition, and then looked for the “year” and mileage that I could afford.

Step 6: Start shopping
Search classified ad sites like Craigslist, local newspapers and other sources for the make, model, and year you are looking for. Remember, buyer beware. Keep the following in mind when buying a used car directly from a seller:

  • Search “used car scams” on Google and read up so that you don’t fall victim to the latest scams.
  • Don’t respond to an ad if the car is priced far below the blue book value. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
  • Only deal with local sellers. Don’t buy unless you can meet them in person, test-drive the car, and watch as they sign the title over to you.
  • If you are not mechanically inclined, bring along a friend who is. He or she might be better at spotting a clunker than you are.


  • Step 7: Close the deal
    Once you’ve identified the car you want, you’ll need to do the following to ensure it’s a good purchase:

  • Get the car’s VIN number and get a vehicle history report from Carfax or Experian. This will tell you the car’s history, which is essential when buying a used car. You never want to be surprised, especially once the money has changed hands and the title has been transferred to your name. At that point you’re stuck with whatever you bought, for better or worse. When checking out vehicle history look for red flags like:
    * A complete lack of service records (if the car has never had an oil change, walk away)
    * A suspicious title or other documentation (before you sign on the line, you can take the documents to a notary for verification. They’ll know what’s real and what’s not.)
    * Any vehicle accidents or repair issues
    * Obvious mechanical issues (check under the car; if it’s leaking, walk away.)
  • Be sure to run the report yourself, don’t accept a report that the seller has run for you. Checking the vehicle history so extensively may seem a little overboard, but it’s your money, so make sure that you’re buying a used car that is worth every penny you pay for it.
  • Test drive the car. Don’t ever skip this important step. Read up on what to look out for during your test drive. Visit the auto evaluator and other sites for more information.
  • Negotiate a fair price. Don’t pay more than the blue book value for the car unless the owner has added something extra (like a great stereo system).
  • Have cash or a certified check ready.
  • Make sure the title is signed over to you during the transaction.
  • Call your car insurance provider before, or immediately after, your purchase to make sure you are covered before you drive away.
  • Bring your old license plates to put on the car. If you are meeting the car owner somewhere and have to drive the car home, make sure you have a set of license plates for the car.
  • Go to the DMV right away to register your new used car.


  • When it comes to something as important to you and your family as your mode of transportation, you don’t want to take any chances. When preparing to buy a used car, do your homework. This way, you’re getting a reliable used car at a price you can afford.

    One Comment

    1. Edmunds.com has all you need to know about buying or selling a used car. If you?re in the market for a vehicle, buying a used car is a great way to save money while still finding the perfect car, truck or SUV to meet your needs. Search our used car inventory by make, model or body type to find a complete listing of used cars in your area. Our used car listings include photos, videos, vehicle details and pricing, along with easy ways to contact the dealership for more info.

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