Having published a number of these over the years, let me repeat one point:
If you think you can't afford an independent pre-purchase inspection for any car you are seriously interested in, you can't afford the car, period.
Letting the dealer suggest or pick the mechanic to inspect the car you are thinking about buying for you or, even worse, relying on the dealer's own opinion or that of the dealer's mechanic is like letting your blackjack opponent decide whether you should take additional cards: you will end up busted every time.
Car dealers are NOT in the business of helping you buy the best car at the lowest price.
Their only business is making as much money as they can, and used cars are just the means to that end.
In other words, used car dealers are in the business of selling you the least car they can unload on you at the highest price possible, with as much unnecessary garbage packed into the contract as you will swallow.
Making as much money from each customer as possible is the only religion of the used car dealer, and if some car salesman or finance manager has you thinking otherwise -- well, pardner, remember the old saying: if you don't know who the sucker at the poker table is, it's you.
The only people who get the better cars for the best prices are the people who follow the 11* steps below.
How to Buy a Used Car
TOP ELEVEN* TIPS FOR BUYING A USED CAR
Save thousands of dollars
Get a better, safer car
Avoid common auto dealer scams
1. Either save your money and pay cash
Join a local credit union and establish credit with them. It usually costs only about $25 to join. Ask them to help you improve your credit score, so you can get the best possible deal. Most credit unions offer courses in financial counseling and are happy to help members improve their credit scores. Sometimes a simple step, such as transferring a balance, can boost your score and save you a bundle.
GREAT tips on how to get the best deal on financing a car, even if you have bad credit.
Note: you may get a lower interest rate if you buy a new, or nearly new, car.
2. Find the best cars in your price range, at Consumer Reports. Here's a list of vehicles recommended by Consumer Reports, from less than $4,000 to over $20,000: Read the list of best used vehicles for under $20,000
3. Decide what make, model and year of car is the best deal for you. If you decide to get a loan, get it from your credit union or a bank -- NEVER from a dealer. Pre-qualify for a loan, before you shop for a car.
4. Check online sites or local newspapers for "by owner" ads for the make / model and model year you have selected.
5. Choose a car offered for sale by the owner. Beware of "curbstoners" -- shady dealers who pose as the owner, but are actually dealers. Avoid auto dealers. Buy locally. Avoid cars sold sight unseen or in a different state. Insist that the owner show you his or her identification and the title to the car. Make sure the names and addresses match. Insist on seeing past service records, and review how well the vehicle has been maintained. Contact the former repair shop and ask them if they know of any major repairs that need to be done.
6. Check for Safety Recalls. This is a MUST. Why? According to Carfax, over 36 million vehicles on the road today are under a safety recall. There's only one reason they are being recalled by the manufacturer. That's because they are unsafe. Typical defects: stalling in traffic, loss of steering, axles that break, air bags that explode and send shrapnel into the driver's face, seat belts that fail to protect in a crash, wheels that fall off, and cars that burst into flames without warning.
Don't become a victim of "recalled car roulette." Get the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) of the car you're thinking of buying. Then check it online for FREE. Here's where to check, on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website: https://vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin/ Just enter in the VIN. You should receive a message that tells you if there are any unrepaired safety recalls. Sometimes, a vehicle has multiple safety recalls that have not been done. Either find another vehicle that has no safety recalls, or insist that the seller take care of them all BEFORE you buy. Sometimes it may take months before the repair parts are available. So -- don't get stuck driving a ticking time bomb, that you can't get fixed for months. Some consumers have been injured or killed within hours of driving off the lot in a vehicle that had a hidden safety defect. It's not worth the risk.
7. Inspect the car closely yourself. Look for telltale signs of prior damage, such as:
- -- Paint overspray
- -- Stickers on the driver door jamb that show higher mileage than on the odometer
- -- Work orders for repairs that show higher mileage than on the odometer
- -- Ill-fitting parts, such as gaps between the doors and body, or a hood or trunk that doesn't close right
- -- Shimmy in the steering wheel when you drive at freeway speeds
- -- Tires that are worn unevenly
- -- Car is out of alignment
- -- Title brands noted on the title, such as "salvage," "junk," "flood," or "rebuilt" -- these vehicles tend to be very unsafe, and are worth far less than vehicles with "clean" titles. Keep in mind that a "clean" title does not mean the car wasn't damaged. Many states have very lax laws that allow junkers to evade title brands. Some crooks also alter or erase titles, to raise their profits from selling junkers.
- -- Signs of flood damage:
- --- Silt or rust in odd places, such as in crevices, the trunk, under carpeting
- --- Electrical glitches (may be caused by corrosion from flooding)
- --- Musty smell, mold or mildew
8. Have the car inspected by [an INDEPENDENT] reliable, trustworthy mechanic [YOU FOUND FOR YOURSELF] BEFORE you agree to buy or give the seller any money. To find a good mechanic, check out Car Talk's Mechanics Files -- with reviews written by other consumers -- at: www.cartalk.com/content/mechanics-files. Tell the seller where you want them to take the car, for the inspection. If you can get the time, go to the shop for the inspection.
9. AFTER the car checks out OK and the mechanic confirms that it's safe to drive, test-drive the car. Arrange to meet the owner at a safe, public place for the test drive, preferably during daylight. If you have family members or other passengers who will be riding with you, ask them to go with you for the test drive. If they're going to object to the car, better to know before you buy. If you plan to drive with children secured in the back seat, make sure their child safety seats fit properly.
Consumer Reports provides more tips for how to make the most from a test drive, at: www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/car-buying-advice/guide-to-new-car-buying/at-the-dealership/the-test-drive/0702driv0.htm.
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10. Negotiate a fair deal. IF the car checks out OK, ask the mechanic how much he thinks it's worth. Also check pricing services such as Kelly Blue Book or True Car. If the car needs more repairs, either have the seller pay to have it fixed, or offer them less. This is a major advantage to getting an expert inspection -- you are in a better position to negotiate a good deal.
11. Complete the sale. Contact your insurance company and make sure they're ready to cover you from the moment you put your key in the ignition -- or press the "start" button. Either pay with a cashier's check or get a check from your credit union for the price of the car, made out to the seller. Arrange with the seller to meet you at your local motor vehicle department or the AAA to do the paperwork. Be prepared to pay the applicable sales tax and licensing fees. Make sure that you get a receipt from the seller, and properly transfer the title.
[ * The only thing I would add to this list (between steps 9 and 10) to make the list an even dozen is that you should contact YOUR own insurance company before you buy and find the exact monthly or annual insurance premium you will have to pay if you buy that car, especially if you are financing the car and will be required to carry collision and comprehensive coverage on it.
Insurance costs can vary wildly across different makers and even across the cars made by the same company. Insurance is a huge part of the ownership cost of the car, so make sure you are figuring the cost to insure the car into your budget before you buy!]
Enjoy your newly purchased car.
Drive Safely and Happily for a Long Time!!