How to Buy a Used Car Without Being Taken for a Ride

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The old ‘new or used’ question usually comes down to one of price for many car buyers. Used cars make a lot of sense. They’re less expensive than new cars and they don’t depreciate by thousands of dollars the minute you drive them off the lot. They can even come with some remainder of the manufacturer’s warranty. But when it comes down to it, how to buy a used car can be tricky. Whether you’re working with a dealership or with a private seller. Dealerships and other sellers can use a variety of tricks to make a lemon seem like a desirable automobile. Thankfully, there are quite a few things you can do to ensure that you’re able to get a great car at a good price without being taken for a ride.

Set Your Limits and Purpose

Before you even start considering the models on offer, you need to have a heart to heart with yourself. First and foremost, you need to set a realistic budget. How much money are you willing to spend on a used car?

If you’re paying cash, this is easier. You have only a certain amount available. If you’re financing, it gets a little stickier. Not only do you need to know how much you can afford to pay each month, but you need to know how long you can afford to carry that loan. There’s no good that can come from owing $20,000 and carrying a seven-year car loan on a vehicle that’s already got 100,000 miles on it.

This also applies to knowing what you need and what you’ll use it for. If you’re shopping for a good family hauler, you can’t afford to be distracted by that shiny Challenger or Camaro. Sure, they’d be fun to drive, but could you really cram your family of four into one for a 10-hour trip for vacation? Can you see driving it every day to drop the kids off at school, to Scout meetings and the like?

Be realistic in your choice of models, and avoid the temptation to listen to your inner child. It’s the smart way how to buy a used car.

Know the Model Inside and Out

Once you’ve decided on a model to buy (whether because it fits your needs, or is just priced right), you need to research it. Get to know it in an almost Biblical manner. Read owner reviews, overviews from auto authority sites and more. Know every quirk, every foible and every strength.

Do this before you put any money down, because some of the information you find may make you change your mind. For instance, you might be interested in a 2009 Chevy Cobalt, but the slew of manufacturer recalls out there might make you decide that something else would be a safer bet.

Certification Might Not Protect You

Certification is touted as the only way to buy a used car with peace of mind. However, it might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Particularly if you’re buying from a used car lot and not a branded dealership. Even then, your certification might not be worth the paper it’s printed on.

Here’s the deal on how to buy a used car – most used car certifications boil down to nothing more than a powertrain warranty that’s backed by the automaker. And in place with or without that piece of paper. There are a few exceptions, the most notable of which are Honda/Acura, Mercedes, and Toyota/Lexus. Vehicles with these certifications undergo rigorous inspections, testing and repairs before they’re labelled as being certified. Audi also has a good certification program for its used vehicles.

Don’t Buy Program Cars

You might find some used cars for sale labelled as “program cars.” Sounds great, right? Wrong. The majority of vehicles sold as program cars are actually ex-rentals. What’s wrong with a rental car? Actually, there can be a great deal wrong with it. Drivers of rentals aren’t known for the care they take with the vehicle, and even rental car companies don’t go to great lengths to ensure that their fleet is maintained properly. After all, they’re just going to get rid of those cars in a year or so.

Take It to Your Mechanic

No matter what type of car you’re considering, or the reputation of the dealership, never, ever drive it off the lot without first taking it to your own mechanic. Most states have laws in place that provide this right to potential buyers. Find a mechanic you trust, and then take the car to them for a full inspection. This can save you thousands of dollars and a lot of heartache when it comes to how to buy a used car.

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Get a Vehicle History Report

Never believe a dealership (or a private seller) when they tell you about a vehicle’s history. Dealerships have no way of knowing what’s happened to the car, other than what the seller told them or what they uncovered in their own investigation. And they may not share that information with you.

Run your own vehicle history report – you can do it through Carfax and other similar vehicle history services. This will tell you whether the car was in an accident, how severe the damage was and more. It can also tell you if the car was flooded, and even whether or not there are title conflicts.

If you find that the information that turns up with a history report is different from what you’re being told by the seller, it’s time to walk away.

While you’re at it, you should also visit the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) website. Use their database to find information about recalls and defects concerning the car you’re considering.

When everything’s said and done, buying a used car can be a great way to save you money while getting a reliable vehicle that’ll serve you well for years to come. However, you can’t go into the process blind. There’s a great deal of research that needs to be done long before you set foot on a dealership lot. Then more that you’ll need to do once the buying process gets underway. That’s how to buy a used car the right way.