The average price of a new car in the United States continues to rise, but you don’t have to let this crazy trend drain your bank account. Buying used saves you money when you sign the dotted line, plus you’ll spend less in the long run. Used cars are normally cheaper to register than new ones, and you won’t take as big of a hit when you sell it. Cars last longer than they used to, so pre-owned doesn’t mean you need to have a tow truck on speed dial before leaving your zip code.
The trick to saving money is to buy a quality used car that has been lovingly maintained, so Digital Trends has put together basic advice to help you sniff out the right one. Who are we to give you buying tips? Sure, we’re a tech site, but our car writers have amassed a vast amount of experience buying, fixing, and selling all kinds of cars, and some have worked for dealerships in the past so we know what happens behind the scenes. We’re well positioned to help you out.
Know what you want
Cars are designed with a certain purpose in mind; figure out what you need one for. If you’re after “just a car,” like most people, and you have no specific requirements (e.g., all-wheel drive, the ability to haul a drum set), you can probably get away with a compact car. If you need to tow combine harvester parts, or if you’re 6’8”, you’ll need to make your search more specific. If needed, carefully reading reviews online and in magazines will help you choose.
Make a list of the models that suit your needs, and go online to check what’s for sale in your area. What you’ll find depends on what you’re after, and where you live. Buy local if possible, and always, always drive a car before buying it. Even if it’s your third Dodge Challenger, and you know exactly what you’re getting into, you’ve never been in this specific one. Walk away if the seller doesn’t let you take a test drive; something’s not right.
Know what to pay
There are dozens of resources to help you not get ripped off when buying. Sites like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book will give you an idea of what to pay for a car depending on its trim level, its condition, and its mileage. We suggest browsing through the classifieds to see what others are paying, too. Remember: there’s normally room for a little bit of haggling.
Know who you’re buying from
Broadly speaking, it’s best to buy a car from a well-known dealer, or from a trustworthy private party. By well-known dealer, we mean one that represents an automaker (the local Toyota dealership, for example), or a generic used car dealer that has decades of experience. Ask your friends and family members who they’d buy a car from, and who they wouldn’t. You’ll need to use your best judgement when it comes to telling whether a private seller is trustworthy, however.
The dealer versus private party debate could go on until it’s interrupted by the next big bang and humanity goes extinct. It ultimately depends on who the dealer is, who the private party is, and which car is trading hands. We’d buy, say, a 2018 Audi A4 from the local dealer, because odds are it’d be part of the store’s certified pre-owned (CPO) program, which brings peace of mind. We wouldn’t buy a 1964 Volkswagen Beetle from the nearest dealer; we’d probably score a better deal by finding one that’s in private hands. But, again, this is a call best made on a case-by-case basis. What’s certain is that it’s never advisable to buy from a sketchy, three-month old dealer operating out of a warehouse in the remove-valuables-from-your-car part of town. Remember, you’re trading a big chunk of your hard-earned money for a machine that will need to safely get you and yours everywhere. Common sense and cautiousness go a long way here.
It’s rarely a good idea to buy a car from a rental fleet. Sure, it’s been well maintained, but it’s been driven by so many different, careless people that you’d be putting a ticking time bomb in your garage. It’s like dog years; one mile on a rental car represents seven miles of wear and tear. Do you really want to commute in the Impala that every tourist family with young, messy kids has driven to the Grand Canyon? We certainly wouldn’t. Vans and pickups can be an exception to this rule; they’re normally driven gently, because renters are often afraid of them (they’re big, and/or hard to see out of), and they’re often only used for moving, or to pick up appliances, so they’re cleaner than ones used by, say, a painter.
Bluntly, be careful when buying a car from a teen, or from a senior citizen. We know it’s not the nicest thing to say, but you probably don’t want to buy the Honda Civic your 16-year old neighbor used to learn stick on, or the one your 96-year old neighbor has driven exclusively in second gear for the past six years. This isn’t a generalization, some teen- and senior-owned cars are flawless, but we’ve seen some automotive horror shows go through our shop.
Know what it’s been through
CarFax can help you decipher a car’s history, but there’s a lot you can learn without it.
Never, ever take the information listed in an ad (or provided by a dealer’s sales staff) as a fact. Basic research will teach you a lot about the car you’re about to buy. First, and most importantly, is the title clean? Run away from a car with a branded title, especially if it’s salvaged, regardless of the excuses the seller pulls out of a hat. Second, does it come with full service history? If it’s a late-model car, it should, there’s no reason for it not to. If you’re shopping for something older, like a 1986 Jeep Cherokee, full service history is a rare treat, and piecing together its history will be harder (but not impossible).
Looking through the service history — assuming it’s there — will tell you about the life it’s led. Make sure the mileage is consistent on each invoice; you don’t want to buy an 18,000-mile car that had its last oil change three months ago at 75,000 miles. Keep an eye out for wear and tear, too. If the driver’s seat looks like it has 200,000 miles’ worth of wear, it probably does, even if the odometer reads 20,000. Are the wheels original? If not, why? Is one door slightly lighter (or darker) than another? Are the body panels aligned? Mismatched paint and misaligned body panels are a sign of accident damage, and buying a car that’s taken a hit is a great way to run into issues down the road.
Experience has taught us to never go car-shopping without an OBD2 scanner. Fault codes stored in the ECU will reveal issues you might not see, hear, or feel when you drive it. Sellers with nothing to hide shouldn’t have a problem letting you plug in the scanner, which you can buy online for less than $20. It’s a great tool to have in your garage, too.
If in doubt, ask
Don’t be ashamed to admit you have no idea what you’re looking at. If you’re lost, find a friend, a relative, or a neighbor who isn’t and take that person car-shopping with you. It might cost you a meal, or a round at the local bar, but it will keep you out of a lemon. Alternatively, pay a competent shop to perform a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) that, if done right, will identify any and all issues and give you an idea of how much it will cost to fix them.