A car is one of the biggest purchases you’ll make, and like all big purchases, the better informed you are, the better equipped you’ll be to make the right decision. The high-pressure tactics of the stereotypical used car salesman aside, shopping for a second-hand vehicle can be a confusing process, and a little preparation goes a long way to helping you navigate its pitfalls. From understanding which types of vehicles best suit your needs, to sizing up a specific used car or truck for red flags, here are a few basic things to keep in mind as you head into your used car purchase.
Be realistic about your budget
As with any large purchase, the main consideration when shopping for a used car is going to be how much you can afford to spend. Whether you’re paying cash upfront or financing the purchase over a number of years, it pays to be realistic about how much you can comfortably afford and what you can get for your budget. While it can be tempting to look for deals on older model luxury vehicles, for example, the upfront cost of these won’t tell you how much you’ll be paying for repairs and maintenance – and those costs add up. Unfortunately, if you can’t afford to buy it new, you may not be able to maintain it second-hand.
Find the vehicle that’s right for you
There are countless makes and models of cars, trucks and SUVs to choose from on the second-hand market, but not all of them will be right for your needs. Everything from the climate where you live to the size of your family to the amount of driving you do will factor into this choice, as will your budget. If you commute long distances every day, for example, you’re going to want to factor fuel consumption into the decision, and probably buy something as fuel-efficient as possible. If your area gets a lot of snow in the winter, then an all-wheel-drive vehicle might be the right choice. One advantage to used car buying over new is that there is a wealth of information available about vehicle reliability and performance online, and it’s a good idea to read up on these as well.
Take your time and shop around
Once you’ve decided on a make and model (or, better yet, several) it’s time to start shopping, and the more time you can spend shopping the better deal you’re likely to get. Giving yourself a few weeks (or months) to familiarize yourself with the market will give you a great idea of prices, and give you more chances to find a low-mileage vehicle within your budget.
Shop the seller
Unlike buying a new vehicle under warranty from a dealership, buying one from an individual opens you up to a host of liabilities, from looming mechanical failure to outstanding liens. That’s why it’s important to follow the golden rule of used car buying and always shop the seller. That means no matter how great the car looks (and especially if it looks too good to be true), the seller’s trustworthiness is more important. Are they the first owner or one of several? Do they have a complete set of service records? Has it been used as a ride-sharing or delivery vehicle? All of these questions can offer clues into the vehicle’s condition that might not be immediately visible and getting honest answers to them could save you money in the long run.
Do your diligence
If you’ve located a vehicle (and a seller) you like, now it’s time to get serious. Your first order of business will be to get the vehicle’s full history through a vehicle history report, available for a fee online. This will tell you important information like how many registered owners it had, if it’s been in any accidents, and – crucially – if it has any outstanding liens. As too many used car buyers have learned too late, a car with a lien can still be repossessed by the lender even if it has been sold by the owner who took out the loan. If the history checks out, take the vehicle for an inspection at a trusted mechanic. This will give you a sense of its condition and the repairs that will be needed in the coming months. If you’re happy with the prognosis, then it’s time for the last step: negotiation. Good luck.
Jeremy Freed is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. His writing about fashion, travel, food and design appears in Sharp, Harry and re:Porter magazines, among many others.