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Tips For Buying A Used Car – Written By Someone Who Just Bought One!

October 19, 2010 · 56 comments

in Car/Driving, Misc Tips, Personal Finance

My oldest son turned 16 years old in June. We had discussed pitching in to help him get a car, but in the end, I was not comfortable with the type of car he would be able to purchase with the amount of money that was available.  Then an idea struck me when I looked at the odometer on my husband’s lease car:  I could let my son drive the lease car for the remaining 6 months of the lease contract, and purchase a new/used car for my husband.  That way, we wouldn’t have any mileage overage fees when the car was turned in, and my son would have a vehicle to drive for awhile.  (Side note:  we never wanted to lease a car in the first place.  The vehicle was originally leased by the company my husband worked for. When he changed jobs, he was stuck with the car and the lease contract.)

So, now that we decided we were going to purchase another car, we then had to figure out how to pick a vehicle.  I had been perusing ads and such ever since my son turned 16, so I had a good idea of what might be a good deal or not.  I knew we wanted to buy used, but I was hesitant to purchase a car off a guy on the street, as I know several people who have been burned by private purchases.  I decided I would buy through a dealer, also because I wanted a warranty on the vehicle. Since I knew ‘who’ I wanted to buy from, I then needed to find a vehicle I liked.  The following are the steps we took when deciding on a car:

  1. Research different vehicles: Safety was my number one concern, so I researched vehicles extensively using the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety website and also safercar.gov.  I only considered vehicles that had earned 5-star safety recognition. (One thing to keep in mind regarding safety assessments:   Small cars are compared against small cars and SUVs are compared against SUVs.  So, if a small car earns 5 stars and a medium SUV earns 3 stars, it does not mean the small car is safer.  It means for a small car, it is about as safe as it can get.  But, I am sure the five star small car would still probably lose in a crash against a 3 star SUV.)
  2. Decide what options are needed: Once I narrowed down the vehicles I would consider, I made a list of ‘must haves’ for the vehicle.  I knew I needed airbags in front and back, leather seats, automatic transmission, and decent gas mileage.  Everything else was negotiable.
  3. Scan inventories: Using Edmunds.com and Cars.com, I performed scans on each of the vehicles I was considering in order to find the ‘biggest bang for the buck’.   (After we purchased our car, I was reading an article on the Car Negotiation Coach website  that suggests using www.autotempest.com to perform vehicle searches, as that site combines data from many different sellers like cars.com, ebay motors, etc.)  I also looked at new cars too just in case there was some screaming deal out there.   I used a formula I created to determine a ‘cost factor’ for the car, based on ‘available miles left to drive’ and cost. (Cost factor=miles available to drive on the car/cost of the car.)  For example, let’s say I was thinking of a Ford Fusion that had 20,000 miles on it, and it was going to cost $16,000. I was assuming I would only drive the car to 100,000 miles.  Therefore, I would get 80,000 miles out of this car (100,000-20,000). 80,000/16,000 = 5, and the higher the number, the better.  If I compared that vehicle with another where I would get 90,000 miles and the cost was $15,000, the second car was a better deal because it had a factor of 6 (90,000/15,000).   I know that no two cars are identical, but I knew what my requirements were, and the other options really didn’t matter.  Therefore, I was able to use my cost factor to decide which car would yield the best deal for us, even if the cars were not exactly the same.  (Update:  I also looked at the Carfax report for each car we were considering.  If the car had an accident in it’s history, I crossed it right off the list.  Most of the dealerships provided a free carfax report online for each vehicle.  If there was a charge for the Carfax, I crossed that car off my list too.  Thanks to Biz of Life for mentioning the Carfax report, as I forgot to reveal the importance of the report originally.)
  4. Contact the dealer: I searched, and searched, and then a deal jumped out at me.  It was a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu with just 3,000 miles on it, and for $16,800. (I admit, I was curious why this car was turned in after just 3,000 miles.)  It was leather, decent color, airbags everywhere- it was perfect. Of course it was midnight when I found it, so I sent an email to the contact person at the dealership.  Immediately Monday morning, I was contacted by the dealer.  He told me that the vehicle was ‘mismarked’ on the internet, and it was really supposed to be $17,999, but they would honor the internet price.  When asked why the car only had 3,000 miles, I was told that the car was bought at their dealership by a retired couple a year previously, and that they had since bought a boat.  They turned in the car and bought a Chevrolet Avalanche, which was better suited to pull a trailer than the Malibu.  Everything he told me could have been a lie, I have no idea.  However, the car was coming with a 3 (additional) year warranty, and 48,000 miles.  So, if the car was garbage, at least I had some recourse.
  5. Test Drive: This one is obvious, but I went to the dealership the same day to test drive it. It drove beautifully, and had everything we wanted.  I didn’t hear any scary noises, and I checked all the buttons to make sure everything worked.  All was good. (As a side note, I had test drove many other vehicles at other dealerships during our search for a car.  At the end of one of my test drives, I wanted to verify that the vehicle I was considering had curtain airbags in the back seat.  When the dealer researched the car and found out it did not have the airbags I was looking for, he said to me “why does it matter- do you plan on getting in a big crash or something?”  I wanted to hit him.  I said that my kids would be in the back seat and that nobody ever plans for a crash.  I then walked away, and I would not have bought a car from him to matter how good the deal was.  Lesson:  Make sure you are comfortable with the salesman and the dealership before making a purpose. You want to at least feel like they have some integrity.)
  6. Offer a price: I knew that since it was ‘mismarked’, I wasn’t going to be able to negotiate the price down much. However, it was already a good deal in my book, so I wasn’t too concerned.  I ended up purchasing the vehicle for $16,500, which resulted in a ‘cost factor’ of 5.9 (97,000/16,500).  That was the best deal I had come across by far for a vehicle with leather seats.  Plus, it had a fantastic warranty.
  7. Financing:  I researched used-car rates, and I was not enamored with any of the financing deals available. Therefore, we ‘financed’ the car ourselves. However, if you are going to finance a vehicle, it is good to check and see where your credit score falls in Fico’s credit score range. Also, go a step further, and make sure you have a nice, clean, credit report in order to get the best rate possible.

We have driven our Chevy Malibu for over a month now, and it has worked out perfectly.  The car has been problem-free, and I cannot tell you how much easier it is when there are 3 drivers in the house.  One of the best things is that I truly feel we got a good deal on a good vehicle.  However, it took a LOT of research and test drives to find a deal we were comfortable with, but it was totally worth it the time and effort.

Do you have any additional tips or steps you follow when purchasing a vehicle?

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