How-To :: How to buy a used car

by lifeportal

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What kind of wheels?

  • Get some idea of what kind of car you want. What is important to you? Reliability? Efficiency? Or do you just want the hottest looking thing you can find? You can read about reliability, efficiency and safety in Consumer Reports (probably at your local library) or online. Google for the kind of car you want.

Checking out your car

  • #1: Always bring someone with you, preferably someone who has done this before!
  • You are safest buying from a dealer who sells 'certified' used cars: they are usually not under warranty but are certified by the mechanics as sound and you can usually get a warranty if you want to pay extra.
  • Be SURE you get a full Carfax Vehicle History Report no matter who you buy from (the reputable dealer might have gotten it as a trade in and did not check it). This report will tell you if the car has ever been wrecked, if someone still owes money for it, if someone has rolled back the miles on the car (to hide how much it really has been driven). You can get them by going to You can get an unlimited number of checks for 30 bucks: you'll save MUCH more than that if you had bought a car with serious problems in its history. You will need the VIN number: get it from the dealer or get it yourself from the car by looking at the driver side dashboard.
  • There are a few things you can learn to check yourself when you look at the car. You can check out the illustrated guide at If you are serious about the car, then ALWAYS get a car inspected by a mechanic. Be sure the mechanic puts it up on a lift and checks the WHOLE car.
  • Be sure you know how much you should be paying for your car before you discuss payment. You need to haggle.

Cash or finance?

  • If you buy from a private person, expect to pay in cash. There is a way to pay with a person to person auto loan, from Capital One Auto Finance (
  • Cash is always the way to save money, as you won't pay interest - but not many people have that much cash on hand. Cash does not give you priority at dealerships who offer financing.
  • It is in the dealer's interest to get you to finance because they make money on it. If you want a loan, get one from a bank or credit union-the rates will be much lower.
  • Focus on the total cost of the car, not on the 'per month' bottom line. You can have a low payment that goes on forever and costs you a fortune in the long run.

Closing the deal

  • Do not buy a car 'as is' from any dealership. If it dies tomorrow, you're out your money with no recourse. The "lemon law" is for new cars, used cars that are 'certified' (but with some debate on that), except for in NY and NJ. Be safe, not sorry!
  • Be sure to read everything you sign.
  • Be sure your warranty (if you have one) covers your car! It might sound dumb but some cheap warranties will cover only things that never seem to break down, leaving you with huge bills for the most common (and costly) repairs.
  • Have your own insurance written: arrange to call your insurance agent from the car lot. Some dealers will give you insurance but not all will-and at least in California, you cannot take your car home before you've got insurance!
  • Drive off and love your new wheels!




Some of the best deals are from individuals selling their old car. However, use caution because some scams have been reported where the "seller" insists that you pay in cash, has you meet them at a remote location, and then robs you of your money. Never go to a stranger's house alone - take a friend or have them meet you at a public location. More than once my friends or family bought cars from an individual and got ripped off - car broke down after a few days, car turned out to have been stolen, bought the car in winter and forgot to test the air conditioner which didn't work, etc. If you don't know alot about cars and if you aren't willing to do some research on the car before purchasing (, you should stick to a reputable dealer.