So you have decided that the old wagon is nearing its end, and you need to get a reliable replacement. Finding the right used car and negotiating the best price is a challenge. But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a five-step plan to help you navigate those murky waters:
Step One: The Plan
Amy Mattinat, owner of Auto Craftsmen in Montpelier, Vermont and author of “How to Buy a Great Used Car,” says before you begin your search, you should understand your own needs. She suggests asking these questions:
- What style of vehicle do I need? What are my space considerations? Do I need a truck for routine hauling, or do I typically carry a number of people in my vehicle?
- Is the majority of my driving on the highway or in the city? Do I need all- or four-wheel drive for rough terrain?
- What are the options that I can’t live without – air conditioning and heating, power steering, etc.? And what are the options I don’t need but would love to have – power locks, wi-fi, sunroof, etc.?
- What is my main concern – reliability, safety, price or design?
- How much can I afford? When budgeting, make sure you include the cost of the car, registration, insurance and any repairs it might need to make it safe and reliable – and that could mean anywhere from $300 to $3,000 in added costs. Remember, a used car is not without issues – the owner probably is selling it because he or she doesn’t want to spend any more money on repairs.
- How will I pay for this car? It is a good idea to have a pre-approved loan in place before beginning to shop.
Step Two: The Search
You can go to an auto dealership to locate used cars, but for this article I wanted to focus on buying from an individual party. You can find cars listed for sale in newspapers, local bulletin boards or online sites such as Craigslist, Cars.com or AutoTrader.com. Do more than one search, as online search engines can miss potential buys. Use typical search terms such as make or model, but also do a search with misspellings, or keywords such as “trunk space” or “great gas mileage.” Sometimes you will find a hidden gem.
Ask your local bank or credit union if it has vehicles for sale that have been repossessed or turned in for non-payment of loans. Car rental companies often sell fleet cars. Auction houses can get you a great deal, but only if you buy with an expert’s eye. In many cases, you are not able to see the vehicle in person or hear it run before buying.
Make sure you practice safety when you view a car. Consider meeting a private seller at a safe, neutral location instead of at his or her home.
Step Three: The Inspection
You found a used car and have had a look-see. You love the color. But you need to fall out of love and back into reality. Here’s an inspection check-list:
- Does the vehicle have everything on your list of needs?
- When was the car last serviced? Has it had regular oil and filter changes? Did it need repairs? What garage performed the work? Does the owner or the garage still have the service records?
- Is there rust or damage to the body? Has it been repainted, and if so, why? Was the car involved in any accidents?
- Did the sellers buy the car new? Mattinat says that original owners tend to take better care of their vehicles.
- Check the mileage. Most car owners average 10,000 to 12,000 miles per year, so know what to expect according to the age of the vehicle.
- Compare the address on the vehicle registration to the address on the title and/or driver’s license. Also make sure the VIN (vehicle identification number) on the dashboard or door matches the number on the car title.
Now take it on the road. Use all your senses to determine the car’s overall health – how does it feel, sound, look – and smell? Write down any questions or observances. You will use this later.
Step Four: The Consideration
OK, so you’ve asked the right questions and gotten the right answers. You have driven the car and so far, so good.
But before you negotiate a price, insist that you be allowed take the car to your mechanic for a once-over. Offer to put down a refundable deposit to hold the car while you take it for an inspection. Obtain a written receipt of the deposit that states it is refundable. If the seller refuses to allow a third-party inspection, walk away from the deal. The seller is likely hiding something.
You can purchase a CarFax report to check for any reported issues with the car you are considering – but don’t stop there. These reports serve as additional, not complete, sources of information. The Carfax website, which also has a used car listing of its own, recommends taking the car for a test drive and having it inspected by a qualified mechanic.
Take the car to a professional auto technician that has experience and knowledge, says Mattinat. He can spot problems that are easily overlooked and put the vehicle on a hydraulic lift to check out the undercarriage of the vehicle as well as pull the wheels to inspect the brakes. Now is the time to pull out that list of observations you made while driving the car. A mechanic can troubleshoot them and either dismiss a problem or point out a potential issue.
Ask the mechanic for his opinion of the asking price. Get an estimate of repairs or maintenance, and attach pictures if possible, or take pictures of the mechanic pointing out any visual evidence. Expect to pay for an inspection out of your own pocket, but don’t skip this step. If you have done your homework, the cost of the inspection can possibly save you hundreds of dollars, and buyer’s remorse.
Step Five: The Purchase
Now it’s time to consider price. Kelly Blue Book remains a reliable source to make sure the selling price is fair. NADA (National Automobile Dealers Association) has a retail and trade-in value listing, a VIN search and a car comparison. Edmunds offers true market value on used cars, as well as information on reliability and available features for many makes and models.
Print out all the information you have obtained from these sources. If there is a gap in the asking price, explain to the seller that you love the car, but their price doesn’t coincide with market value according to reliable sources. And if your mechanic found issues, point out you will have to spend extra money on repairs to make the car safe and reliable.
Then, says Mattinat, don’t say anything. Let the seller come up with a possible compromise. If it isn’t enough, reply with a thank you, but that number is still over your budget. Ask if they can do better. Ask until they reach their bottom line.
Be willing to walk away from the deal if you, or your wallet, is not comfortable with the sales price. Negotiate with your head, not your heart – there are other cars waiting for your love if this one doesn’t step up to the bargaining plate. In the end, your car is just a tool to get you from Point A to Point B – safe and sound.
Need more guidance? Get a FREE PDF version of Amy Mattinat’s book, How to Buy a Great Used Car here.
image courtesy bplanet at freedigitalimages.net.