Tips on How to Buy a Used Car

Ford Explorer

Image by Golden_ie via Flickr

We just recently purchased a 7 passenger Ford Explorer. Buying a car tends to consume your life while you are doing it. You notice cars everywhere. You pay attention to the feel of the seats, and hurt your neck trying to look at used car dealerships when you pass.

Here are a few tips on how to buy a used car Eventual Millionaire style:

Finding the Right Vehicle

1. Pick your criteria.

We created a list of what we needed functionally so we could find the right vehicle for our needs.

We ranked our criteria from most to least important:

Fits 7 people

Has 4WD or AWD

Less than $10,000

Lowest miles

Good gas mileage

Great storage space (for my husband’s show) or trailer hitch

2. Do your research.

Before we even looked at any vehicles we wrote down ones we thought we liked. Then we researched possible used cars using Edmunds.com. Edmunds will show you vehicles that are similar to the one you looked up, which helps in finding the best car for your situation.

3. Have your list and research tools available when you go.

Have your criteria list, and a list of what cars you want to test drive. Check online to find the best places and prices in your area. But when you go, try to have a smart phone or something with internet so you can do research on location.

This was extremely important for us. Though we researched a TON beforehand, we didn’t look up every car. There was a Chrysler Pacifica that was 6 passengers and it seemed like a great touring vehicle. It drove nice, but we looked up the reviews and they weren’t great. My iPhone paid for itself that day. :)

4. Mitigate Your Risk.

Before you buy a car make sure you take it to a mechanic. If you can’t take it beforehand make sure you can return the car if your mechanic finds issues. Get it in writing too! (Not necessarily because used car salesmen are slimy, although some are, but because they probably won’t remember if it takes a few days.) Many used car dealers just buy cars from the auction and do almost no work on them.

Getting the Best Price

1. Test drive a car (without the salesman) and drive it to a different dealer. Then say “Do you have a better deal than this?”

This was fun. We took a car that we really liked and test drove it. We stopped at another car dealer to look at what they had. We would walk in and say, “We are pretty sure we are going to buy this car right here, but I wanted to see if you could give us any better deal.”

The salesmen were in awe. :) But they tried to give us a better deal. We could compare the cars side by side and decide which one we liked better.

2. Pay Cash. I’ve found that car dealers like to talk in terms of monthly payments instead of how much the car actually costs. When you only have cash the salesmen not only discusses the full price, but they understand that you have limited funds. There is a hard line that stops you from overspending.

Last week we were able to have three different dealerships give us the price we wanted for one of their cars because we said we only had our trade in and $5,000 cash. (our trade in was technically worth $3,500-$4,000 and the car we ended up buying had a sticker price of $12,500)

I had a friend that bought a new car. She was so excited because she thought she couldn’t afford it but got a good deal. She told me the story of the salesman going out back to talk to the manager and was able to get the payment down $120 per month. I tried to explain that I didn’t think she talked him down in price, they changed the term of the loan.

She now had a 6 year car loan instead of 5. Instead of paying less for a car, she was paying more in interest. That is going to hurt your bottom line long term.

3. Don’t get emotional!

This is important. Don’t get attached to a car. It’s just a car.

I can say that now because I was so attached to the brand new car we bought before we got out of debt. I had imagined taking home our first child in it, and driving to preschool. It looked sleek and cool too. I would be the coolest mom on the block!

Selling the car after only two months allowed me to let go of my emotional attachment to it. Somehow it broke the spell, and I no longer get attached to cars. It’s just a car.

When you are buying a car, keep your logical head on. This isn’t the only car like it. Don’t be afraid that someone else is looking at it. Every day cars come and go.

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Good luck finding the perfect vehicle at a great price!

Do you have any good used car buying tips?

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13 Responses to “Tips on How to Buy a Used Car”

  1. Micah

    I used to sell used cars. We didn’t do financing ourselves, but I know how it works. I disagree with the “cash” advice. The buying price gets lower when you are talking inhouse financing because they are going to be getting interest which adds up to a lot more money for them in the long run. What I like to do is talk financing first, this lowers the actual purchase price. Then when it comes time to actually buy the car I tell them, “You know what, I’m just going to buy it outright…” Most salesmen are too stunned to think about withdrawing the price offer. This can save you thousands!

    • Jaime

      That’s exactly what we did with our last car. And I heard that too, that they want to make money on the financing. Hm, I wonder if it could have mattered this time. Darn! :)

    • Jodi

      That’s what we plan on doing when we buy our next car. I heard that car salespeople earn the most commission, next is financing, and they make very little commission on a car that is paid in full.

      • Jodi

        That should say “earn the most commission on leased cars”.

        *sigh* That’s what happens when you’re a new Mom and your only in your second week of returning back to work full time. ;)

  2. Car Negotiation Coach

    Jaime, I love your idea of test driving a car to another dealership and asking them if they can find you something better. Great out of the box thinking!

    • Jaime

      Thanks so much! That’s awesome that you (a car coach!) thinks that it’s a good idea. Woo. :)

  3. Alan

    Jamie,

    Very good write up. I’m a car guy to the core and actually enjoy the car purchase experience. I know, I’m a freak, but its fun looking at the different offerings and getting a deal. Like you mentioned, I have actually driven one dealer’s car to another car lot looking to get a deal. Of course, like you suggested, be sure you let them know you have a car from another dealer. It’s always fun when the sales person asks if you want to trade the car you just drove in and you get to tell them “No, that’s a car from the dealer down the street that I am considering.”

    One of the most important points you made is “Don’t get emotional”. I call it getting married to a car. One of your greatest strengths as a car buyer is the strength to walk away. Once a sales person knows you love the car, you’re hosed, no deal for you. Even if you are in love with the car, you MUST give the sales person the impression that you are ready to walk at any time.

    One more bit of advice. If you are considering trading a car in on another car, do not let them have the keys to your car before you have come to a price on the new car. Often times, they will not give your keys back until you ask for them. They know that if they have your keys, you aren’t walking off and they can keep you in the sales office.

    Bottom line, car sales people do this EVERYDAY! Most people only buy a car once every few years. Sales people are good at making you feel powerless. Keep you power, don’t show your excitement about a new car, hold on to your keys, and retain your walk out power.

    • Jaime

      I love buying cars too. It’s fun, and I actually like dealing with the salesmen. But that’s because I’m not emotional and I just want a good deal.

      But I must admit it’s different for a house. I do get attached to a house! This is our 4th house, and I’ll admit I am not always willing to walk away ;)

  4. EasyFinanceAdvice

    Dealerships make their BIG money buying and selling trade-ins. Don’t trade your vehicle, sell it to a private party and you’ll likely get 50-100 percent more money.

    • Jaime

      I agree with you on that. We were close to just selling the car outright. But it was so scratched, and the interior looked horrible from our kids that I didn’t want to try to sell it. We sold our last car privately and it worked out great. This time we weren’t sure we wanted to deal with it. We probably lost $1,000 or so but I didn’t have to take up my time showing the car, or not having more cash until we sold it.

      Though it was a hard decision! Time beat money this round. :)