Skip the lemon: 3 tips to buy a great used car

July 10, 2015 01:28 PM

There are typically two types of used car buyers: those who love them, and those who are afraid of them. And it is easy to see both sides.

For those who swear by the used car, pros include a vast selection of vehicles for sale, affordable prices and lower depreciation. For those who are afraid, they see a laundry list of vehicle maintenance issues, thousands in repair costs and countless headaches.

Of course, the reality is somewhere in the middle. Buying a used car doesn't have to be a nightmare experience - in fact, it can be far from it. Used can be an incredibly smart decision, if you do it the right way.

So, what exactly is the right way? Here are three tips to ensure you drive home with a great used vehicle, not a lemon:

1. Set a budget
One of the biggest reasons to go used is because of cost. A new vehicle, on the other hand, will not only have a higher price tag, but often come with depreciation, auto financing costs, interest rates and years of monthly payments. Many used cars can be bought in one swoop, without financing, so your costs are limited to any future car repair or other maintenance expense.

This is also why a budget is so important. You're buying used to save money, so know exactly what you can afford and stick to it. Need a family-friendly, gas-saving sedan? Don't come home with a Mustang. Choose the type of vehicle based on your needs and your budget, and don't get carried away by the vast number of used vehicles for sale.

Don't let temptation drive you away from your budget.Don't let temptation drive you away from your budget.

2. Talk with the seller
Before you buy, you should definitely have a chat with the seller. You can start up a relationship - and scan listings - on automotive forums, or reach out via email or telephone. Talking to the seller will shed some light on who they are, how they used their vehicle and why they are selling. This last part is especially important. You may be wary about a "too good to be true" price, but the seller may have a very good reason for that low price. Talking to sellers or visiting forums can also clue you in to your preferred vehicle's history and common problems.

3. Look in the right places
A big impediment for the uninitiated used-car buyer is where to look. Buying used can feel overwhelming, because "for sale" signs can appear on any number of street corners.

Here are a few of the smartest, safest places to buy used:

  • Dealerships - Many dealerships offer quality used vehicles, including ones with warranties. Some of the best dealers are Toyota and Honda, which both have extensive pre-owned vehicle maintenance checklists.
  • CarMax - CarMax is a used-car website that has countless vehicles for sale across the country. CarMax's biggest perk is its warranty, which will help cover repairs at your favorite mechanic right after you buy used.
  • eBay and Craigslist - Slightly below CarMax are two other online retailers: eBay and Craigslist. These don't have the reputation like CarMax, but you can find a wide array of great deals on these sites.
  • Auctions - An under-the-radar way to buy used is through an auction. While you won't be able to know if your car is in great shape until after you buy, you can save a lot of money here. Then, make sure you bring your used car to your mechanic for a complete inspection and tune up.

Above all else, work with a mechanic of your choosing - not the seller's preferred mechanic. Quality and reliability are the two biggest question marks when buying used, and having a pre-sale inspection completed by your auto repair shop is a must. Get the car checked out, so you know with certainty that you've made a good deal.

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