Step 1: How Much Car Can You Afford?
A rule of thumb: If you’re taking out a loan to pay for your car, your car payment shouldn’t be more than 20 percent of your take-home pay. If you’re sticking to a tight budget, you may want to spend even less. Used cars will need a little extra attention from time to time: new tires, maintenance and the like. And then there are the other ownership costs shoppers sometimes forget to account for, such as fuel and insurance.
Step 2: Build a Target List of Used Cars
It’s no secret that the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry make for good used cars. But they might cost a few thousand more than a comparable Ford Fusion or Kia Optima, even though these are good cars, too. So if you’re looking to save money, consider more than one brand.
Step 3: Check Prices
Prices are driven in part by where you’re shopping. You’ll find used cars in used-car sections of new-car dealerships, independent used-car lots, used-car retailers such as CarMax and websites where private-party sellers list their cars. Of the four, private-party cars will usually have the lowest selling price.
Step 4: Locate Used Cars for Sale in Your Area
One easy place to start building your target list is the Edmunds used-car inventory page. To find exactly the car you want, you can filter your search by many factors including the miles on the car’s odometer, its price and features, and dealer’s distance from you.
Step 5: Check the Vehicle History Report
Unless you’re buying the car from a close friend or family member who can vouch for its history, plan to get a vehicle history report. This is an essential early step. If the car you’re looking at has a bad history report, the sooner you know the better.
AutoCheck and Carfax are the two best-known sources for vehicle history reports, which can reveal vital information about the car, including whether the odometer has been rolled back or if it has a salvage title, which means it has been declared a total loss by the insurance company. You’ll use the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) to get this information, and in some cases, all you need is the license plate number.
Step 6: Contact the Seller
Once you find a good prospective car, don’t run out to see it. Call the seller first. This is a good way to establish a relationship with the seller and verify the information about the car. You can ask private-party sellers why they’re parting with a car, or whether it has any mechanical problems. And if you’re buying from a dealership, a phone call (or text) is the best way to ensure the car is still in stock.
Sometimes the seller will mention something that wasn’t in the ad that might change your decision to buy the car. If you want to go deeper, our used car questionnaire is a good reminder of what to ask. You will notice that the last question on our list is the asking price of the car. Although many people are tempted to negotiate even before they have laid eyes on the car, it’s better to wait. Once you see the car, you can tie your offer to its condition.
Step 7: Test-Drive the Car
Test-driving a used car is the best way to know if this is the right car make and model for you. It’s also a good way to assess this particular car’s condition.
After the test drive, ask the owner or dealer if you can see the service records. These will show you if the car has had the scheduled maintenance performed on time.
Step 8: Have the Car Inspected
If you like the car, consider having it inspected by a mechanic before you buy it. If you don’t have a mechanic, Google and Yelp are good places to read local shops’ reviews.