Buying a car is tricky business. After your house, a car purchase is likely to be the most expensive decision you make. To help you have the best possible experience, here are some tips on how to buy a used car.
Don’t buy a used car with a salvaged title
This is the mother of all car buying mistakes. Why? First, the reason the car was salvaged—totaled in an accident, stolen, or flooded—are sufficient reasons to walk away. Second, resale value is going to be awful, and most buyers won’t even be interested. Third, these cars can be hard to register and insure.
Yes, $2,000 for a 2005 BMW 3-series seems like a screaming deal, but you’ll be very sad when the car breaks and you can’t sell it to anyone as it sits in front of your house for two years like a tribute to foolishness. The solution here is easy, don’t do it. How do you know if a car has a salvaged title? You need to get a vehicle history report. Which brings us to our next common mistake.
Always get a vehicle history report
Running a vehicle history report such as Carfax is crucial when car shopping. You want to look for things like accidents, evidence of maintenance, and number of previous owners. You can also see if a celebrity once owned the car (bonus points if it was John Voight). If the car has had five owners in three years, you might want to be suspicious. Why would so many people want to part ways with this car?
If the report shows that the car has been in an accident, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker if the repairs were done correctly. That being said, you’ll want to be extra careful to look for issues during the test drive. On Shift, you’ll find the Carfax report available from every car’s listing page.
Don’t go in with rose-colored glasses
This sounds strange, but falling in love with a car before you buy it can be a mistake. It can cause you to gloss over some things that you’ll regret not noticing later. A friend recently wanted a Toyota 4Runner so badly that he lost sight of the fact that it wasn’t a good choice for him. The 4Runner got poor mileage and was too large and too expensive for his needs.
Try not to get too excited before you agree on a purchase price. Even if the car is right for you, if the seller sees how badly you want it, you might have less bargaining power. (Especially at dealerships.)
Stay within your budget
Making a budget for your purchase is important. Ask yourself what you can realistically afford. Consider not just monthly payments, but how long you’d be making those payments. Then be sure to add on costs for maintenance, gas, registration, and insurance. If you haven’t considered these extra costs, you could be in for a sad surprise.
Cars that were more expensive new tend to have higher maintenance costs. Just because a ten year old BMW is the same price as a five-year old Honda doesn’t mean the cost of ownership will be the same.
Do a pre-purchase inspection
Before finalizing the purchase, ask if you can have your mechanic take a look at the car. Often referred to as a PPI, it’s an expense that more than pays for itself. Unless you’re great with cars, it’s really hard to spot everything a professional will. If you can, take it to your usual mechanic, since a new mechanic who performs a PPI may suggest unnecessary repairs or fixes that aren’t needed yet.
At Shift we think this is such an important step that we perform a 200-point inspection on every car we list. We include our findings in an inspection report we give every buyer on their test drive, at no extra cost. The inspection is that important.
Do your research
You wouldn’t go to a restaurant that you’d heard nothing about for a first date (especially if that meal cost thousands of dollars). You’d ask for a friends advice, you’d check a ratings website, or you’d read a review in the local newspaper. It’s the same deal with buying a car. The internet is full of information about cars, so spend some time learning about your potential new whip before you test drive it.
Don’t be a stickler for brand
Just because a car manufacturer built your favorite car—the little yellow hatchback you’ve had since you were a freshman in college—doesn’t mean you should blindly buy from them again. Car manufacturers change over the years. Standards change, manufacturing facilities move, engineers retire, and new CEOs come in. Blind Faith is a great name for a classic rock band, but not a great strategy for buying a car.
Make sure it’s passed its emissions and smog tests
In states that require smog tests, this is a bugaboo that really should be avoided. If you buy a car that hasn’t been tested recently, you could get stuck paying for a lot of repairs to make the car passable. It’s the seller’s responsibility to make sure that a car has been smogged recently, so ask for a proof of a current smog certification on the test drive.
Be wary of overdue DMV fees
Unbeknownst to you, a car may have accrued registration fees, parking tickets, or toll violations. You don’t want to be saddled with the previous owner’s baggage, but how do you know if you are? First, you can ask the owner. If you don’t trust them, put on your PI hat and contact the DMV with the license plate number.
Ask for maintenance history
If the owner has no idea when the oil was last changed, or has no record of it ever being changed, you should walk away. It’s a sign that the car has been neglected. A good sign is a folder full of receipts for work done at a reputable shop.
Don’t buy a really dirty or rusty car
What mold is to bread, rust is to cars. You don’t eat moldy bread, right? So you don’t want buy a rusty car. If you look under a car and everything looks rusty, walk away. Rust destroys body panels, engine components, suspension pieces, and even hardware. It can mean changing a routine bolt becomes a day-long job for a mechanic. If that sounds expensive, that’s because it is. Do yourself a favor and check the car for rust, especially if you live in an area where the roads are salted during the winter.
Similarly, a dirty car can be a red flag; it mean that the owner doesn’t take good care of it. If they can’t be bothered to clean it up for a prospective buyer, can you expect them to have bothered to change the oil? Also, dirt can conceal dents, body repairs, or paint work. So be wary!
The truth is, car shopping isn’t easy. In fact, it’s enough to make your head spin like a set of radials. But with this list of car buying mistakes and a steady hand, you’ll be behind the wheel of a great car for years to come.