Car Buying Tips & Mistakes To Avoid

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 car buying tips and common mistakes to avoid.

Car Buying Tip #1: Don’t buy a 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.

Car Buying Tip #2: 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.

Car Buying Tip #3: 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.)

Car Buying Tip #4: 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.

Car Buying Tip #5: 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.

Car Buying Tip #6: 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.

Car Buying Tip #7: 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.

Car Buying Tip #8: 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.

Car Buying Tip #9. 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.

Car Buying Tip #10: 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.

Car Buying Tip #11:. Buying a really dirty or rusty car

rusty carWhat 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.

How To Test Drive a Used Car: Your Ultimate Checklist

Most people will buy a used car at least once in their life. It can be an exciting, maddening, and intimidating experience. But if you do it right, it can mean the difference between a lemon and a cherry on top (see what we did there?). Luckily, we’ve learned a few things along the way that can help you make sense of it all. Here’s how to test drive a used car, in a nifty checklist.

Test Drive Pro Tip # 1. Do Your Homework 

Before you head out to do the test drive, do some research. It’s easy to access a mound of information on pretty much any car via the (sometimes) trusty internet. Will you be looking at a Pontiac Aztek because you loved Breaking Bad? Chances are there’s a forum that specializes in Azteks where you can find a buyer’s guide. Go into the test drive knowing what to look for and what to ask about, such as common maintenance items and maladies. Speaking of asking good questions…

Test Drive Pro Tip #2: Ask All the Questions

Asking questions of the owner is absolutely critical and can be as elucidating as driving the car. You want to hit the owner with some great questions, not just “what’s she do in the quarter bro?” You want to buy a car from a person you trust, and you want to get a sense for what ownership is like, and why the owner would want to end their relationship with the vehicle. Some important questions:

  • Why are you selling the car?
  • How long have you owned it, and are you the first owner?
  • Has the car been in an accident?
  • What have you used it for? (If their answer is racing, pass)
  • Has it given you any trouble?
  • How often do you change the oil? (Every 3k miles is the best answer here.)
  • Do you have service records?
  • Where do you get it serviced? (A reputable shop is a good answer, and you can always call them and ask their opinion of the car.)
  • Do you have the title? Is it clean?
  • Where did you buy it?
  • Who did you buy it from?
  • Does it have any issues currently? Does it go through any oil/coolant?

Remember, nobody likes a jerk, so be nice about it; this isn’t Law and Order and you’re not Ice T. If the owner’s answers seem vague, sketchy, or don’t match up, use it as a sign that this car may not be for you.

Test Drive Pro Tip # 3: Look for clues

Bring your flashlight and look around, in, and under the car thoroughly with an eye for the following:

A. Bodywork and VINs: Work your way around the car looking for signs of repainting or overspray around each body panel. Overspray occurs when the body shop repaints a panel and accidentally gets paint spray on an adjacent panel or trim piece.

  • Does one panel look newer than the surrounding panels?
  • Does an area have more texture or undulations than others? Look from different angles and use your flashlight.
  • Look for VIN tags. If a car has had a panel replaced, it may not have the original tag with the VIN stamped onto it. Instead, it might say DOT, which means the panel has been replaced. If so, assume the car has been in an accident.
  • Look for different-sized gaps between the panels.
  • When the owner is not looking, whisper “tell me your secrets, car.”

An accident isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker if it was repaired properly. But if it wasn’t, you could be in for trouble.

B. Leaks: Specifically look for leaking fluids around the engine.

  • Is there oil, coolant, or other fluid dripping anywhere near the engine?
  • Is the engine relatively clean, and is any part of the engine wet with oil?
  • Look for fluid leaking from the shock absorbers.

C. Rust: If you see rust, you probably want to walk away. Like Neil Young said, rust never sleeps, and you don’t want it not sleeping in your car.

  • Look up in the wheel wells with your flashlight.
  • Look at the suspension and inside the quarter panels.

D. Mold and mildew: Mold and mildew inside the car can mean water is leaking into the car. Water: great in oceans, bad in cars.

  • Pull back trunk carpets, look under floor mats, look at the headliner for signs of water.
  • Look at the rubber seals around the doors to make sure they are not torn, brittle, and cracked.

How To Pay for Your Used Car

Test Drive Pro Tip #4. Kick the Tires

Tires are perhaps the most important part of the car, and should not be overlooked, as they can tell you a surprising amount about the car.

  • Do they have decent tread left or are they bald as an eagle?
  • Is the wear even across the tire? If the tires are more worn on the inside than on the outside, the car needs an alignment.
  • Are all four tires equally worn?
  • Are they a brand you’ve heard of?

Tires are not something to be skimped on, and quality tires are a sign that the car has been well-maintained.

Test Drive Pro Tip #5. Check the Fluid 

Oil, coolant, and other fluids are paramount to vehicle operation, so you want to make sure your potential next car has the fluids in the right place. Make sure you do this when the car is not hot.

  • Check the oil and the coolant. If the dipstick indicates that the oil is low, that’s bad. If it is dry, that’s really bad. You’d be surprised how many cars we’ve test driven with low oil. It’s direct evidence that the car hasn’t been well-maintained, which means expensive repairs are looming.

Test Drive Pro Tip #6. Fire it Up

Start the car with the hood open. Listen for funny sounds.

  • Does it idle well?
  • Does it sound smooth?
  • Does it sound like air is escaping?
  • Does smoke come off of the engine?
  • Walk around to the back; does smoke come out of the exhaust? Smoke that doesn’t dissipate shortly after the engine starts could mean the car is burning oil or coolant.

A lot goes into the inspection process, which is just one of the reasons we inspect every car sold on Shift for our customers. The findings from the 200-point inspection are compiled into a report that we give both buyers and sellers so that everyone is on the same page.

Test Drive Pro Tip #7. (Actually) Test Drive It 

You want to drive the car in a way that is going to reveal any issues or maladies that may not be apparent if you were to drive it around the parking lot.

  • Go on the freeway and accelerate briskly up to speed.
  • Brake aggressively (just warn the passengers first) and pay attention to how the pedal feels and if the car pulls in either direction.
  • Does the suspension make a lot of crashing, thumping noises over bumps?
  • Is there a popping sound when your turn?
  • Does the transmission shift smoothly?
  • If it’s a manual, does the clutch engage in a smooth manner? Does it slip?
  • As you drive, pay attention to the sensations from the steering wheel, the pedals, the shifter, and the seat of your pants. You want to look for any signs of anything not working properly. Don’t be afraid to make notes and ask the owner why a vehicle does something odd. If their answer seems satisfactory, that’s a good sign. If not, you can have your mechanic take a closer look. More on that in a bit.
  • Does everything work? Windows, locks, stereo, lights, air conditioning?

After the drive, pop the hood again. Is there any smoke? Is there a sweet smell? If so, that’s not like your grandma’s cookies, that’s coolant, and it’s a bad thing.

Why’s it So Hard To Finance a Used Car?

Test Drive Pro Tip #8. Check the Carfax

This is critical. Run the VIN through Carfax. Does the history match what the owner stated? Are there any reported accidents? You may also want to check if any recalls have been issued. Look to make sure the title hasn’t been salvaged. If it has, this car is definitely not for you.

Test Drive Pro Tip #9: Pre-purchase inspection

At Shift, every car is pre-inspected and put through a 200-point examination. But, you might be buying in a car outside of the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and DC areas that Shift serves. If that’s the case, you might want to ask the owner if you can have your mechanic check it out.

A good mechanic will have the tools, skills, and knowledge to spot things that you can’t. Plus, if they find something amiss, you can use it as a way to negotiate a lower price. At Shift, the inspection is a standard part of the process for every car we help sell. Otherwise, the PPI will cost you $100-150, but it’s money well spent as you can know exactly what kind of car you’re buying.

That’s it! Remember, after you’ve gone through this used car test drive checklist, don’t be afraid to walk away from a car that doesn’t seem right. Finding a good used car takes time and patience. When you do find the right car, you’ll smile with satisfaction knowing you bought a ride you can trust.

How to Sell Your Car on Craigslist — Part I

Looking to sell your car on Craigslist? There’s a reason it’s so popular — it attracts a large number of car shoppers and you can generally get more for your car than what a dealership will offer you. It isn’t always seamless, and can be downright dread-inducing if you don’t know what you’re doing. But is IS possible to avoid the stereotypical hassle and cash your check in fast. Here’s how.

Step 1: Decide How Much To Sell Your Car For
The price is a primary search criteria for any buyer, so you’ll want to pick a number that reflects your car’s worth but will attract reasonable buyer inquiries relatively quickly. This is one of the most critical factors to selling your car. There are many ways to go about determining it, but the quickest is to visit the Kelley Blue Book (KBB) website.

(Bear in mind: KBB doesn’t factor in your locale or compare live listings, so a second opinion might be a good idea.)

Once you have some figures in hand, consider your urgency, willingness to negotiate, and the car’s condition to arrive at your listing price.

Step 2: Wash Your Car
Every buyer is going to want to see pictures of the car, so before you do that, let’s get your ride looking as presentable as possible. This is important to do to sell your car quickly.

Basic car wash or a full exterior detailing? Generally speaking, how good your car looks will have an impact on how much you can sell it for, and you’ll often make up the cost of the detailing in the sale price. Ultimately, how you clean your car is up to you, but get it spic-n-span before moving onto step 3.

Step 3: Photograph your vehicle
This is one of the most important but overlooked steps when you go to sell your vehicle. Done well, good photos show off your car in its best possible light. They help set proper buyer expectations, and they make it easier to establish trust.

  • Exterior – Start by shooting the exterior in good daylight. Get multiple angles of the exterior and try not to get too high or too low. Hold the camera at a medium height and frame the car well.
  • Dents and flaws – It may be counterintuitive to take highly detailed photos of damage, but they’ll make sure the buyer knows exactly what they’re buying. If you avoid them, it’s only ammo for the buyer to negotiate during the test drive, so save yourself some time and hassle and capture the dents, tire wear, and paint chips.
  • Interior – Get good shots of the driver’s view and don’t forget the odometer and dash. Don’t forget the trunk area, which is often an important buyer consideration. Get some detail shots of the fabric or leather, as well as interesting interior highlights.

What’s My Car (Really) Worth? The Mushy, Inexact Science of Car Pricing

Step 4: Write an Awesome Description
Paired with your awesome photos, a good description and title is going to help your car stand out from the pack and ultimately sell your car faster. In the title, Craigslist will add the price and location automatically, so you should start your title with your car’s year, make, and model.

For the description, keep it skimmable. Use bullets and break out the basics (mileage, interior/exterior colors, engine details and horsepower) from the detailed features and options. Include a paragraph on its general condition, why you’re selling the car, how you used it, and accepted method of payment (cashier’s check is recommended). Feel free to apply your creativity here, but avoid writing too much.

Step 6: Create the Listing
Now you’re all set to introduce the world to your car. Head over to Craigslist.org, select your geography, and click post to classifieds > for sale by owner > cars & trucks > your neighborhood to get the process started.

Insert the title and description you’ve already written, and fill in the rest of your car’s details. Select CL mail relay (which won’t make your email public) and click publish (it costs $5 dollars).

Congratulations, you did it! Let the test drives commence.

Read PART 11: Test drives & sale