Used car shopping is hard enough, but these 10 simple tips will make it easier for you or your family!
Welcome to Answers Over Easy, where we will go over some tips, tricks, suggestions, and answer questions about cars and other tidbits of information on a (hopefully) regular basis.
Today’s entry is actually inspired by my full-time job. You see, when I’m not writing for Auto Waffle, I’m an Internet sales assistant for a dealership group that has four stores. I enjoy my job, because I get to help people find what they want and talk cars at the same time. What’s not to like, right?
Well, for many people, used car shopping is a bit of a mystery. You would think that the only people who have trouble when shopping for a used car are first time buyers, but the reality of the situation is that almost everyone has trouble with some aspect of the used car shopping process. So, today, I’m going to put my expertise to work to help make YOUR experience just a little bit easier with these 10 used car shopping tips. Some of these tips will only apply to used cars purchased from a dealership, while others are good for dealing with private party sellers as well. Without further ado, in no particular order, here are my 10 best used car shopping tips designed to make experience as easy and painless as possible.
10 Used Car Shopping Tips from AutoWaffle.com
1. Figure out what your basic needs are
Many people who end up used car shopping go about it the wrong way. You shouldn’t shop with your emotions. Figure out what you need first and work from there. Do you play musical instruments and need carrying space? Then perhaps that Corvette isn’t such a good idea, and you should look at something more practical. Do you have kids, or is your family growing? Then a sedan might not be enough and you might want to look at a wagon, crossover, or SUV. Pick your needs first and your wants second and you’ll be able to easily find the coveted middle ground between vehicle enjoyment and practicality. Despite your best efforts at rationalizing it, perhaps a Mustang convertible isn’t always the best choice for you.
2. Don’t automatically reject the big dealership
If any of these used car shopping tips are counterintuitive, it’s probably this one. Sure, there’s no shortage of deals to be had on sites like Craigslist, eBay, or even more recently certain Facebook groups dedicated to buying and selling items. However, the “old school” way of used car shopping is still valid, even in the digital age. Sometimes dealers may be more expensive than private party options, but many dealerships can offer you warranties on used cars, especially in the form of Certified Pre-Owned models that carry the balance of a vehicle’s factory warranty and perhaps other perks like free services. Businesses exist to make money, but sometimes the old adage rings true and you get what you pay for. It is always best to explore all of the avenues available to you in your used car shopping quest.
3. Don’t be afraid to travel
While it may seem counterintuitive, dealing locally isn’t always the best course of action when it comes to used car shopping. Especially if you are searching for a very specific model, or specific set of options, travelling may be the ONLY way to find exactly what you want. You will still pay sales taxes based on the location where you register the car, so your pricing on the vehicle itself will not change much, if at all, and any reputable dealership will be able to handle your transaction with the same attention to detail they pay to local customers. You might not travel back to that same dealership for service on your new-to-you vehicle, but that’s okay. A Volkswagen purchased in Nebraska can be just as competently serviced at any Volkswagen dealership in New York, California, Florida, or any other state. Would you spend $200 in gas to drive out of state to save $2,000 on a car? The choice is yours – but the deals are out there if you’re willing to find them. Thanks to the Internet, that’s now easier than ever before! You can search ALL of Craigslist and several other used car listing services by using a site like Auto Tempest. Give it a try; your dream car could be right around the corner.
4. Always negotiate the dealer fee
Naturally, this tip only applies to cars purchased at a dealership, but it’s one of the easiest ways you can save yourself some serious money – from a few dollars to a few hundred. Almost every dealership out there has a dealer fee. They go by many names – dealer fees, documentation fees, doc fees, processing fees, convenience fees – but whatever they’re called, they do nothing for you as a consumer. These fees simply exist to pad the dealership’s bottom line. Not all fees are this way, however. You will still have to pay sales tax, registration, tag fees, title fees, etc. when purchasing a car, but these dealer fees are a dubious and often-overlooked way to prey on uninformed consumers and increase profits. Many states are unregulated, and this means that dealerships can charge whatever they wish to their customers. If you’ve ever listened to the fast-talking voice over at the end of one of those dealership radio ads, you might have heard that some of these fees can be as much as $1,000! This handy list from our friends over at cars.com shows you the state-by-state laws concerning dealer fees. If a dealer is unwilling to waive or reduce this unnecessary fee, you may want to consider shopping elsewhere.
5. If you’re unsure, hire a mechanic or bring a friend
Used car shopping can be incredibly stressful, and a mistake can end up being very costly. What a seller might describe as a minor and easy to fix problem could end up becoming hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of repair bills, or a sign of catastrophic failure looming on the horizon for your new-to-you car. If you aren’t sure, bringing a friend with you to help you look at a car. Barring that, consider hiring a mechanic or inspector. Go old school and hit up the phone book to find an independent shop that may be willing to help you, or allow you to drive the vehicle to their shop for a once over. Alternatively, you can use the great service over at Jewel or Jalopy to hire an independent enthusiast inspector who will be able to help. If you don’t have that one “car person” in your circle of friends, Jewel or Jalopy will allow you to have one for an afternoon! Or, if you’re serious about your intent and willing to pay for an hour’s labor, take the vehicle to a competing dealership of the same brand. You will get a qualified technician’s opinion and analysis, and can use these findings as a negotiation tool if anything is found to be wrong with the vehicle.
6. Avoid buy here pay here car lots or “in-house financing”
While it may seem like a good idea to get you into a cheap car without a lot of cash outlay, the buy-here-pay-here car lot is the ultimate enemy of you, the used car shopper. These businesses often take advantage of the misfortune of their customers and have a tendency to overpromise and underdeliver. They will lure you in with appealing weekly payments (because “$75 per week” sounds much better to our brains than “$300 per month”) on low-cost cars, often for loan terms between three and five years with interest rates comparable to credit cards! If you are looking to purchase a car for a low price, this is the very last place you should go. Worse yet, if you do happen to be a faithful customer and make your payments on time, many small independent dealerships like these don’t even report to the credit bureaus. For you, dear reader, that means all of your payment history was for naught but the business’s personal gain.
7. Read, re-read, and analyze the history report
This is one of those used car shopping tips that’s going to save you now as well as in the future. Read the history report of your vehicle. Most franchise dealerships will provide these for free in their vehicle listings directly, making this an easy task. Others may have you ask in order to obtain one. The annoyingly-catchy slogan “Show me the CarFax,” is entirely valid. If a dealer won’t show it, chances are there is something to hide. Now, when dealing with a private party, you might have a harder time obtaining a history report, because they’re not free. A single report at www.carfax.com will cost you $39.99, or you can pick up a five-pack for $49.99. If you are considering multiple private-party listings, this is the best value. A CarFax history report will show you ownership history, accident history, and in many cases, other things such as emissions inspections, safety inspections, and repairs and maintenance performed at certain dealerships or shops. CarFax reporting is 100% voluntary, however, so sometimes a vehicle can have a major service or accident repair done and the report will be unable to know about it. Caveat emptor.
8. Don’t forget your trade in
If you’re used car shopping at a dealership, don’t forget your trade in! It could be worth more than you think. Visit the Kelley Blue Book to get an idea of your trade-in value. Being an informed consumer is the best way to make sure you always get a fair deal, in cars and in life. As an added bonus, say your trade-in is worth $7,500 and you’re trading it in toward the purchase of a $15,000 vehicle. You will only be required to pay sales tax on the remaining $7,500 of value, because you’ll already have paid on the initial car when you purchased it. Here in the Sunshine State, that amounts to a savings of $450, and expedites the process of getting rid of your old car.
9. Check reviews of cars or dealerships you are considering
Can’t decide on one model to choose from? Online reviews can influence your used car shopping behavior in a positive way and help you make a more informed decision! A 2014 study showed that 88% of consumers trusted online reviews as much as personal recommendations. Online reviews are some of the most honest feedback you can receive. Why? Simple: the people who write them are genuine customers of a business, or owners of a car. They are not paid for their endorsement (or lack thereof), and are therefore more inclined to give you honest reliable feedback of their shopping experience at a dealership, or their ownership experience for a car. You can head to Cars.com to review dealerships, or Consumer Reports to see what the experts and the owners have to say about specific makes and models.
10. Never negotiate based on the monthly payment
This tip goes for new cars as well. One of the biggest used car shopping blunders you can make is to negotiate your finances based on the monthly payment. Allow me to provide an example. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, you have a vehicle that’s $20,000 that you want to purchase. No problem – we’ve got banks that will front you that money in a heartbeat. Assuming you have fairly good credit, with no money down, a bank will happily loan you that money at 4% interest for 48 months, giving you a monthly payment of $400 per month. At the end of your loan, you will have paid $24,000 for that car.
Well, let’s say you can only afford to pay $200 per month for a payment, because after all – you’ve got other bills to pay every month. To get CLOSE to a payment like that, you’d have to finance the vehicle, at 4%, of course, for 144 months. Twelve years. Then you’d have a payment of $205.56. While it might sound better in the short term, because you’re spending $205.56 per month as opposed to $400, it’s really costing you more. By the time you pay that loan off, you’ll have paid $29,600. That’s $5,600 more than the $400 payment, and almost 50% of the initial purchase price of the car paid toward interest alone. Also, keeping your payment term length to a reasonable amount will help you when you inevitably decide to sell or trade your vehicle. A longer term will put you more underwater on your vehicle value, while taking a shorter term, or paying more than your minimum monthly payment (or both, for maximum effectiveness) will put you ahead of the depreciation curve and maximize the value you can get out of the car when it comes time to sell.
So there you have it, folks. These are just 10 used car shopping tips that will make your life easier AND save you money when you’re ready to upgrade your ride. What do you think? Did we miss any? Share your thoughts below!
Ray is a lifelong auto enthusiast. His father worked on the dealership side of the industry for many years, and his passion for fast, fun, and unique cars has been passed on. Particularly fond of American cars and trucks, Ray is an avid General Motors fan. When not writing, he can be found with his dogs, or at a local car show.
View all contributions by Ray Saez, Jr.