If you are like me, you are almost always thinking about another car. Usually you have some idea what you want, but wait! With some patience you can find the perfect used car, and get a good deal on it too.
First, figure out what cars are on your list. I primarily use Edmunds for this. Not only are all the detailed specs (horsepower, options, etc…) there, but I also find the user reviews the most valuable. You’ll get an idea by reading through these about the problems the model typically has. Lots of comments about Transmission failure is a bad sign, lots of complaints about cup holders is a good sign.
Next, figure out the price range that is appropriate to pay for this car given the amount of mileage you are willing to put up with. Some people put a lot of stock in mileage (OMG it has over 100,000 it’s going to blow up!). I can tell you from years of experience, mileage is not that important of a factor. A well maintained 100,000 mile car is better then a 40,000 mile car that has been poorly maintained and roughly driven. You can use Edmunds, as well as KBB to figure out a price range, or you can monitor the prices on AUsedCar.com and CraigsList.
It’s important to become familiar with trim levels. Some makes, like Honda offer “Trim Levels” that are all inclusive of options, so you know that any Civic EX will have certain features, while other makes like Cadillac or BMW option literally every component (although there are typically “packages” that have sets of options). You’ll want to learn the options that are available and check for these. I always buy the HIGHEST level package possible. Usually there is a small price difference when buying, but it helps you sell it later a great deal. If options are individual, look for the most popular options like leather seats and sunroof. Be sure before visiting a car that you ask if it has the options you desire.
You can now start searching with confidence. This process usually takes me 3-4 months!!! Yes, it helps to be patient and particular to find the best deals. I setup an alert on Used Cars On-Line, and scan craigslist daily.
Now it’s time to start checking out cars. Don’t let cleanliness be a primary factor. When selling a car we talked about how having a clean car converts to a quicker sale. Don’t be that guy on the buying end. A dirty car can often be a good deal, and conversely it’s easy to make a lemon pretty clean. Always test drive a car at all speeds, stop and go, highway speed etc… Be sure to make the transmission go through all gears, test the brakes etc… Examine the frame of the car, any bends are bad. Look closely at the paint, are some spots a little different in gloss or color? Not all cars that have been in accidents are terrible to own, but unless you are looking for a rare car, why bother with the risk of buying one that has?
When it’s time to make an offer, always start low. I personally hate when people come to buy my cars with a wad of cash that is half my asking price, but I can only assume this tactic works sometimes, so why not try it? Perhaps there are some reasons you can use to justify your price (are the tires getting bald? Are the power windows slow to go up?), make sure you price in any near term repairs you’ll need to do.