How to Buy a Used Car

Summer is finally here! See the baby squirrel running from tree to tree. Watch the majestic flora as they turn from an ugly sludge brown to a brilliant green. Laugh as allergy sufferers cough, wheeze, and throw on their hazmat suits as they were fooled into thinking that spring was the only poor time to suffer from seasonal allergies. Aw, summer. For some, it’s a chance to relax. And for others, it’s a chance to finally start thinking about replacing that old clunker that’s been barely managing to get you back and forth from work.

But how does one go about buying a replacement vehicle in a world of uncertainty? More importantly, how does one avoid being taken to the cleaners by a sneaky salesman who resembles your shady uncle Chad? And even more importantly, how do you make sure that your new car isn’t cursed by an evil enchantress from the great beyond?

While I can’t help you with that last question (see our deleted section on Ouija boards that was banned by my wife), I can help provide some direction for your next car purchase to make sure that you end up with a spanking good deal on your new fully loaded dual suspension auto locking heated seat sporting time traveling motor vehicle!

Just follow the steps that have been detailed below:

Step One: New or Used?

First things first; you’ll want to aim for a used car. Why a used car? Why not a new car? Because while new cars are admittedly shiny and no one before you has taken it on a road trip with a band of traveling raccoons in its trunk, they’re generally a piss poor deal. Used cars have a much smaller percentage of depreciation over time, they can be very dependable, and in most states, you’ll pay less on your DMV registration costs. Additionally, used cars have a lot more wiggle room to haggle with when it comes time to talk numbers with the creatures they call salesmen.


The common response I’ve received from my position on this topic is, “but what about interest rates? If I got a 0% interest rate on my brand new car, shouldn’t that make up a big difference in price?” And the answer is yes and no. While you get sizable savings from the interest rate being a big fat zero, you also end up paying the full listed price for the car. In order to offer you that solid interest rate, the dealership has to make money somewhere else. That’s right – on the price tag. That means that in order to get the 0% interest rate, you’ll have to pay full price for your new baby. Sometimes that means you could get a lower price than you would normally with normal interest rates but that will only happen if the dealer allows it to.

Step Two: Define a Purpose

When you plan on stepping into a replacement for your old ride, you’ll need to first consider what the purpose of your new car will be. If your old car is being replaced because you no longer need the 100,000,000 lbs. of towing capacity to tow your grandma’s electric scooter from the 50’s, it might be time to think about what you need out of your new one that might be different. Do you need space? What about gas mileage? Do you always travel with a furry co-pilot that slightly resembles a miniature Wookie? These questions matter.

You’re looking to maximize your gains from your new purchase. After all, you’ll be spending a good amount of cash no matter what car you choose. And any car is without a doubt a depreciating asset. No matter what you think, your new(er) car will be losing value every minute that you own it. So we better make sure that it fits your life for the unknown future until it’s more expensive to fix than it is to replace.

The key questions to answer in this step are:

  • What kind of space do you need in your replacement vehicle? (SUV/large car/hatchback might be necessary)
  • Will your new vehicle be seeing lots of snow? (You might want 4-wheel drive)
  • Do you commute a long distance? (Gas mileage should be thought about)
  • Do you know how to do your own repairs? (If you don’t, you’ll want to see how expensive it is to repair the car you’re looking at. Hint: you don’t know how to repair a Nimbus 2000)
  • Do you have children/plan to have children? (You’ll need a big back seat and car seat hookups)
  • How old are you? (If you’re young and/or male, you’ll want to avoid sports cars. The insurance may be much higher and you’ll have to budget for that)
  • Can you drive a standard transmission? (If you can drive stick, you’ll get a great price cut on your replacement vehicle)
  • What will you be transporting? (Do you need a bed liner for your truck to protect it? Weatherproofed mats for your gear? Leather rather than cloth for easier cleanup of accidents caused by your children)

Step Three: Set Your Price Point

Depending on the kind of person you are, this can be the most difficult step when buying a new car but it can either make or break a household. Before you ever step up to the plate to start looking for your replacement vehicle, you need to set a price limit based on what you can actually afford. Emphasis is placed on what you can afford. Do not try to budget for Ace Ventura’s monster truck from When Nature Calls when you can only afford Mr. Bean’s pinto.

I repeat: set a reasonable price ceiling – the most you can afford to reasonably pay. And make sure to stay under this number. This is important because the second you step onto a car lot, a seller will always try to upsell you on something for “just a few more pesos”. No, senor! We don’t want the more expensive model! We want the ugly and yet sensible Prius! It’s roomy and it smells like old mayonnaise. And I love mayonnaise. And we also don’t need the Millennium Falcon because it’s too expensive and it lacks the necessary cup holders for my Slurpee addiction.

While it may only be “a few extra bucks a month” for the next model up or something bigger, your budget is your budget. If you set the maximum price before you go, you can be sure that as long as you stay strong-willed, you can stick to it and avoid the pains of additional interest on your larger loan. You earn extra points if you can save cash for your car and completely forgo having to take a loan out.

Step Four: Find Your Ride

Ask anyone who has ever looked for a used car before and they will tell you that the most painful part of the process is actually finding the car. Such a simple step can turn into an absolute nightmare because dealerships and private sellers can post near perfect pictures of vehicles online when in reality they’re actually their Matchbox replicas. Simply arrive in person and be amazed by how the door of the car is held together only by duct tape and the support of Facebook reposts and likes. Like, seriously?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do to better this step. The best you can do is use search engines from reputable sites to try to weed through the madness. Set your search criteria to be as specific as possible around your budget and needs and go from there. Good luck, soldier!

Step Five: Test Drive and Inspection

After narrowly dodging all of the poor representations of cars you’ve found online in step four, you seem to have finally arrived at a car that at least on the outside looks like a great deal. But how do you really know? If you’ve worked on cars or are knowledgeable on the subject, you’re way ahead. But if you’re not, you’re going to need a crash course (not literally. Don’t want to damage the goods). Here goes nothing:

How to inspect a used car before getting into it:

  • Walk around the car – look for dents, scratches, and rust (these can add up to a big repair bill). Also, try not to inspect a car that has just been washed/is wet. Water can hide key scratches and other blemishes.
  • Look at the wheels and tires – are the wheels round? Lopsided? Are the tires bald? Are the tires on each side of the car a matching set? Use a penny – place it inside the tread of the tire to see how much tread is left.
  • View the interior – look through the window. Are there rips on the seat cushions? Frays? Is the headliner hanging down? Dashboard falling apart? Buttons missing? Glove box won’t open (seriously… check this)?
  • Look under the car – get on your back and scoot! Can you see any visible damage? Scrapes like they’ve bottomed out and destroyed the undercarriage of the car? Is there a live opossum trying to hitch a ride on the frame rails?! Look at the ground underneath – is the car leaking oil onto the ground?
  • Look at the windshield: chips? Cracks?

How to inspect the car once you’ve gained access to the inside of the car:

  • Turn it on and see if there are any warning lights on: check engine light on? Low fluids? This could show poor maintenance.
  • Pop the hood: is it too clean? It should look its age. If it’s an old car, it shouldn’t be spotless – could show that something is being hidden.
  • Check the fluids (if you’re confident you know how) to ensure they’re the colors they should be and that there isn’t sludge, froth, or shavings inside.
  • While the car is running, check the exhaust – you shouldn’t see any blue smoke or white smoke when the gas pedal is pressed
  • While the car is running, see if the engine is shaking on its mounts – it should be stable and not shaking and it should basically be “purring” and not sputtering
  • Turn on the air conditioning and check the heating as well (nothing worse than becoming a puddle of sweat in the summer with no air-conditioning!)

How to test drive a used car:

  • Transmission test: quickly accelerate and see if it shifts smoothly and doesn’t slip – if you feel your foot go limp, the transmission is suffering and you’ll want to avoid it like Leia avoids Luke after she finds out he’s her brother.
  • Brake test: go a reasonable speed and attempt to hit the brakes hard – this will test the anti-lock brakes. You should feel the pedal stutter. On a slow stop, the car should stop straight.
  • Turn test: go into a parking lot and turn sharply to test the steering. The wheel should turn noiselessly and effortlessly.
  • Road test: if you can find a bumpy road, find one. Travel on it and listen for creeks and knocks. This could mean it has suspension issues. Also be on the lookout for creaks inside the car for loose parts.

Step Six: (Optional) Contact the Pros

If you’re fairly well versed around a car or if you’re confident about having gone through the entirety of step five correctly, you may find this step optional. If, however, you have virtually no wretch time, it’s almost a given that you’d want a professional mechanic to check over the vehicle before you decide to buy it. This should be an easy request from the owner of the vehicle and it shouldn’t be a surprise to them. If they get defensive about allowing it, you might be dealing with three penguins stacked on top of each other with a trench coat to hide their true identities. And if that’s the case, you should walk away.

Step Seven: Negotiations

You’re almost home free! You’ve found the car you like, it seems to work well, and the sellers aren’t arctic creatures trying to pull one over on you. It’s now time to make a deal! And if you’re not Donald Trump and/or you haven’t read his book on making deals, you might struggle with this part. But thankfully, I’ve done this a few times and I’ve got some pointers for you to use to slash your price in half like Darth Maul at the end of Star Wars Episode I (okay, maybe not in half… but at least a sizable discount).

First things first. Ask if there have been any accidents on the vehicle. If there have, ask for any information on it. If it’s a minor accident and the repairs were done right, you can use this as a chance to get a discount (if the repairs were minor and you’re still comfortable buying it). Next, ask if the car needs any work or point out any work that you saw in your inspection of the vehicle. If you saw a chip on the windshield that may warrant replacement, bring up that you’ll be looking to replace it and you want that taken off the price of the vehicle as you’ll be eating that expense. Or, note the wear on the tires – if they’re running a little lower, you can note the replacement cost for those. You get the idea. Be that really annoying customer that every customer service representative tells horror stories about to their friends after their shift.

Next, if you’ve got the means, ask if there is a discount if paid in cash. Financing can be really annoying for private sellers because they have to jump through extra hoops to sell their car. This step alone can knock some money off a private seller’s price. Dealerships, however, may not be so nice because they want the money they may receive from financing.

As an added bonus, if you run into a dealership that is refusing to break on their price, remember that you can try to add rather than subtract. On one of my vehicles, as a negotiation tactic, I asked the dealership to add lifetime carwashes, new window tinting, and a full detailing of the vehicle inside and out. Not a bad way to offset the price even further.

Finally, talk about comparable vehicles. If you’re at the dealership, you’re likely going to be in a room where they have a computer. Remember that you can ask them to run a search on that computer for the same year, make, and model to see how theirs stacks up against the competition. If there is a comparable vehicle out there for a lesser price, the dealer may wish to meet it to stay competitive. They won’t want you to walk out due to a price war if they can help it. 5% of something is better than 100% of nothing.

Step Eight: Enjoy Your New Ride

We’ve gone through a sizable series of steps but now you’ve finally made it to the last one (and the easiest one!). By now you’ve got your new set of wheels and you can finally book that appointment to get a sweet firebird airbrushed onto the side of it to pick up chicks (or dudes, or puppies, or your ride bumming friend who never chips in gas money – whatever you’re into!)! Not a bad deal at all.

We’re to the end of the article but I hope that you’ve found at least a few pieces of information useful to you. Remember that this isn’t a one-stop shop when it comes to the information you want to know about buying a used car. But it is a good pit stop. If you have questions or concerns about a potential buy, never hesitate to contact a professional for their opinion. Random guys on the internet can be great sources of information but sometimes you need more than that to come out ahead.

That being said, thank you for once again stopping by GBF. If you liked what you’ve read and you’d like it to continue, consider following us by email, or maybe on Facebook or one of the other many platforms listed on the right.


Until next time,


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