6 Things You Should Check Before Buying a Used Car, But Don’t

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Thinking about retiring your current wheels for a new-to-you vehicle?

Smart move. Buying a gently used car spares you the depreciation that befalls brand-new cars as they drive off the lot. You’ll save lots of money and can still get a quality vehicle that will last for many years.

But before you buy, there’s some work required on your part. That used car might look sleek, but you must do your homework to find out if it is actually dependable. Have you also considered the recurring costs associated with its purchase?

In the video below, Money Talks News finance expert Stacy Johnson offers a list of the most overlooked checks you need to make before purchasing a used car. Take a look, then meet me on the other side for additional tips.

1. Reviews and ratings

Have you ever bitten into an apple, only to be disappointed that it was brown and mushy to the core? The same principle applies to cars. It may be shiny and you can just picture yourself sitting in the driver’s seat cruising down the road. But after a few drives, you may realize it’s just not the right fit for you or that its performance disappoints.

Later on, you may find that the cost of repairs is prohibitive.

You can learn a lot about these issues before you even get behind the wheel. So, before you even go for a test drive, check reviews and other sources of information on the Internet.

First, simply do a search of “most complained about cars.” You’ll find an impressive amount of information from a variety of authoritative sources.

Now, do the same for “most reliable cars.” You’ll find articles about ratings by organizations like J.D. Power and Consumer Reports.

You may also want to search “complaints” and the make, model and year of a vehicle you’re considering. Forums can be very helpful. A co-worker of mine could have learned that the vehicle model and year she was buying was plagued by bad solders that caused serious problems with the vehicle.

Other sources:

2. Affordability

If the car is still in the running, the next step is to analyze the affordability. Take a moment to crunch a few numbers using an affordability calculator to determine if the monthly payment, assuming you are financing, is feasible.

Even if you’re paying cash, you’ll also want to take into consideration the cost of the taxes, tag, title and any other add-ons. They could easily add up to thousands of dollars, depending on the purchase price of the car and your state of residence.

Also, check out the depreciation trend. If the car has historically lost thousands of dollars in value year after year, the purchase may not make much sense.

Finally, is the asking price too much? Sites like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book can help with that.

3. Maintenance costs

Now for the kicker: maintenance costs. Yes, it is totally possible to avoid the dealership, but the cost of labor isn’t the only thing you should be concerned about. It’s the parts! So if you’re thinking about purchasing a high-end foreign model, be prepared to absorb high maintenance and repair expenses.

Once again, do an Internet search for “most expensive cars to repair” and “most expensive cars to own” and you’ll find plenty of results, including this one from Consumer Reports.

4. Insurance premiums

The next line of business is auto insurance. Some cars cost a lot more to insure than others. Our friends at Insure.com do an annual ranking of the most expensive and least expensive cars to insure, and allow you to search for the average insurance rate for a vehicle. Look for similar rankings from other sources as well.

You may be able to get a better deal when you’re actually shopping for insurance, but does the average insurance cost for the vehicle you’re looking at fit into your budget?

5. Recalls

If a car is often recalled for mechanical issues, that’s a red flag. Check out “What You Need to Know About Car Recalls” to find out about the recall history of the vehicle you’re interested in.

6. Suitability

Think outside the box on this one because you’ll more than likely be driving the vehicle for a long while. It may be tempting to purchase that sporty new two-door because the guy two houses down is offering it for an irresistible price. But if you have four kids in tow each day, the purchase just doesn’t make sense.

Do you have any additional suggestions? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Kent

    There are three things: Condition, Condition and Condition. Little else really matters and nothing matters more.

  • JKH

    Agree with Kent. Take it to YOUR mechanic and have a bumper to bumper safety inspection done. Leased vehicles are probably the worst. Most peoples thoughts: “My lease is 3 year, 36,000 miles and so is my warranty. So in my mind I don’t have to do anything.” and they don’t.

  • Zack

    This may seem a bit removed from the normal purchase of a used car, but as a Corvette owner for most of my adult life I can attest to making the decision to purchase a specialty car one of making the decision to purchase two cars. Rather than spend all of your allotted budget for that nice and relatively expensive specialty car consider buying an older or less expensive model and using the remainder of your budget to purchase an economical, reliable, low maintenance second car. Why is this an economical way to have your sports car? Consider that this will reduce the driving on the sports car and provide a sensible alternative to parking your pride and joy at the local super market. There are some other savings since the daily driver can significantly reduce the insurance cost for the sports model which can now be used for pleasure and enjoyment rather than as your to and from work vehicle. This savings can be significant if you have a garage where the sports model remains during your work day since some insurance companies provide much lower insurance rates if you use your car this way. You will also save a bundle on maintenance for your sports model which often requires very expensive high performance tires which have a very short expected tread life. My solution has been to spend approximately three quarters of my total budget for the specialty car and the remainder on the daily driver. In the long run it will provide a savings and probably a happier owner.

    • Nico Jones

      You have reasoned correctly. And it works for you, and is great. The point about those expensive tires and keeping car in garage is a well thought out idea. Unfortunately for many of us, we can’t have two cars. Just not have a garage or allowed parking is a problem. But it works for you.

  • NoCellPhones

    I have to say that the analogy of a used car potentially being a shiny apple with a mushy inside is a good one. I had this experience with two cars in the past. I LOVED the way the Chrysler Sebring looked. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to rent one for a week and learned that it was, in my opinion, a piece of junk. The interior of this car was falling apart, and it was less than a year old. I had the same experience with the Saturn. A friend owned a Saturn when they first came out, and I thought he was SO LUCKY. However, again, I had the opportunity to rent one, and it wasn’t all that I thought it was.

    For the two used car purchases I’ve made, I always have the vehicle inspected by an outside mechanic and I do use the ratings Consumer Reports provides to help with my decision. I also ran a Carfax report on my last purchase, which is my current vehicle.

    • Nico Jones

      You have a great idea ,should be one of the points one takes into account when purchasing a car. Rent the same model you want to buy and drive it for a couple of days. That way you can really judge the car without the pressure of the salesperson breathing down your neck. Even if it is a newer model, you can get a feel for the quality and ride of the vehicle.