6 Things You Should Check Before Buying a Used Car

Searching for a used vehicle? Before you even take a test drive, do a little homework. It may save you time, money and a lot of heartache later.


Thinking about retiring your current wheels? If so, it might be wise to skip a brand-new model and instead purchase a new-to-you vehicle.

Buying a gently used car spares you the depreciation that befalls a new car as soon as you drive it off the lot. You’ll save a lot of money while still getting a quality vehicle that will last for years.

But before you buy, there’s some homework required. That used car might look sleek, but you must find out if it is actually dependable.

Here are some tips for doing research before you go car-shopping.

1. Check 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 look shiny, but after a few drives, you may realize it’s just not the right fit for you. Or, it may disappoint in performance. Perhaps worst of all, you may find it is expensive to repair.

Before you 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 such as 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.

Other sources:

2. Analyze for affordability

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

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 model’s 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.com and Kelley Blue Book can help with that.

3. Consider maintenance costs

Now for the kicker: maintenance costs. The cost of labor isn’t the only thing you should be concerned about — find out how much replacement parts cost. 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.

4. Compare 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 it’s still smart to find out if the average insurance cost for the vehicle you’re looking at fits into your budget.

5. Check for 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 in which you are interested.

6. Think about suitability

Think hard about this one because you’ll probably drive 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 our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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Comments

  • 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.

    • ModernMode

      What’s the point of owning a sportscar if you hardly ever drive it. What you describe is more of a museum piece.

      • Zack

        I drive the sports car as many miles or more than the daily driver. I use it for trips, vacations, club events, and anytime I want to take a fun drive to the mountains. It is not considered a daily driver by the insurance company since it is not regularly driven to work or the local shopping center. It is not a museum piece that is protected to prevent driving in the rain or collecting a few bugs and has been driven in the snow on a few occasions. I do try to protect it from the shopping carts and careless drivers at the local Walmart. The daily driver is used primarily to “run” to the store, shopping center and to the hardware store. The classification and the enclosed garage save a lot on the cost of insurance…the cost of insurance for my four Corvettes is less than $1200 per year. I believe that Zora-Duntov was correct when he said that he designed these cars to be driven and not trailered around as show pieces.

  • 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.

  • Michael Smiley Gawthrop

    One that wasn’t mentioned, but should be, always check the title before you hand over any money. I had a friend who did everything right, or so she thought, she had a mechanic check it out, she read reviews about that type of car, all that fun stuff… went to register it and found out that the title was in the name of someone who had passed away a few months prior and the person who sold it to her didn’t have the authority to do so under the rules of the trust that was set up in their will and it turned out to be cheaper to just abandon the car than to jump through all the legal hoops it would take to be able to register it.

  • Dana OBryan Eastham

    If Im buying from a dealership, I ask for contact information for the previous owner. I did this for the last car I bought. I spoke to the owner to find out why they sold their car that was only two years old. It turns out they were expecting a child and needed a roomier car.

  • ladybird222

    I was the 2nd owner of my 2005 Jeep Gr.Cherokee Ltd. which was still under warranty. A few little adjustments (gas guage) & ? were covered. 1). Consumer Reports ranks this vehicle l-o-w; well, it has taken me to 219,000miles, so far. 2). Depreciation was slow but now has probably reached the max 3). My small town is not equipped to svc. fancy foreign models, although some sweet deals have passed my way. Handy maintenance = reasonable pricing. 4).? 5). Bought a recall once but salesperson revealed that corrections had been made. It was never a problem (Lincoln LS). Oh, the Jeep is on the “recall” list, too, for compensation on some ignition problem. Not mine; seems that too many keys on the keyring weigh into the ignition slot and may be the culprit. (My housekeys are separate). Happy Hunting in the New Year!

  • bigpinch

    The used car market is so robust, these days, that late-model, low-mileage vehicles are selling close to what they cost brand new. So, some new automobiles aren’t as subject to the steep depreciation after they’re driven off the lot as they were in the past.
    A few months ago, I went shopping for a good used car and almost bought a 2014 Ford Escape until I found out that I could get a brand new one for only $2000 more. Factory and dealership incentives plus a generous trade-in allowance on my 100,000 mile 2004 Chrysler made it happen. The time of year you buy a car can make an appreciable price difference.
    Something I found out, when I was researching the 2014, is that if a dealer sells you a car that is still under factory warranty, the dealer is not obliged to tell you about any problems the car may have that are covered by that warranty. I was going to buy the 2014 because of its low miles, it still had some warranty remaining, looked good, drove great, and had low miles. But you should never, ever buy a used car without an inspection by a third-party mechanic that you pay for.
    Another important thing to know about factory warranties is that the clock starts running the day that the car rolls off the assembly line. So, if your 2014 car was built in August of 2013, your 3-year factory warranty expires in August of 2016, not in January of 2017.

  • WonderWoman1958

    With all the floods we’ve had, how do I protect against buying a car that has water damage?

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