10 Tips for Used Car Shopping

by Ashley Naugle; Updated September 15, 2017

Used car shopping can be a tricky process, but there are several things you can do to make the experience easier. Whether you're looking to buy a car immediately, or just starting your search, these 10 tips will help you get the most for your money and find the car that works for your budget.

Identify Your Dream Car

Create a list of cars that you are potentially interested in buying. What cars do you admire on the road? Do you like any of your friends' cars? If so, ask them what they like and dislike about their vehicles. Be sure to look at the year, model and make of the cars you like. Don’t forget to think about what you and your family needs -- two, four or six seats. You'll also need to consider your gas mileage. Fortunately there are many used hybrids on the market.

Related: Compare car prices and features with the Car Factor app for your smartphone

young african woman showing her new car key

Calculate What You Can Afford

Before buying a car it is important to sit down and figure out what you can afford. With high gas prices, you must factor in the miles per gallon (MPG) for the cars on your list in relation to how much you'll be driving. If you plan to finance the car, look into payment plans that will fit your budget. Calculate the cost of the car, interest rate and gas for each month before making a final decision. This is also the time to figure out if you want to own or lease a car.

Related: Should you buy or lease your next car?

Home finance

Do Your Research

Once you've nailed down your price range and a few car models you want to buy, research potential problems the cars could have and the current market price. Check the Kelley Blue Book price and visit a few auto retailer websites to find the fair price for the car you wish to purchase. Remember, older models are cheaper, but they will also require more maintenance.

Related: Check the market value for vehicles in the Kelley Blue Book

Couple with baby girl (6-9 months), by laptop, laughing

Shop Around at Private & Public Sellers

Although many dealerships also sell used cars, there are many other resources you can use when purchasing a pre-owned car. If you want to buy from a private seller Craigslist.org and AutoTrader.com are helpful when you're looking for a deal. Other places like Carmax have a variety of cars and some helpful reports. Sites like Edmunds.com can help you find car dealers near you with the make and models you seek.

Related: Visit Edmunds.com to find dealerships near you

Salesperson showing vehicle to potential customer

Stay Focused at the Lot

Researching used cars online is easy, but you can get distracted at the lot when you see all of your options in front of you. While that cool convertible may be an amazing deal, if it isn't practical for your lifestyle or price range, you should stick to the plan. If you're shopping at a dealership you'll also have to keep the dealer focused. Don't let him or her try to entice you beyond what you requested, there are many car lots out there, you don't have to shop in a high pressure sales environment.

Related: Avoid haggling over a price with this tool by AAA

Wide high angle of a couple in a car lot shopping for a new car

Inspect Carefully & Test Drive

When you're car shopping, inspect the car carefully. Thoroughly examine the exterior and interior of the vehicle. When speaking with a seller, ask detailed questions like: “Why are you selling the car?” “Have you ever been in an accident?” and “Have you ever experienced problems with the car?” If you're at a dealership ask about the car history and any flaws you see. If you find a car you like, take it for a test drive with the windows up and the radio off to listen for odd noises or squeaking. Test all features before you're done.

Related: Print out this handy test drive checklist by ConsumerReports.org

Automobile industry

Ask for a History and Safety Report

After you test drive the car, whether you're shopping from a public or private seller -- be sure to ask for a history and safety report. If the seller does not have access to these, do not purchase the car.

Related: Check a car's history by visiting sites like instaVIN.com

Men looking at clipboard in front of car with open bonnet

Go to a Mechanic for Checkup

Ask the seller if they are willing to let you have a mechanic of your choice (one that you trust), check out the car and find any potential problems. If the seller refuses – do not purchase the car. Most car dealerships have mechanics on staff and they provide guarantees on their automotive work. Be sure to get a one-year warranty if you purchase your used car from a dealership.

Related: Check the safety and reliability ratings for cars on CARFAX

Mechanic fixing car

Negotiate Your Price & Financing Plan

After finding a car in your price range, looking at both public and private sellers, inspecting the car, taking some test drives, reviewing a history and safety report, and talking to your mechanic -- it is the time to negotiate a purchase price on the car. Never simply agree to the asking price, there is always a deal to be made. Be prepared by bringing your research and being assertive about how much you want to pay. Many auto websites recommend finding financing before you negotiate a price that way, you do not have to deal with unexpected interest rates from dealers.

Related: Follow these strategies to achieve a more fair price on a used car

car agent talking with customer

Go Home Happy

After negotiating a price that satisfies both you and the seller, you'll get to go home with a nice, budget-friendly car. If you buy from a dealership, make sure you have the contact info of the salesperson in case you run into any problems. Double check the vehicle's registration -- you want it to transfer successfully. If you have any questions about your car regarding registration or license plates, contact your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Men and woman bying a car

About the Author

Ashley Naugle is completing her Bachelor of Arts in communication studies at Loyola Marymount University. Based in Los Angeles, she has worked with Fox Sports Net and On Board Experiential Marketing.