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Tips for Buying a Used Car

Many people buy used cars simply because they're less expensive and may still drive and feel like a new car. In addition, used cars do not depreciate as fast as new cars. That means if you want to sell or trade in the car, you'll be able to recover a greater portion of the purchase price. On the other hand, used cars come with their own histories and may have more mechanical issues than new cars. Read over the tips below so that you can make the best used car purchase possible.

Before You Start, Choose the Type of Car You Need

Just like buying a new car, buying a used car is a time-consuming and expensive process. You should first carefully consider your driving habits to determine the kind of car you need. Review your finances and calculate how much you can afford to spend on your car every month. You'll need to make loan payments, fill up the gas tank, pay insurance premiums, and keep up with repairs and maintenance. Consumer guides can give you an idea of each car model's strengths, cost of ownership, and probable resale values.

Once You Pick a Car, Learn its History

Any used car you choose should be mechanically sound. There are several ways to check a used car's condition:

  • Visual Inspection: Look for evidence of major repair work, past damage, or mechanical failure.
  • Test Drive: Go for a test drive that mimics how you would use the car. Listen for any odd sounds that could be symptomatic of mechanical defects. Make sure the car accelerates and brakes smoothly, and that it doesn't pull to either side.
  • Ask for the Repair History: Make sure the previous owner kept up with regular maintenance and that no major repairs were ever needed.
  • Mechanic's Inspection: If you're buying a car from an individual, ask to take it to a mechanic for inspection. If you're buying from a dealership, and the vehicle is Certified Pre-Owned (CPO), the dealership has probably already done a comprehensive cosmetic and mechanical inspection, making an independent evaluation unnecessary in many cases.
  • CarFax: While doing your visual inspection, note the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) so you can use it to look up the vehicle's history. A number of online services can show you ownership history, any accident reports, and other important information about the car. If you're shopping at a dealership, the sales representative may pull this report for you free of charge.
  • Use the "Used Car Rule": Dealerships that trade used cars need to follow the FTC's "Used Car Rule," and provide information about the vehicle, ownership history, and any applicable warranties.

Vehicle Issues

As a general rule, it is best to avoid issues before they happen. However, sometimes vehicle issues can slip past your initial inspections. For example, if you buy a car and you later learn it had serious structural issues, e.g., rusted frames, damaged components.

If the seller is unwilling to help, it is worth looking into relevant state and federal consumer protection, fraud, and lemon laws. Unfortunately, though, you may be responsible for the vehicle and its repairs immediately after you purchase it, unless you can prove the dealer knowingly misled you.

Additionally, vehicle dealers are often required to provide the relevant paperwork for a vehicle, like titles and warranty information. If the dealer does not provide you with these materials or is delayed in providing them, you may have grounds for legal action.

Negotiate the Best Deal Possible

Next, you need to be able to negotiate the price of your car. Dealerships often have a greater degree of flexibility when pricing a used car than when pricing a new car. The best thing you can do to help yourself in negotiations is to learn as much as you can about the dealership and the car. Check out the dealership's ratings and reviews online to make sure they generally deal fairly with their customers. Next, look up the value of the car you want to buy on sites like Kelly Blue Book, Edmunds, or the National Auto Dealers Association's buyers' guide.

If you're buying a used car from an individual, the car will most likely come "as-is." That means you'll be responsible for anything that happens after you purchase the car. Cars from a dealership, on the other hand, usually come with the basic implied warranties, as well as some explicit warranties.

For more information, see FindLaw's sections on Lemon Law Basics and Auto Dealer Fraud.

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