If you are shopping around for used cars, you are probably wondering what steps you can take to make sure that you get the best deal possible. There are a few strategies you can use to get yourself prepared, but just like when you were in school, homework is probably the most important thing you can do to prepare for buying a pre-owned vehicle.
Your first stop should be to your state’s consumer protection office. Your rights as a buyer vary by state, but you should be at least able to get some helpful tips and links from their website. You should also inform yourself about what the market is like for the make or model you have your eye on. The National Automobile Dealer Association publishes a used vehicle guide, and the Kelley Blue Book remains a standard for many buyers. Both publications can usually be found at public libraries. While you are at it, the Center for Auto Safety is a good source of information on safety defects, recalls, and service bulletins. If the make and model you are looking at has had parts recalled, make sure you ask the dealer whether that car in particular has been outfitted with the replacement parts.
When you visit the dealership, make sure you get the vehicle identification numbers (VIN). This piece of information is vital to your research. With it, you can make use of online databases for more information as to the vehicle’s history. National Motor Vehicle Title Information System has several approved providers who can perform a title search for you. Examine it carefully — notations that say “salvage” or “rebuilt” should send up red flags, as should any mention of the automobile being in a flood.
If the car passes muster up until this point, the last stage in the process is to have it inspected by a qualified mechanic. He or she will be able to give you a third-party opinion on the state of the vehicle. Areas he or she should pay special attention to are the frame and undercarriage, as well as engine, transmission, tires, brakes, and safety features. Naturally, the mechanic will not do this for free, so you and the seller should agree on payment terms in advance. As a general rule, if the vehicle passes inspection, the buyer should pay for the mechanic’s time, or include the cost with the selling price; if it needs significant work, the seller should pay.
Shopping around for used cars doesn’t have to be a stressful, hassling experience. By doing research before you step on the lot, and by asking pertinent questions once you get there, you can have the confidence that comes from knowing that you are an informed consumer. Both you and the seller can walk away satisfied with a mutually beneficial business transaction.