Used cars. It seems advertisements for them are everywhere: the Internet, the television, and even in the windows of cars parked on the street. With the cost of new cars increasing, and the need for financing rising with it, sometimes buying used is the only option.
For some, depreciation is the key issue that pushes them toward a used vehicle. After all, new cars lose a high percentage of their value just by leaving the dealer's lot. For others, the decision is strictly budget-related: used cars are less expensive to purchase, and often to run, as they come with smaller insurance and registration fees, as well as lower taxes. The flip-side of this, however, is that used cars may need brake work, or replacement mufflers and batteries, and are more likely to require major repairs.
Another consideration when choosing a used vehicle is who will be driving it. Used cars are often wiser choices for high-risk drivers, i.e. the very old (senior citizens), and the very young (newly licensed teenagers), who are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents.
Whether the decision to purchase a used vehicle is based on lifestyle, budget, or a combination of the two, there are two main choices in where to buy one. Private sales, either through various websites (including eBay), the classified section of the local paper, or one of those "For Sale" placards in the rear window, have always been a main source of used cars. Car dealers, too, have always sold "previously owned" vehicles, though recent trends have changed the way such cars are advertised to the public.
When buying from a private seller, one advantage is the lack of sales pressure. In these sales the buyer has the most control. However, private sellers may not have the same documentation as a dealership must have, and are unlikely to offer financing or any kind of guarantee.
Dealers, on the other hand, usually offer "certified pre-owned" vehicles, that have been tested bumper-to-bumper, and brought back to factory standards. As well, they offer financing options, and sometimes have some kind of warranty. Also, dealers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to post a Buyers Guide sticker in every used car they sell. This sticker lists specific details about the vehicle, including the VIN#, make and model, and specifies if the car is being sold "As Is" or not.
Once the decision has been made on where to buy a used car, there are a few important things you should know before you buy.
First, research, research, research.
Use resources like the Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds.com, as well as car reviews (such as those here at CarSeek.com) to learn the fair market value and technical specifications of the car you want. Also, consider ordering a report from CarFax.com, which traces the title and history of the car. This is especially important when buying from a private seller.
Ask a lot of questions.
Find out if the dealer/seller was the original owner, and if not, who was. Ask for the maintenance history and repair records, if there are any, and find out if the vehicle has ever been in an accident. If you're buying from a dealership, ask if there's a warranty. (A tip: if you are told there's a warranty, and the Buyer's Guide sticker says "As Is", then unless there is remaining time on the original warranty, you do NOT have one. The sticker supercedes anything else.)
Inspect the car.
Whether you're buying from a dealer or an individual, make sure you see the car in the daylight. If you have a trusted mechanic, bring him or her with you. If not, make sure you test the levels of fluids, the cleanliness of the engine, and the ground underneath the car (for evidence of leaking.) Take as long a test drive as you can, and drive with the radio both on, and off. Check the undercarriage both before and after your test drive, and let the car idle so you can check out the exhaust.
Trust your instincts.
If a seller refuses to let you test drive a vehicle, leave immediately. Take your time, and trust your own judgment. You should never sign anything if you feel pressured or uncertain, because once you sign, there are no returns. If you feel at all uncomfortable, about the vehicle, or about the deal, don't be afraid to walk away. The beauty of shopping for used cars is that there are always similar models available for similar prices.
Read all the fine print.
Whether you're buying from the guy down the block, or going to a reliable dealership, read the fine print. Most states do not have lemon laws requiring the buy-back of bad vehicles, and in those that do, such laws are generally only applicable to the sales of new cars. If you're buying from an individual, make sure you drive the car home, and that you don't leave without the title, keys, any spare parts and records, and the owner's manual. If you're buying from a dealer, make sure you understand exactly what repairs or defects are the dealer's responsibility, if any.
Horror stories about buying used cars abound, but the truth is that you can avoid all the perils and pitfalls of such transactions by knowing what you want, and being an informed buyer, but if you're not ready to buy a pre-owned vehicle just yet, consider that knowing how to buy may make you a better seller, when your new car isn't so new any more.