by Andrew Rohrlich

Are you in the market for a used car but need guidance on navigating the process? If so, you've come to the right place. This article can help steer you in the right direction if you need advice on how to choose a used car.

How To Find the Right Used Car for You

Searching for the right used vehicle does not have to be stressful. In fact, buying a used car can be an exciting experience if you arm yourself with the proper preparations. Plan ahead by creating a budget, researching dependable websites, and weighing your options regarding offers and available vehicles.

Plan a Budget

Preparing a budget is a crucial first step in buying a used car. When evaluating your target amount for a loan, remember to factor in more than just the cost of the vehicle. Along with a used car come expenses like insurance, registration, car maintenance, and unexpected repairs.  

Setting a maximum price before you start shopping around is critical to determining how much money you're willing to spend on a used car. But just as important is your minimum price. Setting both the maximum and minimum prices will give you a comfortable price range. This price range will play a significant role in your search for a vehicle while giving you wiggle room during negotiations.

Search Online on Reliable Private Party and Used Car Sites

The internet has opened up a new world of commerce, making searching for a used car more accessible than ever.  

Websites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace list cars for sale by private parties. These sites are great places to research used vehicles from the comfort of your home. Note that, while most private sellers have the best intentions, it's wise to do some research to confirm the legitimacy of any online offer.

To make the online car-buying process even easier, you can use the filters provided by all the sites listed above to narrow your search results by price range, vehicle type, make, model, or year of your desired vehicle.

Compare Offers

Although it can be tempting, you should avoid jumping at the first appealing offer when searching for a used car. Instead, gather a few offers and do some number crunching to compare them.

Aside from the price of the vehicles, it's vital to analyze the various features that matter to you. Year, make, model, color, and seating room are just some of the options you can choose from. Many online services can help with the comparison process. Websites like Edmunds and Autobytel perform side-by-side comparisons, allowing you to weigh your options with the criteria that are important to you.

Choose Your Preferred Car

By now, you've created a workable budget, conducted a thorough search of online retailers and private seller websites, and compared the vehicle options available. What's the next step in how to choose a used car? Armed with this information, you can now select the vehicle you wish to purchase.

If, after all your research, you can't choose just one used car to look for, that's OK. But you want to keep your search results manageable by having as short a list as possible. If you need help keeping it short, include more criteria until you can whittle it down to just a few.

Tips To Help You Narrow Down Your Used Car Options

Once you've gathered your used car options, it's time to narrow down your choices. Because you want the biggest bang for your buck, you need to make sure that the vehicle is right for you with a test drive, history report, warranty confirmation, and personal and professional inspections.

Inspect the Car

Even if you don't have experience in auto mechanics, you can still conduct a preliminary inspection of the vehicle with a few simple checks. If anything you review needs replacement or repair, you must factor that into your budget and negotiations.

First, check out the car's exterior. Does the body have any dents or dings? Do all the panels have the same paint color? Is there any visible rust or discoloration? Open and shut all the doors, trunk, and hood to ensure they are tight on their hinges. Check out the glass, especially the windshield. Any cracks or chips can quickly get worse and lead to costly repairs down the line. Look at the tires' treads and confirm that all lights work.

When checking the interior, make a note of how the vehicle smells. If the previous driver was a smoker or if there was a water leak, you can detect that easily with a sniff test. Sit in all the seats and adjust them in various ways to ensure they are comfortable and work correctly. Make sure the upholstery is intact with no rips or tears.

Take a Test Drive

While you will likely not run into any safety concerns when you meet a seller to conduct a test drive, meeting in a neutral location is always a good idea.

Before you take the car for a spin, put the key in the ignition and assess how it turns over. Does it struggle to start, or does it turn on with ease? Operate the power windows and sunroof, test the heat and air conditioning, and flip on the windshield wipers. Turn various switches on and then off to make sure everything works.

When you're ready to start your test drive, make sure no warning lights appear on the dashboard. Sometimes these warnings can be delayed, so be aware of those warning lights while driving. Feel the brake pedal when you slow down or stop. Be mindful of vibrating or squeaking or if the pedal goes down to the floor when depressed, as these could indicate a compromised braking system.

Use all your senses when driving: Smell for any odors like smoke, gas, or burning oil; feel the steering wheel for any pulling or pulsing; listen for grinding or whistling; keep your eye out for anything out of the ordinary.

Check Vehicle History Report and Important Documents

The vehicle history report will provide vital data regarding the car's past that may impact its valuation. While most private parties are honest and upfront about an automobile's history, they may not be aware of some essential items, especially if they are not the original owners.

If the vehicle history report states that the car has been in any recorded accidents, it could have undergone substantial repairs. Major structural damage could significantly impact an automobile's operation, insurance rates, and resell value. Further, it's unfortunate but true that some mechanics cut corners when making repairs and using parts.

The vehicle's history of ownership is another crucial component of its report. A car with many owners could indicate an ongoing issue that makes it more trouble than it's worth. You also want to confirm that the individual who states they are the owner is in fact the owner. It's not unheard of for someone to put a stolen vehicle up for sale. Not only will purchasing a stolen car put you at risk for legal issues, but it also could mean that the car is missing parts or compromised in some other way.

An automobile's odometer readings could indicate that the vehicle has a higher mileage than stated on its for-sale listing. If the history report's mileage is higher than what the vehicle's odometer reads, chances are it has been rolled back at some point.  

Get a Mechanical Inspection

It's crucial to get a trusted professional to take a look at any used vehicle before purchasing. A reputable mechanic can inform you of any issues not revealed in the vehicle's history report.

Ideally, you would take the car to a familiar mechanic you know and trust. But if they're not knowledgeable about the make or model of the vehicle, you should ask them to refer you elsewhere.

The good news is most automobile repair shops are experienced in pre-purchase inspections and have checklists on what information is important to potential buyers.

Verify Warranty Coverages

One step many need help with when researching how to choose a used car is checking the vehicle's warranty coverages. Some buyers might assume that since they are not the original owners, any warranty would be expired or invalid. But this is not always the case.

To check a used car's warranty information, record the vehicle identification number (VIN). An automobile's VIN is typically recorded on a sticker under the hood or behind the driver-side door. Since most warranty coverage expires after a vehicle reaches a certain number of miles, write down the odometer reading as well. After you have these numbers, call the original dealership and ask if the car is still under warranty or ask if an extended warranty is an option.

Negotiate To Get the Best Deal

When you've done your homework on how to choose a used car, negotiating a price is just a numbers game. The extensive work you've put into verifying the vehicle's history, obtaining a professional inspection, and taking it for a test drive will give you the data you need to get the best deal. You can leverage any issues you've uncovered to negotiate a lower price.  

When making an offer, refer to your target price range and start at the lower end. The seller might be motivated enough to agree on your initial price. There will likely be some bargaining back and forth — most of the time, buyers and sellers meet somewhere in the middle.

Leverage Caramel Checkout for a Seamless Buying Experience

This article was written by Andrew Rohrlich. As a brand and product marketing expert, Andrew Rohrlich has crafted products, experiences and communications for household names like Gap and for multiple automotive technology businesses. For nearly a decade Andrew has studied automotive retail in depth from a customer point of view and aggregated the industry’s best research, thought leadership and know how to provide credible and important information to auto shoppers and sellers.

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