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The Car Coach: Tips for using car smarts when buying a used car

Written By | Oct 2, 2020
Used Cars, The Car Coach

If you are buying a used car, you’re not alone. Whether a private-party, website, app, and dealership sales, nearly 41 million used vehicles changed hands each year.  With so many choices, finding that one right car for you could be a challenge. Here are some steps to help you find and buy your perfect used car with Car Smarts and save money.

Prices are driven in part by where you’re shopping. Look inline at places like, CarMax, dealer websites, and private-party sellers like and

1: How Much Car Can You Afford?

The first rule of thumb: If you’re taking out a loan to pay for your car, your car payment should not be more than 20% of your take-home pay. If you’re sticking to a tight budget, you may want to spend even less. Used cars will need maintenance like new tires, maintenance, and fluid changes. And then there are the other ownership costs that are easy to forget to account for, such as fuel cost and insurance.

If the car you’re planning to buy is out of warranty, it might be a good idea to set aside a “just-in-case” fund to cover any unexpected repairs. Purchase an extended warranty protect against unexpected large expenses. According to a recent study by AAA, the average auto repair bill is between $500 and $600 — and 1 in 3 motorists can’t pay it without incurring debt. Check out from Car Warranty

2: Build a Target List of Used Vehicles

So if you’re looking to save money, consider more than one brand. Make a list of three cars that meet your needs and fall within your budget. Check out our car reviews to get a better insight into your choices. (point up)

If you’re planning to buy a vehicle that is less than 5 years old, a Certified Preowned (CPO) vehicle is a wise choice because there is a warranty that are backed by the carmaker, or you can purchase an extended warranty. Look for the dealerships that sells new vehicles of the same brand,  so if you wanted a CPO Nissan Altima, for example, you’d need to buy it from a Nissan dealer.

3: Check Prices

Prices are driven in part by where you’re shopping. Look inline at places like Car Gurus, CarMax, dealer websites and private-party sellers like eBay Motors and Bring A Trailer. Private-party sellers will typically have the lowest selling price, while CPO vehicles will typically cost more due to the warranty protection.

4: Check the Vehicle History Report

Its worth the money to get a CarFax or Auto Check report, but this will not always tell you the full story. If the car you’re looking at has a bad history report, its best to walk away.

These reports can reveal vital information about the car, including whether the odometer has been rolled back or if it has a salvage title, which means it has been declared a total loss by the insurance company. You’ll use the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) to get this information. Most major dealers offer these reports for free if they have the vehicle in their inventory.

5: Test-Drive the Vehicle

Test driving a used car is the best way to know if this is the right choice for you. It’s also a good way to assess the car’s condition. Here are some things to check:

Be aware of important factors like seating comfort and space for all rows, visibility – are there blind spots, car seat installation, and safety features like backup cameras, active cruise control; blind-spot detection, cross-traffic alerts, and more. These safety features will lower your insurance rates too.

Check out the tires. Is the tread wear even, or bold? This is a sign of other issues.

Are the brakes squeaking? Is the brake pedal spongy? These are signs of more issues

Open the hood, you don’t have to know a lot about cars to see if something looks wrong. If something is leaking, steaming or covered in oil, it’s time to ask questions.

Buying in the winter, does the air conditioning blow cold? Buying in the summer, does the heater work, including defrost.

Do headlights, brake lights and turn indicators work?

Read More from The Car Coach – Lauren Fix

After the test drive, ask the owner or dealer if you can see the service records. These will show you if the car has had the scheduled maintenance performed on time. If they do not have maintenance records, take it to a mechanic before making any offers!

6: Have the Car Inspected

Always have a used car checked with a prepurchase inspection. It will cost $100-$200 and can alert you to problems you may not find yourself.

Failing to do so could cost you thousands of dollars in repairs down the road. Don’t get caught out by buying a flood-damaged car or one with serious issues that have been masked.

A private-party seller will probably allow you to do this without much resistance. Most dealerships will let you borrow a car for an outside mechanic to inspect.

If it is a CPO car, there’s already been an inspection and the car has a warranty, so there is little reason to take it to an independent mechanic.

7: Negotiate a Good Deal

Negotiating doesn’t have to be a painful experience. If you are reasonable and have done your homework on pricing,  you can make a fair deal pretty quickly and easily:

Negotiating Tips:

Make an opening offer that is lower than your maximum price, but in the ballpark based on your average price paid research.

Explain that you’ve done your research and have facts to support your offer.

Remember that this is a business deal, not a flea market.

8: Get the Paperwork Done

Check with your insurance carrier before making your final decisions, that could be the difference between affording the vehicle and making your budget too tight. Get your insurance policy in place before driving away the vehicle.

Some people want the peace of mind that comes with extended warranties, so this is something you might want to consider unless the car is still under the manufacturer’s warranty or is a CPO vehicle. Do your research and check out places like

Don’t forget you are so responsible for sales tax and license fees.

If buying a car from an individual owner, make sure the seller properly transfers the title and registration to you. Get a signed bill if sales too.

Rules governing vehicle registration and licensing vary from state to state. If possible, check with your local department of motor vehicles to make sure there are no past-due registration fees you’d be responsible for should you buy the car.

Now you’re ready to show off your new ride. Enjoy the drive!!

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Prices are driven in part by where you’re shopping. Look inline at places like, CarMax, dealer websites, and private-party sellers like and

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Lauren Fix

Lauren Fix, The Car Coach®, is a nationally recognized automotive expert, analyst, author, and television host. A trusted car expert, Lauren provides an insider’s perspective on a wide range of automotive topics and aspects, energy, industry, consumer news and safety issues.