Buying a used car can be a daunting experience but it is something that almost all college students will have to go through. Say “used car salesman” and most people instantly picture a middle-aged overweight man with greasy slicked back hair and a cheap gold watch trying to pressure you into buying a car that is obviously a piece of junk. With a little knowledge and preparation, finding a good, reliable and even fun used car can be very easy.
The first step is to determine your price range and what features are most important to you. Be realistic; don’t expect to get stability control, six airbags and an 11-speaker stereo system for $4,000. Also, try to determine how much you are willing to spend on maintenance. The more you’re willing to spend the nicer the car you will be able to afford. A quick online search shows that for $6,000 one can buy a 1995 BMW 740iL which originally sold for over $60,000 or a 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer which had an original sticker price of only $14,000. The BMW is over twice as old and has 120,000 miles while the Lancer is only a few years old and has 50,000 miles. The most important difference is expected maintenance costs. This can be difficult to calculate but car research websites such as Edmunds.com have a great deal of useful information. In this case the BMW will likely require around $1,000 of maintenance per year while the Lancer no more the a few hundred. These figures are probably overestimated but you need to be prepared to avoid being left with no wheels at all. As a general rule three things increase expected maintenance costs: higher miles, age and high initial sticker prices. A car that was $60,000 new will have the maintenance costs of a car of that value whether it is worth $50,000 or $500 down the road.
With a price range and desired features chosen it is time to start looking for a car. Websites such as Cars.com and Autotrader.com should be your first stop. They allow you to specify a search range and price. If you don’t have a particular make or model in mind it’s no problem because the sites also allow you to choose specifics such as transmission, body style, color and certain other options which will narrow your search. The first search will give you an idea of what kinds of cars you can afford. It will almost certainly be extremely broad and include everything from late model economy cars to older high mile luxury machines. Car research sites such as Edmunds.com and make-specific forums are great places to research possible models. Internet search engines work well to find automobile forums.
Now that you have a few makes and models in mind it’s time to start test-driving cars. Used car lots are the best place to get a feel for the different cars you are considering. Unlike private parties you can simply show up on the lot and take the car for a test drive. Furthermore, the dealer may have a large inventory allowing you to test drive multiple cars without driving all over the state. While you’re driving the car, pay attention. Listen for strange noises. Watch for smoke from the exhaust. Observe the condition of the paint. Overall, a good used car should drive well; it shouldn’t wander or feel unsafe to drive. If it does, walk away.
Upon finding a car you like, it is time to dig a little deeper. I recommend getting the car inspected by a licensed mechanic, preferably one who specializes in the specific make. One hundred dollars now can save money and inconvenience later. Some dealers will balk at the prospect of a pre-purchase inspection, unless the car is in extremely good condition, walk away; it’s not worth the possible problems they may be covering up. You should also try to determine the car’s history. The easiest way to do this is to use Carfax.com. It’s pretty cheap and can help you avoid problem cars. Many dealers offer this service for free so make sure to check first. If buying from a private party, ask the owner why he is selling the car and how long he has owned it, and ask to see any maintenance receipts.
If the car receives a clean bill of health it’s now time to negotiate a price. The major car value guides are the best place to look to find the car’s actual value. Luckily, both Kelly’s Blue Book and the National Automobile Dealers Association offer free online access to their value figures. It is best to get values from both because they often differ somewhat. These prices will help in the negotiation process and prevent you from paying too much. On the other side of the spectrum an asking price well below the fair market value is a sign to look even closer at the car in question. I will not get into the actual negotiation as many pieces have been written on the subject.
Hopefully reading this will help you find the car you want at a price you can afford. Happy hunting.