For years, I followed my family’s philosophy of car buying: after a great deal of research, we would find and buy the best new car for the available money and then drive it for at least a decade or longer. For my family, the idea of purchasing a used car left too many variables to chance.
But of course, the always-buy-new philosophy doesn’t work if your car is totaled — like mine was — when you have no new car fund already built up. Having my paid-for car totaled was my first introduction to used-car buying, and it helped me realize that the variables my family was concerned about are not nearly as overwhelming as I thought.
If you’ve never bought a used car for fear of getting suckered into buying a lemon, here is what you need to know for your first used car purchase:
1. Do your research. Even though I was a big believer in researching new cars, it never occurred to me that I could do similar research for used cars. I had assumed that once a car was used, what Consumer Reports and other unbiased sources had to say about it didn’t matter, because the way it was treated by its previous owner(s) trumped the car’s reliability.
Of course, that was incorrect. Research into used cars can tell you which cars eat parts and which ones reliably chug along for years. While you will have to take into account how any particular car has been treated, knowing which makes, models, and years you are interested in can help steer you to the cars that are going to keep you on the road for years to come.
2. Enlist help. There are many websites out there that tell you what you need to look for, in addition to kicking the tires, when shopping for a used car. However, if you are not mechanically inclined, this information is not exactly helpful. So, it’s a good idea to call in an expert — either the family “car guy” (which in my case is my automotive engineer husband), or a trusted mechanic. Whether you are a making a private party purchase or visiting a used car lot, you should be able to take the car to your mechanic for a once-over. If the seller refuses, move on.
3. Know what can’t be fixed. Stephen Lang on the website thetruthaboutcars.com talks about the four ways that car owners can destroy their cars:
- Neglect, such as allowing tires to go bald or oil to remain perpetually unchanged.
- Abuse, such as frame damage and slipping transmissions.
- Rust, which many car lovers describe as car cancer.
- What Lang describes as Crap. This includes things such as unnecessary modifications like lights and stereos that overburden the electrical system, cheap after market parts and additives, as well as the piling up of trash in a car.
When you run into any of these four issues on a used car, recognize that you are going to have to spend money to fix the problem, and it may have long lasting consequences on the health of the car. In general, it’s better to move on to a car that is free of any of these issues.
The Bottom Line
Buying a used car does not need to be a stressful situation. Arm yourself with research and always be willing to walk away from any particular car, and you will find a ride that takes great care of you.
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