Buying a Used Car for the First Time

by Emily Guy Birken · 15 comments

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 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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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Randy says:

    In my opinion, a lot of used cars can be more trouble than they’re worth. My old car was giving me so many problems, I eventually decided I could save money by selling it and starting fresh. scrap vehicle price

  • Adolfo Ammons says:

    Buying a used car for the first time is a good deal but the point is to know what you want and search in the right direction. When I bought my first used car a 2005 model in a marvelous condition I did a fair bit of research at many sites trying to find one in a good condition and at a reasonable price. Finally I found what I was looking for at autopartsfair website.They helped me to select the car and also at an economical cost with a warranty.

  • JC says:

    Piling up of trash in the car cannot be fixed? Allow me to introduce you to my friend. He’s a large, black plastic bag and with a very little help from you, he can fix that previously insurmountable problem.

  • Krystyna says:

    No one in my family has ever owned a new car. For the most part we bought our cars at marshall’s auctions and paid between $500-1,000 for each of them. Some needed a little work and a little cosmetic help but guess what? No car payments! We needed something to get us from point A to point B and that’s what we got.

    • Kiwikid says:

      And that’s what people should always remember. A vehicle is a device to get from point A to point B, hopefully in relative comfort. Having all the bells and whistles doesn’t make the car any better, and in fact could cost you serious money for the bells and whistles themselves and the fuel that they gobble up because of their energy demands. Air cons for example. OK, in some areas these are a necessity. Others not at all. Pumping stereos pushing out sound at 110 decibels? Dangerous in that it’ll damage your hearing, chews up petrol/gasoline for the electrics and obliviates road noise/vehicle noise so that you become unaware of dangers or potential dangers.

  • Bert says:

    My uncle was once a car dealer, and would tell us that the second a new vehicle hits the street, it loses over a third of the book value. If one plans to drive the car for years, perhaps this is a prudent way to go. If not, take your time until the right used bargains shows up.

    • Kiwikid says:

      My parents used to tell me that too. However I noticed that a lot of second hand cars are priced quite high and asked a few people who I knew and had sold their new car withing 18 months back to a dealer. Average loss was about 17%. Worst case was 22% and best case was 8%. These were all mid-range vehicles that “normal” people drive, Hondas, Toyotas, Holdens (yeah, down under sells really well compared to American cars), Daiwoo, Hyudai etc.

      So, conventional wisdom is wrong again.

  • Shane says:

    I buy used cars and I do a ton of research before going out and buying one. I also try to get dealer certified used car so there is less to worry about.

  • adele says:

    I bought a pre-owned one-year old car in May 2003, with 13,700 miles on it and $7K off the sticker price. Apart from dealer-mandated fluid having to be used, which ended up destroying hoses and gaskets twice (and for which there is a class action suit), it has been a great buy. I researched the car on, had driven it as a rental car a few times (when traveling for work), and knew what I was getting. I couldn’t be happier. I plan to go this route again the next time. I still drive my car and plan to for a long while.

  • Heather Novak says:

    I agree that how the owner treated the car matters, but the consumer reports should count too. What about kelley blue book? And don’t forget PAY CASH if possible, never lease. You are smart to drive any car for a decade or more.

  • San says:

    That’s all true, but I had a bad luck, buying a car which was in an accident.
    The dents were removed, but there was some problem in the engine. Had to shell out some money to get it fixed.

  • Marbella says:

    With today’s internet you can find the best used cars, and before you buy so take your car to a garage to investigate it properly for you.

  • Kyle O says:

    I have bought a few used cars and I can tell you the best thing that I have done is get that Free Car Fax report. If you are buying online most of the online auto places allow for the sellers to post these, so usually I will look only at cards that post these. It’s a great way to see the history of the car and can save you a lot of money down the line.

  • Lance@MoneyLife&More says:

    Get a mechanic to check it out before you buy for sure. Another suggestion is to get the car FAX report!

  • Daisy@EverythingFinance says:

    I bought a used car in January and have found it to be great for the money that I spent. I spent about $12K and it had less than 42,000 KMs on it (about 27,000 miles) and it’s a Honda Civic. I researched Civics extensively after I noticed that there were so many old Civics on the road; to me, that indicated that they last for a long time. I’m very happy with my decision.

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