How to Choose the Right Used Car

by Will Lipovsky · 0 comments

used vw beetleUsed car shopping can be intimidating. After all, a car has about 30,000 parts. Making sure they are all in good working order is no small feat, but this post will tell you how to pick the gems from the lemons.

Understand Your Needs

Understand your needs before you hit the used car lots. This way no salesperson can talk you into a sports car when you really need a minivan. To understand your needs, think of what currently irks you about your current car. Is it too small? Is the ride harsher than would be ideal? It’s also helpful to think years into the future. If you are planning on getting a dog or buying a house – what kind of vehicle will you want then? How reliable will the car be as you put more miles on it?

I find the best approach is to discover exactly what car you want before you visit car lots. Look online first. A mistake people often make is buying a car simply because it seemed alright. A vehicle is a decision you’ll have to live with for a long time. Make sure you get what you really want.

Get a Friend

Becoming an expert in used cars takes lots of research. I consider myself an expert now but it’s only after spending many, many hours researching online, buying used cars myself and helping others buy. So after hundreds of hours ‘in the field’ I’m confident in this subject. But if you aren’t or you aren’t willing to put in tons of hours – that’s okay. What you want to do is recruit a friend.

Think of anyone you know who is into cars. If you can’t think of anyone – take notice of people’s cars. If you see an interesting looking car in the company parking lot – find out who owns it. The cool thing about car people is they are almost always willing to talk about what makes a good car versus a bad car. These friends are valuable. They can help you buy the right used car.

Get a Car That Looks Good

You may think this advice is a bit pithy, but looks matter.

It’s hard to tell if an engine is in top condition, but a decent way to tell is by looking at the rest of the car. How has it been treated? If the previous owner cared for the paint, they probably cared for the bigger things as well.

This is where you have a slight edge buying private party. Buying private party means you buy directly from the person who actually owned and drove the car. When you buy this way, you can more easily tell how the car has been treated. Does the owner have previous service records? Does the owner have a garage in which it was stored? A lot can even be learned from just eyeing the previous owner. Plus, you can ask them all the questions you’d like. No one knows the car better than the current owner.

A used car should be as close to showroom condition as possible. That’s what you should aim for. Don’t let the owner say things like, “Well, it’s a 5-year-old car so what do you expect?” A car never has to be damaged – regardless of its age. If it is, make an offering accordingly.

Fewer Miles Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Fewer Problems

Fewer miles is generally a good thing. Although consider this. City miles are much harder on a car than cruising down the highway miles. This means a car with 10,000 miles that has lived its life in Manhattan may be in worse shape than a 20,000 mile car whose owner had a long highway commute each day. Miles are a good indicator of how many years are left in the car but it’s also important to note how they miles were tallied.

Should You Get an Inspection?

An inspection is always best if you’re serious about buying the car. It can save you thousands and give you great peace of mind. Just ask the owner to let you take the car for a few hours to be looked at by your mechanic. If the owner shies away from this idea – that’s a bad sign.

Inspections vary in price depending on the mechanic but some are as low as $100. The mechanic simply tests everything and looks at everything. They can do everything from checking common issues with that type of car, all the way to checking the health of the engine via a compression check.

A professional inspection may be overkill if your gearhead friend is confident in his/her skills, but I do recommend you take the car on a long test drive however. Check everything. See how much you would enjoy driving the car. Taking 30 minutes for a test drive sounds like a lot, but considering you’ll likely have the car for years – it’s not long at all.

One top tip is if you’re buying a convertible is to take it through a car wash. Check for leaks in the roof.

Always Be Ready to Walk Away

I mean it. Do not fall in love with the car before you get see it, because what can happen is you talk it up in your mind, see it, are disappointed, but you don’t even care because all you made it look so pretty in your mind. Walk away if the car isn’t great. If it’s really good but not as you expected, make a lower offer than what you were prepared to give. Price is always negotiable.


The most important rule when pricing a used car is just that – YOU get to set the price. What the seller is asking should not go into your equation. The price should be determined by you and only you. A mistake many people make is thinking a car is worth the price just because that’s what the seller is asking. Most sellers price cars higher than what they would sell them for. They expect you to negotiate. So negotiate and negotiate hard. Nearly any car becomes a good car if the price is low enough.

Don’t Be Persuaded

Earlier in this article, you learned to determine what you want in your vehicle. Once you’ve decided this, don’t let a pushy salesperson change your mind. It’s okay to listen to them but make sure you end up with what you want. After all, you’ll be the one living with the decision. Day after day. Good luck.

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