How to Choose the Right Used Car

by Will Lipovsky · 6 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 and they can help you buy the right used car.

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. Consider this though. City miles are much harder on a car than cruising down the highway miles. This means a car with 10,000 miles that 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 the 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. 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 if you’re buying a convertible is to take it through a car wash. Check for leaks in the roof.

Has This Vehicle Been in an Accident?

You should also ask if the vehicle has been in an accident. You might not always get the most honest answers but it’s important to pose that question and see what kind of response you get. If the vehicle was in an accident, ask about the extent of the damage and proof of repairs. You can also look into getting a history of the vehicle through a service like CarFax.

Do You Have the Title in Hand?

Always ask to see the title for the vehicle. Don’t take their word for it. While it’s unfortunate, there are many scams you can run into and you don’t want to find yourself in that position after you’ve already purchased the vehicle. Make sure there’s a clear title.

Why are You Selling It?

If you are working directly with the seller, ask them why they are selling the vehicle. Most sellers can give you a straightforward answer but there might be more to the story if they seem to be vague and beating around the bush. Don’t go forward with the transaction if your gut is telling you there is something to hide.

Always Be Ready to Walk Away

I mean it. Do not fall in love with the car before you get to 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 you already made it look 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.

4 Used Car Red Flags You Can Ignore

Want more tips to help you score that perfect steal of a vehicle? Here are four commonly accepted used car red flags that you can ignore.

I was raised with the following car buying philosophy: do meticulous research to find and buy the absolute best new car your budget can afford, and then drive it and maintain it until the wheels fall off or pigs fly, whichever comes last.

There’s nothing wrong with this philosophy, and it works very well for my non-mechanically inclined family. I probably would never have changed the way I buy and drive cars except for two things: over the course of a few years I had a remarkable string of vehicular bad luck which resulted in two totaled cars, neither of which were my fault; I met and married a mechanical engineer who was able to determine if a used car was worth buying or not.

Since the second car-totaling incident occurred while I was in graduate school and on an extremely limited budget, my mechanical engineer introduced me to the wonderful world of purchasing cheap used cars. Because, believe it or not, you can get a worthy car for very little money. (My $3,300 1998 Mazda 626 that I purchased in 2006 to replace the second totaled car is still going strong.)

If you’re not used to buying used cars from a private party, you may be put off by some of the things you see. But the following “red flags” are not necessarily warning signs. These issues can even potentially give you some bargaining power when purchasing a quality used car:

1. Remember, cosmetics don’t matter!

You always want to see that a seller has put an effort into cleaning up the car for sale, because if they can’t be bothered to do that when it could mean a quicker sale, what else have they been too lazy to take care of? However, in the world of cheap used cars, there are some cosmetic issues that you simply don’t have to worry about. Dents and scratches on the exterior, missing hubcaps, and tears in the upholstery are all issues that would cost too much money to repair compared to the little the seller will get out of it.

For example, my Mazda was missing one of its hubcaps when we test drove it. Otherwise, the car had clearly been taken care of and had recently been washed and waxed before our appointment to see the car. An AWOL hubcap is simply not a big deal on a $3000 car.

2. Don’t get caught up on mileage.

A well-maintained car can easily log 200,000 miles, and possibly even more than that if it was a great car to begin with. Engines can run for a very long time if they are properly maintained, and it pays to remember that.

Low mileage may be the holy grail of used car shoppers, but buyers often place far too much importance on it. I would rather buy a car that has clearly been taken care of with 150,000 miles on it over a newer car with 75,000 miles that have been driven hard and poorly maintained.

3. Worn out tires could be a negotiation tool.

New tires are expensive, and sometimes sellers who are otherwise conscientious car owners simply don’t have the money to outfit the car with new shoes before placing it for sale. It’s important to note how the tires are worn. If they are evenly worn across the tread, then they are simply used up and need to be replaced. (If they are irregularly worn, that can be a warning sign of inattention, neglect, or a mechanical issue.)

Ask the seller to take the price of new tires off the cost of the vehicle. You know you will immediately have to buy four new tires to safely drive the car, so ask for the difference. It’s likely that the seller will want the cash in hand more than the higher sale price — otherwise, he would have replaced the tires himself.

4. Properly repaired accident damage is not necessarily a deal-breaker.

There are a lot of ifs with this advice, but remembering that an accident in a car’s past is not the end of the world can help you to get into a great car for less.

For those ifs: if the seller is open about the accident damage and repairs and if your mechanic checks out the repairs and finds no problems, then you might find yourself with a great deal. Cars that have been in accidents have much higher depreciation rates than those that are accident free. If you are just looking for safe and reliable transportation, then it doesn’t matter if your car has been beaten up, as long as it has been repaired properly.

As always with used car purchases, you want to have a trusted mechanic look over the vehicle for you. An expert eye can catch signs that a layman could miss.

First impressions may be important, but when you are buying a used car, don’t let your first impression scare you away from a cheap and reliable vehicle just because it’s got some battle scars. I like to think of those scars as proof the car has been well loved.

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  • Beau W. says:

    You put a great article together here sir. All great tips and points. Number 1 always have a mechanic look at the car comes up. A great place to look for low mileage cars is in a retirement community. I found a 2002 Toyota Camry with under 80,000 miles very cheap. Toyotas will drive until the next century. Always bring cash. Negotiation is on the table.

    • David @ says:

      Oh I never thought of looking for cars in a retirement community, but it makes perfect sense. It’s unlikely the elders will drive aggressively, so that’s a big plus.

      And it’s like they say – cash is king. Always negotiate and you’ll end up with a better deal.

      • Beau W. says:

        It’s amazing how many gems you can find David. I got the tip from a guy who repairs golf carts. His side business is flipping the gems he finds for cash. It’s genius. Golf carts are everywhere in Sun City Az. Thankfully he’s a really honest guy.

        • David @ says:

          There are really an unlimited amount of ways to make money. On a side note, I wonder if he’s ever found a car (or golf cart) with actual cash inside. You never know since older people could stuff one with cash and completely forget about it!

  • Arminius Aurelius says:

    P.S. Think about it , the money I saved , I invested in stocks and Precious Metals and made a killing . [ Free money ]

  • Arminius Aurelius says:

    As I have often ststed , I have NEVER bought a New car in my 60 years of buying cars . Always bought low mileage [ 13,000 to 20,000 miles ] cars and to date have NEVER had a problem . Saved at least 50 % of the price . The last car I bought was a 2008 Lincoln Town car with 13,900 miles on it in March 2009 . Six months earlier it would have cost me $ 45,000.00 but now it cost me $ 23,900.00 . I saved over $ 20,000.00 . I now have 60,700 miles on it [ I am retired ] in 2019 and it rides like NEW . I had it repainted once for about $ 850.00 .

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