How to Buy a Used Car With Confidence: Your Complete Guide

How to buy a used car is one of those things we all wish we had learned in school instead of wasting our time with trigonometry. Unfortunately, most of us reach adulthood without this skill, and the thought of ending up with a lemon isn’t pleasant.

However, you aren’t doomed to a life of rideshares and public transit. In this article, we’ll share some knowledge that should give you an advantage the next time you need to buy a used car.

Before You Buy a Used Car, Research

Attempting to make a significant purchase without knowing what you want is a recipe for disaster. Consider your needs and lifestyle when determining what you need from a vehicle. Will you need a lot of room for additional passengers? Cargo space? Do you have a long commute, or will you be okay with a car with higher mileage?

Now that you know what you want, you should also know what you’re willing to compromise on. Buying used means you won’t have the power to cherry-pick exactly what you want. Maybe you’ll get lucky, but if not, you should clearly know what is truly a deal breaker.

Next, consider how much you can spend. If you plan on taking out a loan, you’ll likely have more options than buying a used car outright. If you can manage a decent down payment, that can also expand your choices.

Pricing guides can be helpful at this stage. They’ll give you an accurate idea of what you can expect to spend based on the features you want. This information will come in handy during the negotiation stage too. Kelley Blue Book is likely the best known, but you should compare a few sources to get a complete idea of what you might be spending.

Don’t forget about ownership costs when doing your budgeting. Ideally, you can put aside some emergency cash for when something unexpected goes wrong with your vehicle. You’ll also want to consider regular maintenance, which will help you get the most out of your used car.

Where to Buy a Used Car

Armed with all that knowledge, you’re ready to start shopping. These days, you no longer have to go straight to Creepy Al’s Used Car and Beeper Emporium. Many dealerships that sell new cars also sell used ones, and it’s easier than ever to connect with folks who may have a vehicle to sell.

If you prefer to browse online, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are two possibilities for local, private-party used car sales. You can shop without having a salesperson pressuring you into a decision, do your research as you go, and reach out to the seller if you have questions.


Finally, you can complete the entire process online using a service like Carvana or Carmax. While these companies offer in-person shopping, you can handle everything from your phone if you prefer. If you go this route, just be sure you have ample time to test drive the car before the sale becomes final.

Contact the Seller

While you’ve already done a lot of research at this point, to get information about a specific vehicle, you’ll need to contact the seller. There are a few things you’ll want to cover regardless of if you’re purchasing from an individual or a company.

Here are a few crucial questions to ask before you buy a used car:

  • Title: You’ll need to know if the seller has the title and if it’s clear. A clear title will be free of liens. You’ll also want to check if the car has a salvage title, which means the car will need extensive repairs (more than the worth of the vehicle) in order for you to drive it legally.
  • Service Records: Ask if the service records are available. This will let you know if the owner correctly maintained the car and if it’s had issues in the past.
  • History: Similar to the service records, knowing the car’s history can help you anticipate potential issues and needed repairs. This is especially important if the seller isn’t the car’s first owner.

When discussing the car, compare any information the seller gives you to what you already have. Even dealerships can make mistakes when publishing ads, so double-check that the vehicle has all the bells and whistles you want. If you’ve pulled the Carfax for the car, you’ll also want to use that to be sure you’re getting an accurate picture of the vehicle’s history.

used car falling apart in a field

The Carfax on this one is a hell of a read.

Finally, make sure the seller is okay with having you get the car inspected before purchase. Especially if you buy a used car from an individual, consider walking away if you can’t get an inspection from your own mechanic.

The exception is when purchasing from a dealership that offers “certified pre-owned” vehicles. Dealerships will thoroughly inspect the used cars it sells and also provide a warranty. In this case, you don’t need to worry about having the vehicle inspected again.

However, be wary of trusting used car lots that offer certified pre-owned cars. Chances are, the certification doesn’t mean anything.

How to Test Drive a Used Car

Think you’ve found the used car of your dreams? Time for a test drive! Try test driving it on the highway and surface streets. It’s also a good idea to go up and downhill. During the test drive, keep the radio off so you can hear any sounds that may signal a problem.

While you’ll want to be on the lookout for any obvious mechanical flaws, this test drive is mainly to see if you like the car. Can you comfortably reach all the controls? Do you enjoy the way the vehicle handles, accelerates, and brakes? Can you easily see out of the car, or does it have large blind spots?

Don’t Buy a Used Car Without an Inspection

Finally, it’s time to bring the car to your mechanic for a final inspection and diagnostic. At Juke Auto, in addition to any specific concerns you have, we’ll check the suspension, brakes, and powertrain. We’ll also look for signs of past collisions or flood damage. Flood cars often have silt in places that can be hard to spot. Finally, we check the readiness monitors to see if they have been cleared recently since that could be an attempt to hide a check engine light.

Did you find the used car of your dreams? We’d be happy to get it in for an inspection. Contact us today to make an appointment.

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