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How to Buy a Used Car Safely: What the Experts Say

By Mike Richards Updated: 07/09/2022 Posted: 11/03/2018

Buying a car is a thrilling experience almost all of us go through in our lives. However, the buying journey can get to be a lot more complicated than expected. Even if you have already decided on the car you want and have enough money to buy it brand new from a dealer, there are tons of things to keep in mind when you buy a used car.

The list of things you need to be careful about grows exponentially when you have a limited budget. This leaves no other options besides buying a used vehicle. Whether you are buying your first car as a teenager, a car to drive daily or even a working vehicle for the long run, there is plenty of things to consider.

One of the best reasons for buying a used car is that the upfront cost is going to be significantly lower. This is true even if the vehicle is just a couple of years old, since most cars lose around 40% of their value in the first year of use. Although that may sound encouraging, don’t think it is going to be easy or fast, because it won’t.

Choosing the Right Car

First, you should buy a used car that fits your needs and suits the use you intend to give it. Make sure it is in your budget range so you can afford it. The best way is to do some online and car-magazine research. This will give you an idea of prices for different models and segments. Remember that you also have to consider running costs. While cars with bigger engines tend to be cheaper, the running costs are higher. This makes them more expensive to drive and maintain over time.

Finding the Right Seller

The next step is choosing who to buy from. For example, buying from a used-car dealer will be a bit more expensive. But it might be worth it, since it gives you the peace of mind of knowing that the car has been inspected in full. You will be sure it works fine and won’t stop running a couple of miles after buying it. That is because dealers usually offer the car with a warranty and have to comply with the Sale of Goods Act. So, if the car has any trouble in the short run, you are covered. However, as mentioned before, it might be pricier, and the bigger the dealer, the higher the costs will go.

You could also buy a used car privately or online. In both cases you will have to look for things like ownership history, paperwork, prior tickets or costs hanging over the car. You should also look at the car’s general condition. Remember that when private sellers want to sell a car, they are not always 100% trustworthy or sincere.

They could be offering a car that is just miles away from having some serious issues, or even one that already has some issues that they manage to cover up for the first miles. That is why you should thoroughly check some particular aspects like tires, electrics, dents and scratches, glass, panel gaps, upholstery, fluid levels, wheel accessories, what you find under the oil cap, and the wear and tear.

Buying at a Car Auction

Another option is to buy a used car at an auction. In this case, you should do some homework beforehand. Get to the auction early, take a nice browsing tour around all the vehicles for sale and make a list of which models you are interested in. It would definitely be better if you already have a general idea of the price of that particular model at dealers and online sites. Always ask about the auction fees beforehand and set a budget you know you will respect.

If you’re at an in-person public auction, once the car is in the hall, listen to the engine for any signs of trouble. This will help you avoid nasty surprises once the purchase is made. Then, the last and most difficult part of the deal: bid firmly but hold your nerve and don’t rush it. Otherwise you will end up with a price out of your budget, and you will lose your chance.

Further Reading

Do Your Due Diligence

In each and every case, consider financial aspects like state fees, documentation fees. Take into account the costs for all the paperwork to stay within your budget. You should also always ask to test drive the car, if possible. This will give you a pretty good idea of what the car’s general state is and how it runs. And, if you have the possibility, the best thing to do is take the vehicle to your local mechanic in order to have it checked by a professional. That opinion is invaluable. It will give you either convince you to buy the vehicle, or a good reason for cancelling the purchase and look for a car somewhere else.

Last but not least, always pay attention to your gut, how you feel both about the car and the seller. If you detect anxiety or a rush to close the deal, stay calm and drive the negotiation at your own pace. Your social skills will prove worthy in a situation where the seller’s body language or way of speaking about the car set off your alarms and tell you something odd is going on. If you are not 100% sure about the transaction, just turn around and get out of there. A new opportunity will come to you, hopefully, a better one.

Of course, we also need to discuss online auctions, like ours.

Buying Cars from Online Auto Auctions

You should know there are two kinds of auctions, public and dealer-exclusive. As the name describes, the first ones are open to the public. However, they offer all kinds of cars, in all conditions. The second kind of auction offers a lot more cars, usually at lower prices. However, these auctions ask for a dealer license to participate.

One convenient way of buying at an auction is online auction sites, which can also be open or dealer-exclusive, But there is a workaround in this case, which are sites like Auto Auction Mall, which offer a list of cars for sale to the public from dealer-only auctions. It is like bidding on an eBay auction for example, but with a car. Always look for reputable auction houses to do this. When you do this, as you cannot inspect the car itself, it is even more important to research the history of the car through a service like CarFax.