There are many traps out there—like sketchy salesmen and deceptive price tags—that can turn buying a used car into a profoundly spendy experience.
Cars are one of the biggest expenses in our lives, as well as one of the largest industries in the United States. In 2017, Americans purchased more than 17.4 million cars and trucks. They can cost thousands per year just to own, operate, and maintain.
No wonder buying cars is an extremely stressful process. But don’t worry—we’ve got your back in making the best decision possible with this guide.
Shop before your car breaks down so you can compare.
Car salespeople can smell desperation like no one else. If your car has broken down and you can no longer drive it, they know you need a car ASAP. Therefore, they will be pushier and less likely to budge on price.
You should start shopping for cars near the end of your car’s life, but before a breakdown happens. That way, you have time to comparison shop, haggle, and make a decision about the best deal for you. Plus, you’ll still be able to get a couple hundred bucks for the trade-in.
Consult the Consumer Reports Car Issue.
Once you’ve decided it’s time to shop for a car, it’s time to do your research.
The Consumer Reports Car Issue does reviews of used cars and lists details about the features and how they compare, along with price ranges.
Another thing to research is the annual maintenance costs of different makes and models. Some cars have a reputation for requiring frequent and costly repairs. They may be offered at a lower cost up front, but the expensive maintenance will catch up with you and make the car less of a deal.
Once you’ve narrowed down your list to the cars that you’re interested in, be sure to do research on everything about those cars, including warranty information. Often, salespeople get the details mixed up and you could be misled about certain facts.
Doing your research will also help you detect manipulative salespeople. If you know what you’re talking about, and they are saying something that contradicts what you know, that should be a red flag. It doesn’t mean you have to walk away, but it’s a reason to be more careful.
Search on used car sites.
There are many sites, such as CarGurus.com, that are designed for comparison shopping used cars. They’re extremely useful, and you can put in specific filters for make, model, year, mileage, location, and more.
This tool will at least give you an idea of what to expect in your area.
However, dealers and used car lots often tack on additional fees to the online price. While the online listing may give you an idea, you still need to go into the shops in order to truly compare prices.
When looking at the car, be sure to ask for a deal sheet with a bottom line price. You can hold onto this sheet in order to haggle with other dealers and to prove the price a salesperson quoted you should you return to buy the car.
Compromise on appearance and features.
When buying used, you won’t have the pick of the litter when it comes to choosing the colors and details of your car. If you get attached to a certain car color, you might end up paying a higher price than the same car with the same condition of a different color.
It’s also useful not to get caught up in looking for cars with certain features such as Bluetooth radio or automatic lights. If such a feature is important to you, research how much it costs to get that feature added later. It’s likely only a couple hundred dollars. It’s not worth passing up a car that’s $1,000 cheaper because it doesn’t have the $200 radio you want.
Another thing to not weigh heavily is small surface-level dings. In fact, a car with a tiny dent or some damaged paint that doesn’t affect the function of the car might be a better deal because cars with cosmetic issues will be priced lower.
Here’s the fun part of used car shopping: haggling. Many salespeople are willing to haggle, even if they tell you when you walk in that they’re already giving you their lowest price. But don’t make the mistake of being too aggressive. You can’t force a salesperson to offer a lower price—if they want to, they will at the slightest sign of hesitation.
Haggling is more simple than you think. All you have to do is let the salesperson know what price you are willing to pay. Say something like “Here’s the offer that I would like to make.” They will say yes, counter with another offer, or say no. If they say no, accept their response and walk away. It’s always possible that they will call tomorrow and give you a lower price, but they won’t if you become angry or insistent.
Another option is to tell the shop that you are undecided between their car and another car. Show them the deal sheet for the other car to prove that it’s a similar or lower price. You could also say, “I like this car better but the other car is cheaper.” If they want to give you another offer, they will.
This is a good option for people who are nervous about haggling. This writer tried this method when shopping for her last car, and after hearing about the other car, the salesperson fetched the manager, who asked what he could do to convince me to buy the car today. She named a price and he gave her the price she wanted.
Consider trying dealerships instead of used car lots.
Car dealerships—that is, shops that sell mostly new cars—are more likely to haggle on a used car. Dealerships get used cars on their lot when people trade in old cars for new ones. They don’t want to deal with these cars because they might not be the brand they are used to selling. They aren’t as profitable as new cars. They’re so eager to get rid of them, they are more happy to haggle.
Used car lots make used cars their business. They want to get as much profit as possible from every car that crosses their path. They price used cars carefully and are less likely to budge on price.
Don’t be scared by a salesperson telling you the used car is one of a kind.
If you’ve ever gone shopping for used cars, then you’ve probably heard this line: “Because it’s used, this car is one of a kind, and I can’t guarantee it’ll be here tomorrow.”
While technically true, this line is simply an attempt to create a sense of urgency. They want you to buy it right now instead of taking your time and comparison shop. Don’t let it work on you.
If the car sells, you won’t find a clone of that car, but you will be able to find a similar deal. Don’t let salespeople rush you to purchase before you’re ready.
Discuss your financing options.
Be smart about the financing options you sign up for after you hand over your down payment. Some financing is better than others, and some will involve interest rates that turn the great deal you just found into a bad one.
For example, if you purchase a $7,000 car, and put $1,000 down, and the interest is 4.5 percent, over a standard 60 month return period the car will ultimately cost you $7,720.
If you get an interest rate on a loan that’s more like 10 percent, then the ultimate cost will be $8,620.
Struggling with your credit doesn’t mean you don’t have options.
This means you have to consider your financing options as a part of that bottom line deal. If a more expensive car comes from someone offering you a better financing option, it could still be the best deal for you.
By following these tips, you can expect a smooth car-shopping experience—at least as smooth as handing over thousands of dollars and choosing the car you’ll spend the next several years driving can be.
Carly Marie is a content marketing specialist from Florida who covers personal finance. Through her writing, she strives to educate and connect with readers.
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