9 Tips for Buying a Used Car

By Diana Kelly Levey · February 13, 2023 · 8 minute read

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9 Tips for Buying a Used Car

Opting to buy a used vehicle rather than the newest model on the lot can be a great way to save some money.

Used cars often cost significantly less than new cars. In addition, older cars are generally cheaper to insure (since they are worth less than new cars).

The process of shopping for, and financing, a used car, however, can feel intimidating. To demystify the process, we’ve got nine simple strategies that can help you find a reliable used car that fits your lifestyle and budget.

1. Setting a Budget for a Used Car

Before you start researching used cars, you may want to first think about how much you can afford to spend on a car and how you will pay for it.

If you will be paying cash, you may want to consider how much of your savings you can realistically put towards a car. If you don’t have quite enough, or the purchase would completely gouge your savings, you may want to spend a few more months saving up for a car.

If you will be getting a loan for the car, you’ll want to think about what would be a comfortable monthly payment.

One rule of thumb is to put at least 10% down and finance the car for three years. You may also want to try to keep your total monthly auto expenses no higher than 20% of your monthly take home pay.

You can use an online auto loan calculator to get a rough idea of how much you might need to spend each month on financing.

2. Getting Financing Before You Start Shopping

If you plan to get a loan to buy the car, it can be a good idea to get a pre-approved car loan from a bank, credit union, or another lender before you start shopping.

While you may opt to go with financing offered by a car dealership, having a pre-approved car loan offer in your back pocket can give you a great negotiating tool.

Dealers tend to mark up the interest rate to make a profit, but if you already have a deal in place, they will know they need to beat it in order to get your business.

Even if you’re going to buy a car through a private sale, having a pre-approved loan in place will allow you to jump on a great deal as soon as you find it.

Recommended: Buying a Car with a Personal Loan

3. Choosing Your Ideal Car

Now that you have a car buying budget in mind, you may want to look into what types of cars you can get for that money.

Do you need a truck, SUV, or sedan? You can save money outright by buying a smaller car and also down the line if it’s good on gas mileage.

If safety is a top priority, you may want to check out the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Ratings to see which cars perform the best in crash tests.

You can also narrow the field by making a list of must-have features, and then searching for cars that have them using a search tool like Edmunds Car Finder .

Once, you’ve narrowed your list to three target models that you can research in more detail. You may also want to read reviews about the cars you’re interested in on sites like Kelley Blue Book and J.D. Power. .

Recommended: How to Save Up for a Car

4. Shopping for a Used Car

Once you know how much you can spend and what kind of car is going to be a good fit for you, you can actually begin shopping for a used car. There’s no need to start driving to car lots all over town–you can browse through tons of vehicles online.

Good places to look include: used car superstores like Carmax or Carvana, used car dealerships, as well as new car dealerships (which often also sell used cars, though not always at the lowest prices).

You may also want to look at listings from local private party sellers, which you can find on Craigslist, eBay Motors, Facebook Marketplace, and Nextdoor.com.

5. Researching the Car

Once you’ve pinpointed a vehicle you might want to buy, it can be a good idea to find out as much as you can about the vehicle’s history.

You can get a vehicle history report from a company like Carfax or Autocheck , which can tell you if the car has any red flags, such reported accidents or flood damage, as well as information on the car’s maintenance and service history.

To get a report, you’ll need to get the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) or license plate number from the seller. There is typically a fee for running a report (around $25) but many dealers will provide the report for free.

You may also want to run the VIN number through the United States Department of Transportation Recalls site to check for any safety recalls. If there have been any recalls, it’s a good idea to make sure that the issue has been fixed.

6. Going for a Test Drive

It can often be helpful to try before you buy, especially when it comes to buying a car. A car dealership will typically let you take a few cars for a drive so you can get a sense of how they feel.

You may want to call ahead before visiting a dealership to make sure they have the car on the lot that you’re interested in so you can see it that day.

A private seller will also likely allow you to take the car for a brief spin to see how you like it.

Some things to consider when going for a test drive:

•   How well the car accelerates and corners.
•   If the breaks are responsive.
•   If there are any unusual noises or vibrations that could indicate a mechanical issue.
•   How well the car fits you–is there enough leg room? Can you comfortably reach all of the controls?

7. Inspecting a Used Car

Even if you’re far from a car expert, it can be a good idea to do a visual inspection of the car. Is the car’s body and paint in good shape? Are the lights all working? Are there signs of cracks or water inside the lights?

You may also want to turn on the air conditioning and heating, radio, and navigation system and make sure they are all working properly.

When examining the interior, you’ll want to make sure it is in decent condition and there aren’t any unpleasant smells–a moldy smell can indicate flood damage and cigarette smells can be hard to get rid of.

8. Getting a Mechanic to Inspect the Car

Unless you are buying a certified used car with factory warranty coverage from a dealership, you may want to consider getting a car you are close to buying inspected by an independent auto mechanic.

While this does involve an investment of some cash (typically $100 to $200), it can potentially save you from dealing with a costly repair soon after you buy the car.

The inspection report may also give you some bargaining power when haggling over the price of the car.

9. Negotiating the Price of a Used Car

It’s rare that you’re going to come across a used car price where the seller is unwilling to budge, even a little.

Before you negotiate a car deal, however, you’ll want to have all your research ready, including how much the average make and model car for a particular year goes for, and any concerns or issues that came up during your personal and professional inspection.

If you’re negotiating with a dealer, it can be a good idea to keep the focus on total cost of the car, rather than bring a trade-in or financing into the mix.

Dealers may want to merge all of the numbers into one deal, which can be confusing–and also make a not-so-good deal look better.

When discussing price at a dealership, you may also want to make sure you are talking about the out-the-door price, including all fees (so there aren’t any surprises).

Discover real-time vehicle values with Auto Tracker.¹

Now you can instantly monitor vehicle prices in this unprecedented market—to help you make smart money moves.

The Takeaway

Buying a used car can be a smart buying decision. To make sure you get a car that suits your needs and budget, however, you’ll want to research your options, come up with a target price range, and line up financing before you shop.

When shopping for used cars, it’s a good idea to learn a car’s history, test drive the car, and also have it professionally inspected.

Knowing the value of the car in the open marketplace can help you negotiate a good price. If you don’t like the deal, there’s nothing wrong with walking away.

Saving up for a new (to you) set of wheels? You may want to consider opening a bank account online with SoFi.

SoFi Checking and Savings allows you to separate your savings from your spending, while still earning competitive interest on all your money.

And with SoFi Checking and Savings’s “vaults” feature, you can create different vaults for different goals, including a “car savings” vault.

Start saving for your next sweet ride with SoFi Checking and Savings.

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¹SoFi Relay offers users the ability to connect both SoFi accounts and external accounts using Plaid, Inc’s service. Vehicle Identification Number is confirmed by LexisNexis and car values are provided by J.D. Power. Auto Tracker is provided on an “as-is, as-available” basis with all faults and defects, with no warranty, express or implied. The values shown on this page are a rough estimate based on your car’s year, make, and model, but don’t take into account things such as your mileage, accident history, or car condition.

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