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More than 14.5 million new cars were sold in the past year—but buying used is what's going to save you, big time. Here's how to shop smart.

By Chaya Milchtein
March 17, 2021
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Though the last year has been fraught with financial uncertainty, automakers still reported over 14.5 million new vehicle sales. This is despite the fact that financial experts frequently discuss the benefits of buying a used car, a decision that can absolutely save you money—but one which too many people avoid, for fear that money-saver will turn into a money pit. And if you aren't a car or financial expert, that's a legitimate fear. But don't worry: Buying a quality used car isn't unattainable. It just isn't a 20-minute experience, either. 

As an automotive educator and journalist, I've delved deep into the research and hacks on used car-buying. Because yes, you can avoid making mistakes with this immense purchase, and successfully save money by buying a car you love. Here are four strategies on how to find that car, avoid buying a "lemon," and save money along the way. 

Do your homework

It's easy to walk into a car dealership and instantly get overwhelmed. Even if you are just browsing, you may find yourself sucked into a sales pitch—and walk out with a car that doesn't quite fit your lifestyle. So before you even set foot into a dealership or start shopping, ask yourself a few questions to get a better idea of your needs: Do you need a car that has room for a large family? Do you have work, sporting equipment, or art supplies you need to transport? Do you live in a city with limited parking where a smaller car would make more sense? Or are you just looking for the very best car you can buy for your budget?

In addition to determining your needs, wants, and desires, you'll have to narrow down which vehicle fits both your budget and your desired reliability. Consumer Reports, RepairPal, and Kelly Blue Book all have independent vehicle reviews, annual repair costs, reliability expectations, and can even help you decide on one model year vs. another. You can even look for cars similar to the ones you like that have better rankings.

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Credit: Getty Images

Test-drive the car

When I totaled my last car, I was commuting an hour in each direction. I knew that I needed to replace the car quickly to maintain my work schedule, and I immediately went to look at a Toyota Yaris. It was perfect on paper, reliable and budget-friendly. But as soon as I sat in the car, I knew that it was far from a perfect fit. It was small—way too small for my generously sized body. 

This is just one example of how a car can appear perfect on the surface (or in online reports), but a test drive ensures that this is a car that actually fits your needs. It also allows you to see how the vehicle will perform once in your garage. Pay attention to how it behaves: Are there any loud noises, lights, handling or performance issues? 

You don't have to be an expert in cars to recognize if something feels off. If it does, perhaps it's not the vehicle for you—or perhaps it simply needs to be inspected by a mechanic, which brings us to our next point. 

Have it inspected by a mechanic

Most people know that looking at Carfax is important, but did you know that you could—and, in fact, you should—take a car to a mechanic to be inspected prior to purchasing? 

"Not everything that happens to a car gets reported to Carfax," says LeeAnn Shattuck, a professional car buyer known as The Car Chick. "Always get a Carfax report on any used car you are considering, but know that it may not be 100 percent accurate.  The Carfax should be the beginning of your due diligence."

Any reputable dealership will allow you to take the vehicle you want to purchase to a mechanic for a "pre-purchase inspection." This inspection is critical to ensuring the purchase of a vehicle that actually is as good as it looks. 

The pre-purchase inspection will include checking both safety and maintenance components and will generally cost around $50 to $100. Be sure to get a written inspection report that outlines the mechanic's findings. This will be useful to you for budgeting purposes after you buy the car, and as a tool to negotiate a better deal. Many dealerships will handle the repairs, and private sellers will reduce the overall cost of the vehicle. 

Family and friends don't always have the answers

Whether you are buying your first car, or your fifth, you may be tempted to turn to friends and family for advice on reliability, mechanical knowledge, and financial advice.  Unfortunately, unless they are experts, their advice can lead you astray. 

I've counseled many car buyers who bought vehicles with major mechanical failures because their "handy" friend said it was a good deal—and it looked good. People get cars that don't rate reliably because a family member owned the same car and loved it. While not intended in bad faith, other people's experiences represent just a small percentage of the data out there. Instead of just asking around, use services like Consumer Reports and Repairpal to back up what friends share with you—and never fail to get the car inspected by an actual mechanic. 

Shattuck agrees: "Way too many people buy a used car without having a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before they buy it, only to find out later that the car needs significant repairs."

Buying a great used car is absolutely within your reach. You don't have to become an auto expert, either; you just have patience and do your due diligence.