4 Tips for Buying a Used Car so You Don't End Up With a Money Pit

Despite new car sales of over 14 million in the past year, buying used can save you big time. Here's how to shop smart.

Cox Automotive estimates new vehicle sales in 2023 of 14.1 million, despite a general consensus among financial experts of the benefits of buying a used car. While going pre-owned can save you money, many of us fear that money-saving auto will turn into a money pit. And if you're not a car or financial expert, that's a legitimate fear. But don't worry: Buying a quality used car is totally doable, yet not without some patience and due diligence on your part.

As an automotive educator and journalist (MechanicShopFemme.com), I've delved into the research and studied hacks on used car-buying. Because yes, you can avoid making mistakes with this significant purchase, and successfully save money by buying a car you love. Here are four strategies for finding that car, avoiding bringing home a lemon, and saving money along the way.

Do your homework.

Many of us think a used-car purchase begins with a visit to a car dealership, but that's an easy way to become instantly overwhelmed. Even if you're just browsing, you're likely to get sucked into a sales pitch and walk out with a car that doesn't fit your lifestyle or your budget.

Before you 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 with room for a large family? Do you have work, sporting equipment, or art supplies 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?

After determining your needs, wants, and desires, narrow down your options to vehicles that fit your budget and desired reliability. For independent vehicle reviews, check out Consumer Reports, RepairPal, and Kelly Blue Book, all of which cite annual repair costs and reliability expectations, and offer comparisons between one model year vs. another. They'll also help you discover cars similar to the ones you like but with better rankings.

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Test-drive the car.

When I totaled my last car, my commute was an hour each way, so I needed to replace it quickly to maintain my work schedule. I picked a Toyota Yaris, which was perfect on paper—reliable and budget-friendly—but as soon as I sat in it, I knew it wasn't right for me. It was small—way too small—for my generously sized body.

Lesson learned: A car may seem perfect in online reports, but a test drive determines if it actually fits your needs. Pay attention to how it behaves, and take notice of loud noises as well as lights, handling, and performance issues.

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

Have a mechanic inspect it.

Getting a vehicle history report from a site like Carfax is helpful, but that's like looking at the tip of an iceberg. Did you know that you can—and should—take a prospective new-to-you car to a mechanic to be inspected?

"Not everything that happens to a car gets reported to Carfax," says LeeAnn Shattuck, an automotive expert and personal car shopper 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 a candidate vehicle for a pre-purchase inspection, which is critical for ensuring it's actually as good as it looks. This inspection, which typically runs between $50 and $100, covers both safety and maintenance components.

Be sure to get an inspection report that outlines the mechanic's findings, which can be useful as a tool to negotiate a better deal, and for budgeting purposes after you buy the car. Many dealerships will repair the items your mechanic identified before your purchase, and private sellers often reduce the overall cost of the vehicle based on problems cited in the report.

Family and friends don't always have the answers.

Whether buying your first car or your fifth, you may be tempted to turn to friends and family for advice on reliability, performance, and finances. Unfortunately, unless they're automotive experts, their advice might lead you astray.

I've counseled many car buyers who bought vehicles with major mechanical failures because it looked good and their "handy" friend said it was a good deal. Just because a family member owned the same car and loved it, despite their best intentions, their experience represents a miniscule percentage of the data out there. Sure, ask around, and then use services like Consumer Reports and RepairPal to back up what you've heard, and never fail to arrange an inspection 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."

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  1. Cox Automotive, Cox Automotive's 10 predictions for 2023. Accessed April 15, 2023.

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