A Used Car Buying Checklist – How to Get the Best Deal On a Used Car
Nathan Stretch July 28, 2015

The key to buying a quality used car at a good price is to take the right steps BEFORE you make an offer. You want to find a good deal and still feel comfortable that the car does not have any maintenance issues or a troubled past.

To buy a used car without having to worry if you’re getting ripped off, follow these four steps:

0. Decide What to Buy

Before getting into how to buy a car, we need to step back for a minute and consider what car to buy. We have an article on that, but as I mentioned in a recent interview, it really comes down to test driving a few options. We’re obviously big on doing things online here at AutoTempest, and you can certainly do a lot of research and narrowing down online. But even so, there’s ultimately no substitute for trying cars out in person. So, visit a few dealers, sit in some cars, and when you find something you like, see if you can take it on a test drive. Be sure to get the card of the salesperson when you do. But absolutely 100% do not buy right away. Once you’ve found make and model that feel right for you, it’s time to move on to step 1:

1. Consult Multiple Used Car Listings

To find a large variety of competitively priced cars, you’ll need to search a large number of automotive classifieds. Fortunately, you’re in the right place to get the used car listings you need: AutoTempest has access to one of the largest collections of used cars on the web. With a single search you can view listings from all the top car classifieds sites simultaneously. (Sites like eBay Motors, Cars.com, Truecar, etc.) Plus, you can compare with results from other sites like AutoTrader, CarGurus, and all of craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.

2. Check the Car’s History and Condition

Avoid the expensive mistake of buying a used car with hidden maintenance issues or a checkered past. You don’t want to find out after you’ve bought a car that it was in a major accident, salvaged, stolen, or subject to odometer fraud. Always buy a vehicle history report before making an offer. Car dealers will do this for every car they buy and you would be smart to do likewise.

AutoCheck and CarFax vehicle history reports provide detailed information on past odometer readings, ownership history, repair and maintenance history, liens and more. CarFax has wide recognition as the benchmark for vehicle history reports. AutoCheck provides a comprehensive score (called the ‘AutoCheck Score’) that helps you determine vehicle quality and compare cars at a glance, as well as any auction history a vehicle has. Both reports are priced similarly, though if you’re looking for reports on more than a few vehicles, AutoCheck provides better value.

You’ll also want to get a certified mechanic to inspect the used car for any issues that were never reported. Most auto repair shops will do a comprehensive inspection for $50-$150. Look for AAA or CAA discounts on inspections as well. Spending a little now to check up on a car has the potential to save you a lot in the long run.

When buying off eBay or over long distances, the seller will often agree to arrange this for you if it means you’re likely to purchase the vehicle. Just make sure the inspection is performed by a reputable shop.

Alternatively, if you’re buying long-distance or don’t have a local garage to take it to, check out the CARCHEX Vehicle Inspection. Basically they’ll send an inspector to the car to do a detailed curbside inspection and test drive. It’s not quite as detailed as what you could get at a garage, but it’s a lot better than nothing and the service is designed for long-distance buys.

Both the vehicle history report and inspection can also serve as a bargaining tool to reduce the price if you find minor things wrong (which you almost always will). We discuss both these used car bargaining tools further in Avoid Buying a Lemon Car – Two Simple But Critical Steps.

3. Know the Car’s Market Value

In order to negotiate a good price for a used car, you first must have a good idea of what the car is worth.

The best way to get started is to use AutoTempest to search multiple sites and a large geographical area. That way you should find plenty of comparable used cars both near and far. Of course, that will give you asking prices, not actual sale prices.

Fortunately the AutoTempest used car search engine can help there too. After you run a search on AutoTempest, look at the sidebar on the results page for the “Model Info” section. You will find a link to the Kelly Blue Book pricing info for that vehicle, as well as one to an eBay Completed Listings for that search. eBay requires you to log in to view completed listings, but that will give you the actual prices people recently paid for vehicles like the one you want to buy. Can’t get much better pricing info than that!

When comparing, make sure to look for used vehicles with similar mileage, condition, and options to the one you’re interested in. And again, to put your knowledge of the vehicle’s value to best effect, take a look at 6 Things to Remember When Negotiating a Car Purchase to get the best deal possible on your used car.

4. Plan Your Budget & Financing

One significant advantage of buying used is that you save on the car’s purchase price, and may even be able to purchase with straight cash. By doing so, you can actually end up saving a surprising amount in the long term. (See Dave Ramsey’s Drive Free, Retire Rich for more details on this idea.)

Of course, nice as that is, it’s not always feasible to buy a used car outright. If you do decide to go with financing, it’s important not to take whatever the dealer offers without consideration (just like with the car itself). Financing is a major source of revenue for dealerships, so it makes sense to see if you can do better (even if the offer is 0%, you’re generally passing up on some cash-back or some other offer).

You can check with your local bank or credit union, and grab some quotes online. We have partnered with several companies that give convenient online quotes: AutoCreditExpress, which offers excellent rates for every credit score, or up2drive, which specializes in low-interest auto loans for clients with very good credit. Others to try are CarsDirect and MyAutoLoan.com.

Once you’ve found your best rate, get a pre-approved check or letter from the outside lender and ask the dealership to beat the interest rate. If they cannot, then just use your outside financing. However, as we discuss in 6 Things to Remember When Negotiating a Car Purchase and How to Get a Good Car Loan – Two Dealership Financing Mistakes to Avoid, you’ll want to wait until after the car’s price is settled before discussing how you’ll pay.

Other Considerations

Finally, there’s not much point in going to this effort to get the best possible price on your used car, and then accepting too little for your old one, or overpaying for your insurance or extended warranty. So be sure to check out our other articles for more recommendations and tools!

Header image courtesy of mt 23 on Flickr.

Nathan Stretch Founder & CEO

Founder of the AutoTempest used car search engine, as well as SearchTempest.com. I do a bit of everything around here now, and may even get a chance to write some blog posts! I'm also a car enthusiast. Currently I own a 2009 911 Turbo and a 2006 Honda S2000 (which you'll likely see on the track if you follow the blog or our Youtube channel!)