Secrets to Great Deals on Used Cars

If there’s one purchase that most everyone will make at one point in their lifetime, it’s the purchase of their own vehicle. While it may be intimidating to some, there are many things you should know before buying your first (or next) used car.

From talking to other first time car buyers, the mind set sometimes is that the process of buying their car is one that they just want to get over and done with as soon as possible. This is usually where the first mistake is made. I know a lot of them just want to be behind the wheel of their car “right away” and don’t want to go through any of the steps that may seem so time consuming. I’ve found, however, that these simple steps really do pay off in the long run and lead to a greater satisfaction in your purchase.

I recommend first off taking your time and being patient with the whole process. I know firsthand what it’s like to make an impulse buy on a vehicle, and I’ve looked back after I had made the purchase, only to wish I would’ve taken a bit more time, looked around and compared more. You may know the feeling as well if you’ve made the same mistakes in the past. Chalk it up to experience, as now you know that there’s never a rush to buy anything without comparing prices and features.

So what should you be doing with your time, and where should you start? Obviously, knowing what type of vehicle you intend to buy is the first step. Yet I’ve seen people who’ve  just went out on a whim, not really knowing what they were looking to buy, and bought the first car that “caught their eye.” There’s nothing wrong with going after whatever appeals to you, but I recommend first taking note of what kind of car appeals to your tastes and finding out more about it. What brand of car is it? What model? What kind of gas mileage does it get? What options are available? What size engine? Does it have any features that are unique to this brand? These are just some of the questions you can ask.

As you do a little research and asking around, you may find out that this is definitely the car you want. Or you may decide that, from what you’ve discovered, you no longer desire this type of car, but have found other brands or models that have more of what you’re looking for. It’s always better to find out before making a purchase rather than after you’ve bought it and you are now stuck with your decision.

Now you’ve narrowed it down to the kind of car you’re looking for and are prepared to buy. This is where you take the time to look at what’s available in the market and get a feel for prices. Pick up auto trader publications, newspaper classifieds and any other resources such as the Internet. You can get your hands on a blue book to give you an idea of price ranges for the particular car you’re looking for (ask a local car dealer or do an online search). As you begin making calls to the sellers, make notes in your notebook so you’ll be able to compare cars and prices at a glance. Some ads will have most of the information included in the ad, but others you’ll have to call for more information. Write down all the information under a heading for each car listed. I usually just put the year and model followed by the phone number in case you misplace it. Then you have room under each heading to list the mileage, color, options, smoking/non-smoking, recent work done (if any), condition of tires, body shape and asking price. By now you’ll start to feel more and more certain of your choices.

You now know what you need to know about each car and you can begin comparing apples to apples. This will give you a good feel for prices, as cars of the same brand, model, with close mileage in comparable shape will be in the same ballpark, as you’ll find. And as you make calls to sellers, you may learn even more about the cars and find out how motivated the seller is. Most are open to offers, and you may just be calling them on the day they’ve lowered their price because they have to move out of town, or buy their next car, or (fill in the blank).

At this point you can actually see yourself driving the car of your dreams. You may have a small handful that you’ve narrowed down to, as they fit your price range, are close in mileage and condition, are the color (or colors) you prefer and the sellers are willing to negotiate. With your money in hand, it’s finally the day to make your purchase! Which one should you buy? Well, I’d pick a “favorite” and start from there. Maybe it’s one that stands out because it’s already a bargain. Maybe the mileage is lower than the others, and the price is the same as the others. Maybe it’s in better shape or has more options for the same price. Or if nothing else, it’s your favorite color and just looks better, while the price is still comparable. Once you’ve decided which car you’re going after, it’s time to make a call and meet with the seller.

When meeting with the seller, there are several things to keep in mind. Remember, by this time, you’ve decided that this car is your favorite one, so don’t let it show how excited you are about buying it. Look the car over and if there are any surprises and anything that turns you off, you can still walk away. Tell yourself to at least look at the other cars on your list before jumping into something you didn’t know about (for example, there’s hidden rust, it runs poorly, drives shaky, or even smells!) If you don’t know what to look for mechanically, ask the seller if he minds if you have your mechanic look it over. Use someone you trust. If the seller won’t let you have your mechanic look it over, it’s a sure sign that he may be hiding something, and it’s your signal to move on to your next prospect. You’ve done a lot of work to get to this point, there’s no use compromising. But if you’re still satisfied with what you see, the seller has been truthful, and you like the way it runs and drives, get ready to go head to head with the seller.

You already know the asking price, but unless the price is already a steal, that’s not what you’re going to pay. Remember, you have to act like you don’t really care if you get this car or not (and really you don’t, because you know you have a list of cars like this one that you could buy). You can tell the seller you’d like to buy it, but then you have to ask him the following: “If I gave you a check (or cash) right now, what’s the least you’d accept for me to drive it away?” Never be the one to make the offer first. You’ll most likely find he’ll drop his price from what he told you before. When he gives you his price, come back with “Is that your best price?” Now he may or may not drop it again, but you can repeat that phrase as often as you like until you find the price you’re willing to pay. It doesn’t hurt to have your checkbook out with the seller’s name on it, too. Another technique that I’ve used is having a bill of sale already filled out before you meet with the seller. All you have to do is pull it out when you’re ready to deal. It’s like everything’s already done, the paperwork is complete, all we need is for the seller to name his rock bottom price and it’s all done (that’s what the seller is thinking subconsciously, anyway!)

If you want to get an absolute bargain on your car that makes you smile, you must not give in. The money you save can buy you that much more gas, or pay for registration and insurance, or more! If the seller won’t budge to where you’d like to pay, try it with the other sellers. It’s good practice!

So now the dealing’s done. The seller finally met your lowest price (or lower!) and has signed the bill of sale. You’ve got the car you’ve been looking for, it’s in great shape and you’ve kept money in your pocket that others may have given away because you stuck with your plan. The last thing you need to do before handing over a check is to get a lien search to make sure there is nothing owing on the car, otherwise you’ll be stuck with the bill. Once it’s clear, you hand over the check, get the keys, and smile as you realize you’ve just gotten a steal of a deal!

Brian Hallaert is the founder of [], a site for every car lover to find useful information on everything automotive.

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