Teenager, 17 years old, with hands on steering wheel.

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying a Used Car

Stop. Do not buy that car unless a mechanic gives you the green light.

Teenager, 17 years old, with hands on steering wheel.

Never put yourself in a situation where you can't say no and walk away from the set of wheels.

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Buying a used car can be a tricky task. You’re making a major purchase without some of the “safety nets” that come with a new car, which means you have to put a little bit of additional care into the purchase. Here are five tactics that can take some of the guesswork and uncertainty out of buying a used car.

Don’t wait until you’re boxed into a corner to begin shopping. With any major purchase, whether it’s a used car, home or anything else, you need to be in full control of the purchase or you put yourself at the mercy of the seller. If you wait until you’re in a position where you must have a car soon, you lose control of the situation. You’re at the mercy of the sellers and the options available to you, and you have very little room to say “no.”

Don’t let that happen. Keep an eye on your current car so you know when it’s nearing the end of its natural life.  Start the buying process for the replacement before that car completely fails you. That way, you can afford to say “no” to sellers or to cars that aren’t meeting your needs.

You should never put yourself in a major buying situation where you can’t say “no” and walk away.

Don’t start shopping without knowing what you need and what you’re looking for. Before you start looking, spend some time assessing your needs and doing a research into what kind of car will best match those needs.

The first step is to figure out what you’re actually looking for. Do you need a small car for commuting? Do you need a larger vehicle to transport your family? Do you need a truck for carrying goods on a regular basis? Don’t focus on the exceptional situations; instead, focus on what you’ll be doing with the vehicle most days.

Once you know what you’re looking for, stop at the library and do some research. Dig out issues of Consumer Reports, and see which models were considered the best several years ago. Also, find the most recent car issue of Consumer Reports, and look at the reviews of different brands to see how they’ve held up over time. This will give you several makes and models to look at, which you can then find online. When looking at online car reviews, don’t get hung up on a few negative reports, as there are always people with unusual situations and the full story is rarely shared in online comments. Make sure to look for consistent positive or negative comments.

Don’t limit your search just to car dealers in your area. You should do online searches with a wide radius from your home. Search Craigslist and other online car listings like the automobiles section on eBay. Widening your search will give you a greater chance of finding the best model for your needs and more pricing options. 

Don’t wait until the last minute to consider how you’ll pay for the car.  If you have the cash to purchase the car, this is a non-issue and, honestly, it’s the best way to buy. However, paying cash doesn’t apply to everyone. If you need to finance a car, talk to your bank before you start shopping. How much can you borrow at a healthy interest rate? Can the bank get the papers in order so the loan is finished quickly when you find the right car?

You should never start shopping for a car without knowing what you can actually afford to spend on that car. You need a realistic upper limit, and your bank can help you figure that out. 

Don’t buy without having a mechanic look it over. When you’re feeling good about buying a particular car, don’t pay for it until you get a mechanic to look it over. Most auto shops provide this service at a very low cost or sometimes even for free. Use a shop you’ve visited successfully in the past or one recommended by a trusted friend.

If there are major issues with the car, a mechanic should point them out in a pre-purchase review. Most used cars will have one or two minor issues or perhaps a major issue or two that will arise in the future, so don’t run away from a car just because there is one problem on the horizon. You’re mostly looking to avoid a car that has a bunch of impending problems.

These steps can help you make a strong buying decision the next time you need to shop for a car. Don’t forget, the earlier you get started, the better.