Words like “minefield,” “pitfalls” and “risks” are often close to the world of purchasing used cars. It depends on the condition of your local car market, of course, but in many places, it’s not as hard going as people imagine. This is especially true if you are both smart and methodical about the process of choosing a used car. To that end, we’re helping you out today with our specially prepared checklist about things to do before and during the process of choosing and purchasing a used car. Cover everything in this list and your experience will likely be far more successful.
8. Test Drives
Item 1: Planning and Initial Research
It all begins with some careful thought. Ask yourself a few questions first: What kind of car do I need? Remember that what you want and what you need might be different, focus on the need. What brands of that kind of car do I like? It’s always nice to have something you like, even when it’s a need. What can I afford to pay? Up front and then monthly (if financing, and for running costs), or all in one go (if buying outright, but don’t forget running costs). Once you’ve dealt with these questions, do a little Internet research to create a shortlist of cars that you like that meet your criteria --- meets a need, is a brand I like, and is affordable to both buy and run --- remembering to factor in potential repair costs, existing driver reviews of that car, news on recalls, common problems and more.
Item 2: Budgeting (and Resolve)
When planning how to pay for your car, you must consider purchasing the car first, but then also how much it will cost to run. If you’re financing, start with that monthly payment number, and then add in the following things:
- Registration costs
- Fuel or recharging costs
- Reliability and potential repair costs --- check RepairPal
When you’ve reached a total budget, stick to it. Gird your loins and prepare yourself for the inevitable onslaught of sales banter telling you why you should consider spending more to “get more car.” You’re the one who’s thought it through, remember? Stick to this budget religiously.
Item 3: Targeted Research
The next job is to look at the various channels at your disposal to find great deals on used cars. You have three main avenues to explore: - Websites - Dealerships - Auctions Websites like Autotrader and CarGurus are great places to begin your search because you will have many options, and perhaps some that will surprise you. Many feature private sellers, perhaps one in your local area, which also has the potential advantage of possibly running into sellers who don’t quite know what a gem of a car they have on their driveway. You could snap up a real bargain with the seller being none-the-wiser. You may be surprised how few people do their homework, even as sellers. Dealerships of each car brand --- Ford, Toyota, etc. --- offer terrific selections in their own marques, but you’ll have to visit multiple to look across a really broad range of cars. The good news is that every major dealership has their catalogue online so you can check out what each one has in advance. Watch out, though. These guys are experts, so you’ll have to brush up on your knowledge before taking on a salesperson. Auctions are a curious but potentially fantastic option for buying used cars. You might notice something truly special in their auto catalogue, and you might get it at a rock-bottom rate as the hammer comes down. One slight drawback, however, is that auction cars are typically sold without any kind of warranty, so you’ll always be taking something of a risk. It should be noted that for a lot of the steps below, you may not get much chance to go into all the detail when dealing with auction cars. Always check and understand the conditions of the sale. Research these channels thoroughly and see what’s on offer, and where you can find your shortlisted cars for the best-possible price.
Item 4: Reflection – Create Questions
Once you’ve isolated a superb deal, you can get in touch with the seller and arrange a time to view the car. Before you go, though, prepare a few questions to ask the owner or dealer about the car. Here are a few ideas:
- Why are you selling?
- What’s the car’s model year, trim level, and current mileage?
- How would you describe the condition of the car?
- Has the car been in any accidents?
- Do you have a vehicle history for the car? (See more below)
- Would you mind if I called in an inspector to look? (Ask this for later in the checklist) Avoid anyone who says no to this.
- Are there any weird noises or other problems when driving? (Again, useful later)
Item 5: Vehicle History Report
Once you narrow down on a few options, ask the seller or dealer for a full and official vehicle report from the local authority. They should have it ready if they’re a reputable seller. The most common options with be CarFax or AutoCheck. Carfax advertizes on TV all the time with their 'Car Fox', so most peple have heard of it by now, but autocheck is also quite good and generally comparable. The report will tell you about the cars service history, and anything else you need to know about maintenance and repairs carried out, and about previous owners of the car. If there are issues with the car, these should be flagged up in the report.
Item 6: DIY Exterior Checks
Now, you may not be a qualified mechanic or a vehicle inspector, but you can still perform a few basic checks on the car at the beginning to look for really glaring problems. Let’s start with things to check on the exterior. First, walk around the outside of the car and look for any signs of dents, scratches, rust, paint chipping or other problems. Do the body panels and other components look even and symmetrical? If there’s a lack of symmetry, this is a big sign that the car was in an accident before. Next, look at the tires. The best way to check the tire tread is to do a penny test on them. Take a penny and place the “In God We Trust” side down into the tread. If the writing is covered, then the tread is still within legal parameters. If letters are showing above the tread line, then they may need replacing. Do a quick light check, too --- headlights, brake lights, taillights, reverse light(s), turn signals, fog lights (if applicable) by simply turning them on and looking. If you feel confident enough, you can also pop the hood and look at the engine bay. Do any of the pipes or hoses look or feel cracked, worn or split? Do you see any green or orange stains on the radiator? Take a look at the fluids and make sure they’re the right color/consistency: oil (pure brown/shimmering with no signs of dirt); transmission fluid (pink and smelling of oil, and if it smells burnt, it’s bad); signs of brake fluid leaking (or any other fluid, check under the car for that).
Item 7: DIY Interior Checks
Now get inside and do a bit more checking around. Start by smelling around the car for any odors, especially moldy or musty smells, which could indicate flood damage. Don’t forget to smell inside the trunk. Next, check all the seats to see if they’re comfortable, too worn, have any holes or rips in the upholstery, and that all the seatbelts work. Turn the key (or push the “Start” button) to get the car started and look at the instrument cluster and other displays. Try out all the buttons to make sure they’re working, not stuck, and do what they’re supposed to do. Take a look at the roof lining to see if any is loose or otherwise damaged. It should appear as an even, integrated skin, and not like badly fitting wallpaper. Finally, open all the storage areas to check the compartment size, as well as if the doors creak or get stuck.
Item 8: Test Drive
If all looks well, take it out for a test drive. You may feel tempted to try the stereo out, and so you should! Listen to the quality of the speakers as you drive along and check how easy it is to manage the various controls while you’re on the road. Once you’re sure about that, it’s time to turn the stereo off and get serious. As you drive, accelerate and brake gently and then firmly to feel the responsiveness of the pedals. Listen for strange noises, especially knocking, grinding, whining or similar unpleasant noises. You should only hear the sound of the engine and the road noise, and possibly the gust of the fan or air conditioner if it’s a hot day. Try the car on different road conditions. Try smaller roads with tricker bends to see how it handles, but also bigger roads on which you can try it at cruising speed. As you test, always be listening out for noises or other signs of problems. Look out for any lights appearing on the dash display, too, like “Check Engine.”
Item 9: Inspection
Based on your own visual checks, the test drive, and the vehicle report, you should commission a qualified third-party inspector to come and check over the vehicle one more time. Let them know anything you noticed that seemed amiss, but otherwise let them look everything over and give you their independent assessment. Many people skip this step while purchasing their used vehicles because it can cost a decent chunk of change to get it inspected and it can be a bit of a pain. A pre-purchase inspection (PPI) can payoff heavily by showing you issues you would not have noticed and is almost always worth it. There are a few options when it comes to getting a PPI, just note that the mobile car inspections aren't quite as good as taking it to a shop, despite their convenience factor.
To shop cars that have all already been through a rigorous pre-purchase inspection, check out Topmarq.
Item 10: Negotiate and Finance
If all seems in order, then we come to the tricky part --- the negotiation. You might be led to believe by sellers and especially dealerships that there’s no wiggle room on price. Both private sellers and dealerships want these cars moved, so there is nearly always some room for movement. Be brave in exploring the wiggle room for discounts, better finance terms, smaller deposits, added accessories thrown in as a bundle, etc. Never settle for what they initially offer. If you try your hand to get a little more, you’ll nearly always get something, even if it’s not everything you want.
Negotiating is a key skill in today's auto market, but one that many still feel uncomfortable with. If you're looking to buy a car privately but don't want the hassle of negotiating directly, you can explore the Topmarq listings where you can make offers online easily and securely.
If you're buying your vehicle privately vs. from a dealer, you'll want to make sure you have your documents in order. The most important being a bill of sale and the title, but there are also others needed when buying privately.
Follow the Steps, Get the Car You Want Many buyers make the mistake of skipping one or many of these steps, and the results can be serious. A car is a serious purchase, regardless of the price. Even if you only do it to ensure the mediocre car you purchase is at least safe, then follow the steps and make it so. You won’t regret it when you do.
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