A car is one of the more expensive purchases people make. It’s also one of the most important. Before you go shopping for your next used car, read up on the best tips and practices in the following Used Car Buying Guide. Make sure you don’t get stuck with a lemon!

Where to Shop

You have a few options when it comes to purchasing a used car.

  • Classified Ads/Craigslist: You can often find used cars for sale in classified ads or on sites like Craigslist. You might also see a “For Sale” sign with a phone number on a car in your city. Because you’re buying directly from the owner with no middleman, this can be the cheapest option. But be warned – there are a lot of scams out there. Check out these tips from Craigslist on avoiding scams.
  • Friends/Acquaintances: You can always ask around to see if anyone you know is selling a car or knows someone who is. This can be a good way to get an honest deal, assuming you trust the person, but if the car breaks down unexpectedly, it could strain the relationship. Your options will also be very limited. Make sure you do all the necessary paperwork and get the car inspected.
  • Dealerships: Many new car dealers also sell used cars. These cars will often have gone through inspections. Some cars – especially certified pre-owned cars – may have warranties, and financing options will usually be available to qualified buyers. If you’re looking for a specific make, this can be a great option, although it may not be the cheapest. Cars at independent used dealerships can be less expensive, but they may also have more problems. Financing may be available, even for people with bad credit, but the interest rates can be high.
  • Retailers: Large used-car retailers (think CarMax) can give you a lot of options, and they may provide financing options. Some of these places offer a set price, which is great if you don’t want to haggle, but bad if you don’t think you’re getting the best deal you could.
  • Used Car Websites/Online Auctions: Some websites let your search for and even purchase used cars. This can be convenient if you’re looking for something specific or want a lot of options. On the downside, it can be hard to check out a car if you can’t see it in person, and some of the cars might be older or have salvage titles.

What to Check

Regardless of where you go to purchase your used car, you’ll want to check it our for common problems and red flags.

  • Mileage: The more miles a car has on it, the lower its value and the more repairs it might need. Before buying a car with a high mileage, consider the repair costs that you might be paying down the road. Research the make and model to see how well the car can be expected run as its mileage increases – some cars are more susceptible to expensive problems than others, and the cost of repair parts can also vary. Make sure the mileage disclosure and the odometer reading match.
  • Age: Age also impacts the value of the car. Another issue to consider is safety – older vehicles might lack many safety features that are now common or even standard. And while you might be like the idea of owning a classic vehicle, consider whether getting replacement parts will be difficult or expensive.
  • Tires: Good tires are important for safety, and bad tires could be a sign of other problems. Check the tread of the tires. Uneven wear could indicate suspension issues or other problems. Also see whether the tires match and make sure they’re the right size for the car.
  • Exterior: Check the body for damage, although minor scratches and dents might not be an issue. Check the lights to make sure they work and aren’t cracked. Check the windshield for cracks. Make sure the trunk, hood and doors open and close correctly. Look for rust.
  • Suspension: Check the suspension. One way to do this when you’re not driving the car is to push down on the corners or trunk of the vehicle. Listen for any squeals or other noises and make sure the car doesn’t keep bouncing. Also look at the car to see if one corner sits lower than the rest of the car.
  • Interior: Check the interior, including the pedals, steering wheel and controls. Also check the seats and seatbelts.
  • Engine: Check the hoses and belts, battery and radiator for signs of damage. Also check the fluid levels and see if the filters need to be replaced.
  • Undercarriage: Inspect the undercarriage of the car and look for stains or puddles where it’s been parked.
  • Test Drive: Some problems might not be obvious until the car is running. Go on a test drive and pay attention to any problems, including rough handling, difficulty steering, problems accelerating, smoke or strange noises. Check the lights, the windshield wipers, the heater, the air conditioning, the sound system and the turn signals during your test drive. The warning lights should flash on when you start the car, but no warning lights should stay on – that means there’s a problem!
  • Mechanic: Have the car checked by a mechanic you trust in case there are any problems you missed.
  • Title: If a car has been in a major wreck, flood or other serious incident, it may have a salvage title, and it may not be safe (or legal) to drive. A rebuilt title means the car has been salvaged and repaired, but there may still be unknown mechanical issues, so watch out.
  • VIN: Don’t just take the seller’s word for it. Check the vehicle history using the VIN.
  • Flooding: A flooded car can have major mechanical problems that might not be immediately obvious. A flooded vehicle should have a flood, salvage, or rebuilt title, but some sellers may try to hide this information from you or even find loopholes that let them get a clean title for a flooded car. In addition to checking the title and vehicle history, look for signs of flooding, including rust, a musty odor or new upholstery. Consumer Reports has more tips and resources to help you avoid buying a flooded vehicle.
  • Recalls: Car manufacturers often issue recalls for vehicles. Some of these vehicles may have defects that make them dangerous to drive. Before buying a car, check to see whether any recalls have been issued for it. If there have been recalls, make sure the required repairs have been done. Look up recalls by VIN.
  • Value: Before buying a car, research what the actual value should be for the make, model and year. If the is being sold at a higher price, you’ll want to negotiate. One the other hand, if it’s being sold at a much lower price, it may be because there’s something wrong with the car. Make sure you know what that is.
  • Cost of Insurance: Your car insurance rates depend on many factors. Some of those factors are about you: your age, driving record and so on. Other factors have to do with your car. You don’t want to buy a car only to realize you can’t afford the monthly insurance premium, so look into the cost of insurance before you sign on the dotted line. It’s easy to check a car’s insurance premium in minutes by using the JupiterAuto quote engine.

Are you buying a car? Get an insurance quote now. If you’re buying from a used car dealership, they may require you to have insurance before you can drive the car off the lot, so it’s a good idea to get your auto insurance figured out before you buy.