So, that fateful day has finally come. You've decided to chuck that old Huffy and bus pass and get yourself a personal vehicle to take out on the roads, where the only barrier to your freedom will be a gas needle shifting to an orange "E." But the idea of a brand new car doesn't strike you as particularly economical given your fixed income, so you decide it's time to hit those black and white newsletters in the faint hope of finding something that will get you from point A to point B without more than a dozen parts falling off in transit.
You poor, cheap, foolish bastard.
Well, maybe it's not that long of a shot. There are, of course, plenty of good-quality pre-owned vehicles ready to be driven off a dealership lot or somebody's driveway to your carport. However, the process of purchasing a used car that fits your needs, standards of quality, and idea of a fair price is one that requires more time, patience, and discretion than just about any other form of personal investment.
Therefore, in the interests of a detailed methodology, bring on the section headers:
1. Decide what it is you're looking for
What kind of vehicle do you want and why? A nice longbed F-150 truck to haul the veggies to market? A big black Caddy Escalade to impress all the other wannabe gangsters? A '79 Ford Fairmont for your independent remake of Up in Smoke?
Logically speaking, the best way to decide what kind of car you need is to determine both what kind of make and model are most attractive to you and your individual needs -- dissatisfaction with the engineering philosophy that built your current car might very well be stimulating you to purchase something a bit more soundly put together. Talk to friends, family, co-workers, and current car owners and take note of what kind of opinions they have to offer, especially the ones who have owned a vehicle for a long time and are still satisfied with its performance.
In addition to this, try to locate publications that provide reviews on the specific models you are considering, sorted by its year of release. Don't read press releases from the automaker's website or the automotive section of your local newspaper -- try less biased source such as Consumer Reports, paying special attention to their guide for the most reliable pre-owned vehicles, which can give you a lot more information than a single owner about a car's various strengths and weaknesses.
Most importantly of all, start conducting this research well in advance to when you plan to buy -- at least three months if not more. Doing this increases the likelihood that you will know what you want when you finally go out into the buying market and knowing whom to call to get it.
2. Decide where you want to shop
At an auction? So you decided to go straight to eBay, or maybe you saw a classified entry in the paper for a local government auction where repo'd Mercedes are put on the block at a starting price of two hundred dollars. People who want to ensure that they buy something of quality should probably not even consider this as a serious alternative. Buying a used car is risky enough, and the risks of unwittingly being sold a vehicle online that needs some serious overhaul or that was shoddily refurbished is very high when you place a bid in an auction. Moreover, it is difficult to get any kind of background information on an auction-purchased automobile, as well as a good warranty.
Through a private seller? There are thousands if not millions of individuals blessed in the position of having a car they do not need or cursed with one they cannot afford. For a mostly fair price they'll be willing to sell them, if only because they want to get rid of it as badly as you want it. It is an arrangement that benefits both buyer and seller to save money by cutting out pesky middlemen (known as used car dealerships). You also have the benefit of testing the car before you check it out, and in general are under less pressure to buy than from a more aggressive, browbeating salesman. Tons of listings can be found in any classified section of the papers, auto trader gazettes, community bulletin boards (bars, coffee shops, athletic clubs, etc.), or online websites where you can fill out a number of fields to find more or less exactly the kind of car you seek. A few to get you started: www.ausedcar.com ; www.autotrader.com ; www.autoweb.com/researchused/default.htm.
Through a used car dealer (cue bloodcurdling scream)?: This to many is the most palatable, trustworthy option, in that they are buying a vehicle from an actual business whose main purpose is to acquire, inspect, and prepare these cars to put on the market. Although you will almost definitely be paying more for a vehicle from a dealer than you would a single individual, you have the peace of mind of knowing that your car (probably) has gone through certification tests in which it has met or exceeded a certain set of performance guidelines. In addition, you can rest easy knowing that the people who sold your vehicle can be better held accountable for problems that might pop up during your term of ownership (in the form of warranties and service agreements, of course). The main problem with these dealerships is that if you already have a highly focused idea of what you want to buy, they may not be in the best position to offer it to you as somebody who already has what you want.
3. Get the best price you can, and get everything in writing
So, hopefully, you've discovered what kind of vehicle you want and a corresponding listing with a loose set of specifications detailing its mileage, year, and special accessories or featurse it might have. Point your web browser over to the Kelly Blue Book website, www.kbb.com or a similar service, fill out the fields relevant to the kind of vehicle in question, and take careful note of the figure that pops up in the results window. That said, you should not plan on spending more for the automobile than this amount.
I'll repeat that for emphasis:
You should NOT plan on spending more for the automobile than the listed amount in the Kelly Blue Book.
How come? Because the prices generated by www.kbb.com are suggested retail prices, the kind you should expect to be quoted by a dealership trying to load the car off on you. In any case, whether you buy from a dealer or private owner, if they give you a figure higher than what you've calculated through the blue book values, you should ask for a reasonable explanation (hopefully with some concrete evidence) as to why you should be asked to pay more than this amount. If anything, it's a convenient fulcrum for negotiating the price further down in your favor.
Buying from a private individual:
After you've selected a car that catches your fancy in an advertisement, you've got to call the seller up to arrange a visit and inspect the vehicle. Be more friendly and courteous than usual to give the impression that you are genuinely interested in it, and pay attention to see if he reciprocates with the same amount of enthusiasm. If he seems aloof or indifferent to the idea of a sale it might mean he is not very serious about selling the vehicle; doubly so if he requests to meet you in a public place or invites you over when the car isn't even at home.
One of the things you should look at when you pull up into that driveway and sit down for coffee at that strange man's table is the overall condition of his living surroundings. A clean-cut, conservative family man who takes good, painstaking care of his home, the accompanying yard, and figurines of Catholic saints on the mantel is far more likely to keep his automobile in good upkeep than a ratty-bearded hermit who occupies a wooden shack with half-finished radiological bombs scattered on the dirt floor. Try to approach the seller by being friendly and see if you can find any common ground before you get around to the vehicle. If that doesn't get him to slice a few hundred off the price, it will at least threaten to give him a guilty conscience when he soaks you for every penny.
After you've inspected the vehicle on all sides for noticable wear and tear, you should be ready for a test drive. Don't even think of cutting the check if the seller won't permit you one before purchase. A couple things you should be watching for are the car's handling and suspension on various types of road surfaces and its acceleration on the highways. Drive the vehicle long enough to get a loose feel for it and decide if you'd be comfortable with its ownership.
If you decide you sincerely want to buy the automobile, ask the owner for the maintenance records of the vehicle. If he refuses or claims not to possess them, take this as a red flag and start looking elsewhere for somebody more serious. Once this checks out, you should have the vehicle inspected by a trustworthy mechanic, to check that everything is up to the kinds of standards that you want. This costs normally around $50, but it is well worth it in the long run to make sure you aren't getting ripped off. In addition, the inspection results may very well end up paying for themselves at the negotiating table (see below).
Once you've gotten the skinny on the car to make an informed purchase, it's time to roll up your sleeves and get down to agreeing on a price for the vehicle. Offer a fair price below your quote in the Kelly Blue Book and work with the seller from there, being careful not to get too aggressive or insult his sense of dignity -- the worst that can happen after all your efforts is that he will walk away. If your mechanic's report has revealed some minor problems with the vehicle that you are willing to overlook or have corrected, be ready to present it as leverage with your bargaining to shave the price down a bit further.
Buying from a used car dealership:
You can generally expect to find a used car in a dealer's lot in better shape and with lower mileage than one with '$4999 or best offer' chalked on the windshield and left lingering at your local Wal-Mart. However, that kind of approach requires a few more caveats than a direct transaction between owners.
Probably more than with individual owners, you will want to browse around a bit before you decide on an individual dealer with which you want to conduct business. Go back to your same friends, families, and co-workers and inquire about a finding a used-car dealership in the area with a fairly solid reputation. Jokes will be inevitable, but you'll eventually get a few solid leads to pursue. Looking online for a specific make and model will only narrow down the list of candidates.
By the way, if you are thinking of financing a car instead of buying it outright (much more likely when working through a dealer) go to the bank before you even head over to the lot. Used cars have notoriously crappy payment plans, and by attaining pre-approval on a bank loan you will have a better alternative to the highway robbery interest rates the salesman will propose to you over paperwork and stale coffee.
Try to show up late in the day, around ninety minutes to two hours before the dealership closes on a weekend. Salesmen are less likely to drive a hard bargain when they want to get you out the door and go home for Friday night, and will be more open to the idea of making you a good deal as long as you know what you want and stay serious about wanting to buy it.
All the same, be amicable and polite to the dealer without being ingratiating or facetious. He will indeed still try to rip you off, but putting your best face foreward will ensure a fairer form of treatment than average. In any case, if the dealer considers you haughty, aloof, and patronizing, it is only going to reflect upon you in the inflated price he will offer you at the beginning of negotiations.
Oh yes, with hammering out a mutually agreeable price for a car whose value is unlisted, never make the first offer -- as it sets from the beginning a clearly defined anchor for the negotiations. For all you know, the dealer might be willing to offer you a far lower quote than what you think the vehicle is worth. Always wait for the salesman to speak first and work from there.
Finally, be aware of options the dealer might suggest that might just add to the price of the vehicle without any real worth to you. Don't be afraid to say no in any situation where you think you won't benefit from what's being offered. A seller is much more likely to work with you than cut you loose if you are patient as well as assertive in your negotiations. And lastly, don't agree to any hasty deals or promises without reading the fine print of the accompanying documents.
All that said, good luck, and happy hunting.