5 Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Used Car


Spring is a time when the used car market sees an uptick in activity. Tax refunds are in hand, the sun is shining, the open road beckons, and folks start to stroll through used car lots with a gleam in their eyes. But before you start test driving and haggling, take a moment to prepare and clarify what kind of car you need and what you can afford. Here are five questions to ask yourself before you buy. (See also: Guide to Buying a Used Car Without Going Crazy)

1. Have I Done My Research?

There are volumes of information online about specific automobile makes and models. If you have a particular car in mind, check out sites like Edmunds.com or KBB.com for expert and consumer reviews that include safety features, performance, dependability, fuel economy, etc. Pay close to attention to the qualities that matter most for you and your family.

2. How Much Can I Really Afford?

Determine how much you can afford for your new set of wheels. Remember to factor in tax, title, and license fees; costs related to changes in insurance coverage; and any immediate upgrades the car may need such as new tires. Whether you’re paying cash or financing, err on the side of a conservative estimate and always leave room for contingencies.

3. What Best Suits My Lifestyle?

A great value is always tempting, but don’t lose sight of what fits your lifestyle.

  • Will you be transporting precious cargo (people, pets, or stuff)?
  • Do you have older parents or in-laws who may need a car that sits a bit higher and is easier to get in and out of?
  • Do you need a hatchback for hauling?
  • Or maybe a four-wheel drive for steep terrain or challenging winters?
  • Do you have a small business that might benefit from a mini-van or small truck?

Explore all the available options and find what suits you best now, with an eye toward the future.

4. What Will the Maintenance and Repair Costs Average?

Many people focus only on the upfront costs of buying a used car and don’t really consider the unplanned or recurring costs. No car runs perfectly all the time, so factor in repair expenses as you shop for what you can afford.

  • What are the repair cost averages in your area for foreign and domestic models?
  • Would finding a regular mechanic for a non-domestic car require a long commute?

Also, earlier model cars typically have fewer frills and creature comforts, but that means fewer high-tech engineering features under the hood that can be expensive to maintain, repair, and replace. Take a comprehensive look at the total cost of ownership and decide what works best for you and your resources.

5. Is the Dealership Reputable?

If you’re buying from a dealership, a bit of research can go a long way. Do some online sleuthing to see what customers are saying about their experiences with a particular used car dealership.

  • What has the post-buy customer experience been like?
  • How has the business responded to customer complaints and helped to resolve issues?
  • Are there any pending legal issues with the business?
  • Are customers willing to refer friends and family?

Once you know the answers to these five questions, you’re in the driver's seat and in a much better position to make the right choice. Remember, a bit of due diligence and strategy ahead of time will help ensure that your new car is a perfect fit now and still a great value when you decide to sell it later. Drive safe!

Have you purchased a car from a used car dealership? What was your experience like?

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Guest's picture

I've almost finished my guide to frugal approaches to auto buying, maintenance, etc. These are some great points, but I'd like to add that Consumer Reports is a MUCH better source for reliability data and how much you'll spend maintaining that used car than either Edmunds.com or KBB.com. You can either subscribe at their website or check out their yearly auto guide from your library.

Also, I recommend that people DON'T get fixated on a certain style of car prematurely. You may thing you need a hatchback, but then you might try a large sedan that actually offers more room for what you need.

We've bought two used cars and two new cars--one new car because the old models lacked important safety features back then (for which we paid the fleet price), and one because it was the same price as a two-year-old car. We've had great experiences with all of them, given the prices we paid!

Guest's picture

Kelly Blue Book and Car Max are resources that shouldn't be overlooked when going to buy a used car. I bought my car through the Volkswagen Pre-Loved program so I never had to use either of these websites because Volkswagen provided all of the information I needed, but I have had friends who found interesting information by doing a background check on their cars through those sites!

Guest's picture

I'm actually struggling with this right now. I'd love to have no car at all, but it's just not realistic quite yet. We have it narrowed down, but we're still struggling with some fundamentals, like whether we need a hatchback and whether we should always have one car with four-wheel-drive. Anyone have experience using car brokers?

Guest's picture
L. Ann

A researcher by nature, I found these sites (in no particular order) to be of enormous benefit a couple years ago while deciding on my car purchase:
1) http://editorial.autos.msn.com/new-used-cars/?icid=nav1
2) http://www.safercar.gov/
3) http://www.theautochannel.com/vehicles/new/reviews/index.html