Buying a used rather than a new car can save you a lot of money. However, to get that perfect price, you need to do your homework and be ready to negotiate.
About half of American adults are driving a car they bought used and two-to-three-year-old vehicles are usually the best value according to Consumer Reports. If you put in a little work before even heading to the used car lot, you might end up with more cash in your pocket.
“You’re buying somebody else's problems, basically,” said Jill Ciminillo, automotive editor for our sister-publication, Auto Matters.
She and her husband recently found themselves in a tricky position.
“His engine basically blew and so there's no real coming back from that,” Ciminillo said.
They had just a few days to find a vehicle and they planned to buy a used car. Her first step: start with a background check.
“The first thing you gotta do is get a car report on the vehicle you're going to buy, you need to know what the maintenance records look like,” Ciminillo said.
The dealerships had this information ready for Ciminillo and her husband, but you can find it online, too. These reports can tell you a lot about how a car’s been treated.
“The first owner only had it for a year but literally, like every three years like clockwork… took it in for maintenance. Then you flip the page and say, whoa what happened here,” she said.
The second owner had it for two years and only took it in for maintenance once. That was a big clue for Ciminillo on how the car had been treated thus far.
Next, know your numbers before walking onto the car lot. Kelley Blue Book is a great place to find the value of the vehicles you are interested in purchasing.
“The list price for the vehicle was $20,000 and I was just like I don’t know," Ciminillo said, “I looked at the Kelley Blue Book report and I’m like, I’m betting you money... the trade-in value is between $12,000-14,000.”
She had a price in mind, and this is her most important tip:
“You have to be willing to walk away, it's so much easier said than done. You have to repeat this in your head over and over again: ‘I will walk away if I’m overextending, I will walk away if I’m not happy with the car,” Cimnillo said.
At the end of the experience, they ended up paying $15,900 for exactly the vehicle they wanted. A word on haggling: it’s not that Ciminillo loves it, in fact, she has advice for those who try to avoid confrontation.
“Just say, ‘I have an appointment, I gotta go at 12,’ then you've built in this out,” she said.
One more nugget of wisdom from Ciminillo’s car-buying experience: know how much you can pay per month before you start talking money with the dealership. If you can afford $300 a month, stick to that like glue and don’t go over by even a dollar.
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