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How to Buy a Used Car From a Dealer

Used Car Dealer Lot SALE

Most people don't think too highly of car dealers and that seems to be especially true of used car dealers. Still, a lot of people end up buying used cars at a dealer and it can work out for you, provided you are careful and take some precautions. 

Know What You Want

Just like clothes, a car is supposed to say something about you, and sometimes practicality can loose out to glamor. If you don't know exactly what car to get, you're probably better off going to look at a car dealer when the place is closed. That way you won't feel pressured and you can take your time. In some states, dealers aren’t allowed to open on Sundays, so that’s the perfect time. Otherwise, early mornings before they open are ideal.

A lot of preparation is required to get a good deal and a good car. You should have in mind beforehand the type of car you're looking for: Compact? SUV? Minivan? Pickup? Otherwise, if you go out just to look, you might end up being sold something you didn't really need. It's best to try and leave emotion out of it, but of course that can be very hard.

Find out what the current market prices are for the models and years you are particularly interested in. Check what the current financing rates are. Used cars have gone up in price, and typically can't qualify for the sweetheart rates of a new car.

Check what the insurance costs will be too, and figure that into your budget. Some similar cars can have different rates because one is prone to being stolen, and therefore have higher premiums every month.  

If you do go to shop when the dealership is open there are a few things to remember. We'll assume you're going to a high-pressure highway type dealer, as a worst case scenario.

Dealing With the Salesperson

You're most likely to be greeted by a salesperson when you set foot on the lot.  If you're not ready to buy, just tell the salesperson. Selling cars is not an easy profession, and they typically won't believe you. Besides, it's the salesperson job to make you ready. 

But don't be afraid to just tell the salesperson that you'd like to look around by yourself. Ask him for his business card and tell him that if you're interested in a particular car, that you'll ask for him. They all typically make commission, and would rather not have you waste their time if there is little chance of you buying today.

A good salesperson will tell that he'll just stick around with you to answer any questions you may have, especially if it is a slow day with no other customers. It's really up to you, though. The sale people know it will be a lot harder to leave if you decide to go if you're with a salesperson. 

The salesman may insist he check with his manager before you go, to make sure he has offered you the absolute best deal and so forth. In many high pressure dealerships, that means the sales manager will get all the details again about what cars you are interested, and how much you want to pay, even though he already knows exactly what cars you've looked at and your whole story (if you told the salesperson). Of course, in order to keep you from leaving, and to try to get you to commit, he may find an extra couple of hundred dollars discount, or throw in some floor mats or free oil changes.

Obviously, not all dealers are like this but a lot of them are. It's not a fun type situation.

Playing it Cool When You Find a Car You Like

What if you notice the perfect car that, looks like a good deal to you? That is why deciding what your goal is before you go out looking around is so important. The fact is, you're always going to run into cars that you like. You really have to get a little unemotional about it, if you want to make the best possible deal. 

The thing you have to get straight in your mind is, don't even go out shopping until you are really thinking of buying. Some people play games with themselves and purposely leave their checkbook, credit cards and money at home. They think that'll be enough to stop a salesman in his tracks.

It won't.

Most dealers today will write up a deal with a variety of "Subject to's" even if you don't put a deposit down. The deal is subject to your wife's approval, to what you think of the car in the morning, to what the weather will be in Ural Mountains tomorrow - it can be the most ridiculous reason. If you have your ID on you, and they check your credit, they can find a way to write a contract, deposit or not.

The point is that the salesperson has succeeded once you think you've made a commitment. If you do actually put your signature on the dotted line, chances are you have.

You can diffuse a lot of high pressure situations by coming in with a nice big yellow legal pad, or a stack of printed out internet ads for other cars. That tells the salesperson that you'll probably go somewhere else after visiting his dealership. Salespeople never get enthused with someone that has a stack or papers, or a pad and pencil to take notes on what they are saying, especially women.

Now let's assume you've found a car you actually are gonging to buy.

Inspecting the Car you Want to Buy

The first thing to do is to carefully visually inspect the car. Just because the car is clean and shiny doesn't mean it's any good.  Dealers spend a lot of money and time detailing a car. 

Sometimes it's better to look at a car in the condition the dealer received it in - especially if it was just traded in. You can get a much better idea how the previous owner maintained the car this way. Most people don't bother cleaning their car when it's time to trade it in - although they should have if they wanted to get top dollar for it.

Look at the condition of the tires and see if  the brands match. If a person was conscientious about maintenance, you'll find that all four tires should match and be worn the same amount. If the previous owner didn't rotate the tires regularly, the front tires will wear out much faster (on front-wheel drive cars). Note any unusual tire wear patterns, which may indicate a bad alignment or something bent in the suspension.

Look for signs of curb rash on the wheels and tires from an owner who was not very conscientious in their parking, which may indicate they were rough on the car while driving too. 

Look at the tailpipe to see its condition. On many cars today you'll find that the tailpipe is connected to the muffler. If the muffler looks rusted out, it probably means that it needs to be replaced soon. 

Don't miss our new one-job manuals for fixing the most common problems with your car!

Examining the interior of a used car

Examining the Body of a Used Car

Next, look at the body. Does the paint color match between all of the different body panels? Look along the length of the body, are there ripples in the fenders or doors? 

Open the hood and see where the the panels bolt together. The paint there should be uniform along the inside of the fenders, the front radiator support, and the underside of the hood. The bolts inmost cases should be painted the same color as the body. If you see body parts, braces, headlight bezels and so forth, that look new, it's quite likely that the car has been hit.

Look over the trunk in the same way.  Does that mean that you should avoid the car? It depends.  Light body work, if it is done well, shouldn't detract from the car's value. 

What you need to avoid is a car that has had a major hit - you know, someone running into a tree head on. If you aren't sure, have the car checked out by a competent body shop.

Even a car with a clean Carfax report could have had a major collision, if there was no insurance claim or police report involved.

Checking the Interior of a Used Car

Inspect the interior carefully as well. Look for extensive wear in the pedals and driver seat as signs of a high mileage car, even if the odometer doesn't show it. Are there any rips or tears in the upholstery or on the dash and door panels? These can be easily repaired, and you may want to have the dealer do it as part of the sale price.

Check every power accessory for proper function, because these little issues can nickle and dime you to death on a modern car. Make sure all the power windows open, and from every switch. Check the power door locks, too. If the car doesn't have power windows or locks, check to see that the window cranks and locks work.

Don't forget to make sure the air conditioning blows cold later when test driving it.

Check the radio, the CD player, the wipers - everything. Does the seat go back and forth properly? Do the doors open and close smoothly?  Does the hood open and close easily?  

Don't feel silly doing all this, especially if the car is fairly new and looks great. Most dealers will be reluctant to fix anything you find after you've bought the car and brought it home. Even if the car has a factory warranty left on it, getting things fixed may be an uphill battle.

Checking All the Fluids

Check the fluids, especially the transmission. Automatic transmission fluid should be a red color. If it’s brownish or has a burn’t smell, pass on the car. That transmission is on its way to transmission heaven.

Check that the brake fluid is clean and golden, and not black or brown. Open the radiator cap (if it is cold) or look in the overflow bottle to be sure the coolant is not dirty and discolored.

And of course, look under the car and check for leaks.

If you’re not sure you’re competent enough to check the car out yourself, most dealers will let you take the car to a mechanic. You may have to pay for an hour of labor at the service station, but a good inspection could save you thousands by steering you away from a problem car.

Test Driving the Car

As with a new car, it’s important to drive the car.  Note how long it cranks over before it starts. Does it “clunk” loudly when you put it in gear? Does it sputter when you step on the gas? These are all signs of potential problems. Modern fuel injected cars ought to start and run quickly with no issue, even when cold. 

Drive the car and see how quickly it accelerates from a stop sign. Lug the motor by driving slowly in a high gear, then step on the gas and make sure the car accelerates cleanly and the transmission downshifts quickly.

Be on the look-out for any unusual noises - which means, don’t drive with the radio on. Does the car pull to one side or another? Be sure to check while cruising, braking, and accelerating. And don’t be afraid to floor it or brake hard; after all, it is your hard-earned money

Taking Delivery of Your Car

Tell the dealer about any items you’ve found that you'd like repaired. A lot of dealers will agree to repair the items you've found, and roll it into the price you are negotiating. Get it in writing.

When it comes time to pick up the car, you'll sometimes find that the repair work hasn't been done. Perhaps a part had to be "ordered"? Don't take the car until everything that was supposed to be done, is done. The dealer's attitude often changes after you've paid and driven the car home.

It’s all about control. After you've paid, you don't have any, so it's better to make sure everything is done beforehand, especially if you don't know much about the dealer.

You may have to wait an extra week in order to get the perfect car, fixed perfectly, but it will be worth it years from now when you are still enjoying it.