Looking for a new ride? You can save a lot of money by smart-shopping the used car market. You will skirt the biggest, hidden cost in a new car—depreciation. Once that new car leaves the lot, its value immediately plummets. According to Consumer Reports, a Pontiac Vibe '03 or '04 or Scion Xb '04 or '05 can be purchased for between $8,000 to $10,000. The new models of these vehicles cost $15,650 for the Xb and $15,310 for the base model Vibe. The average life of a passenger car is 20 years or 126,665 miles while light trucks have a lifespan of 25 years or 153,698 miles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. So that '03 to '05 model has a lot of life left.
Today's used cars are not the beaters of the past. Years of hectoring from consumer groups and educated consumers pushed automakers to increase the safety and reliability of passenger vehicles.
The Internet exponentially expanded a consumer's war chest of information, in both new and used car buying skirmishes, but caveats remain. Here are some tips to steer you through the used car buying process.
What do you want/need and what can you pay?
Get a clear idea of what you want and balance that against what you actually need. Fuel sipper? Family sedan? Would you ever really use a 4x4 capability? What safety features do you think are absolutely necessary then figure out how much you can spend and stay within that figure. Too many car buyers are meeting Re-Pro Man, and you really wouldn't like him and what he can do to your credit rating and your self-esteem.
Look over the stock.
Surf Internet used car listings (autoMedia.com has one of the largest on the web). Research professional new car road test reviews and user reviews from people who've driven and owned the model or models you're interested in. Settle on three or four models that suit your needs and wants.
Consumer Reports offers a used car buying kit online for $24, giving access to their site for three months. CR includes a list of "Best of the Best" used vehicles that are top performers in CR's reliability surveys and performed well in CR's road tests. There is also an ominous list of "Used Cars to Avoid," which had below average ratings in CR's reliability surveys for their specific model years.
Determine the cost to own.
Compare mileage ratings for the vehicles you are considering. Go to www.fueleconomy.gov where you can get the revised EPA mileage figures for any model from 1986 to 2008. The site will tell you what the yearly gas costs would be based on the average 15,000 miles of driving. It also gives you the greenhouse gas emissions for each vehicle.
Find out what your insurance costs will be, since auto insurance is not an option. Go to www.iii.org for a short course in selecting auto insurance. Your premium will be based on the car's sticker price, cost to repair it, overall safety record and the likelihood of theft.
Edmunds.com offers a "true market price" for used cars where you can compare the cost of maintenance, fuel, insurance, repairs, financing, depreciation and taxes and fees in your state. Consumer Reports offers a similar feature as does autobytel.com and nadaguides.org. All of these sites also offer comparisons of several models.
Your best bet for financing is a loan through your credit union or bank where rates are lower. If you have financing in hand when you hit the dealership, you are in a better bargaining position. Check out your credit rating ahead of time, since, in these times of tighter credit, it will make or break your financing deal.
Take a test drive.
Drive on a variety of roads—city street, freeway, two-lane highway and rough paved and unpaved surfaces. Does the car accelerate and decelerate well? Watch for unusual vibrations, noises or odors. Keep the sound system off, so you can concentrate on mechanical sounds. Nadaguides.org has a great checklist of driving tips to help you assess the health of your chosen vehicle. Read our "Do-It-Yourself Test Drive" article in the Drive Smart/Buying Section, among other stories related to buying used.
Check the DNA.
You also need to do some virtual tire kicking by checking the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) against records of floods, lemon disputes or accident reports at sites like autobytel.com, carmax.com and experion.com. Don't buy a car on the spot, go home and think about it. There are 44 million used cars for sale annually, so you have plenty of choices. You should also check for safety defect recalls on your model choice at www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
Get an outside opinion.
After you decide on the vehicle you want, tell the seller that you want to take it to your mechanic for a check up. Go to a certified mechanic and get a thorough checkup. Since he's not selling the car, there is no reason for him to hedge on the health of the vehicle. Be wary of fraudulent, criminal dealers, commonly known as "curbstoners," who offer vehicles through newspaper ads or in shopping center parking lots and may disguise themselves as individual sellers. The cars offered may be stolen or damaged, and their odometers may be rolled back.
Understand warranty information.
Under the Federal Trade Commission's Used Car Rule, all sellers of used cars (except private owners), are required to place a large sticker called a "Buyers Guide" in the window of their used cars, light-duty vans and light-duty trucks. The Buyers Guide (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/autos/buyers.pdf) tells you whether the vehicle comes with a warranty and, if so, which systems are covered, how long coverage applies, and what percent of repair costs the dealer will pay.
The Buyers Guide also alerts you when a car is being sold with implied warranties only, or with no warranty at all ("as is"). Once you complete a purchase of a car "as is" and drive it off the lot, the dealer has no further responsibility for the car. Be sure to sign the Buyers Guide and request a copy for your records.
Check the paperwork.
Ask to see all the repair records for the vehicle. If you are negotiating with a private party and they have no records, it should give you pause. Go to the Federal Trade Commission for info on how to avoid the usual flimflam schemes (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/autos/buyers.pdf). Also check the seller or dealership against the Better Business Bureau in your area to be sure their reputation is a good one.
Research certified pre-owned (CPO).
Used vehicles with less than 50,000 miles are given multipoint inspections with any service or upkeep done before the vehicle hits dealer lots. These programs are backed by the automakers and often include a no-cost extended warranty on major parts such as the engine and transmission. These are usually the cream of the used car crop and they are usually more expensive.