Buying a used car

As I posted earlier my car got wrecked and as an update the insurance company is giving us a good price for it so we’re just going to buy a new to us used car. The problem is I have no idea what one needs to look out for and do when buying a used car. I’ve read and plan on doing stuff there, but they are a bit vague on how some of the stuff works. For example, they say to have a mechanic look at the car, but how does one do that? I know AAA offers pre buying checkouts on cars, but will people actually let you take their car to the AAA place for it to be checked out?

Any other tips, past experiences and/or horror stories appreciated.

Thanks for the help QT3. is your first priority. Get a subscription, and start running cars you are interested in.

Any good car lot will allow you to have a third party inspect a vehicle. If they don’t, or try to steer you away from it, don’t deal with that lot. They have something to hide.

Most lots will actually let you “lease” the car for a day or two to let you get a feel for it, and/or take it to have an inspection done. Never rely on their “6,000 point inspection” crap. Of course, you will have to sign paperwork that says you will pay X cents per mile you put on it if you don’t buy the vehicle, if you go this route. If you open the phone book, you should be able to find a couple of vehicle inspectors like a Lemon Busters franchise.

Never let a lot push their extended warranty on you, even if it is a Manufacturer’s warranty. If it is indeed eligible for a Manufacturer’s warranty, you can buy those from any authorized dealership, even online. If it isn’t eligible, and you are gung-ho about getting one, you can usually get a better and cheaper one online.

Another good thing to do is look at the “Trade-in” values of the cars to get a good idea what they paid for the vehicle. Always assume they paid one level lower too. For example, if you look at a car that you consider “Excellent” condition, use the value Kelly Blue Book says for the level below that, because you know they tried to low-ball the trade in, or bid low at an auction house for it. With that information, you can figure their mark up to the sticker, and use it in your offer negotiations.

Speaking of trade-in and auction, try to casually find out how they acquired it, either through a trade-in, dealer swap, or auction. If it was through an auction, then be a bit more thorough in your inspections. There is usually a good and expensive reason it went through auction.

Now this part is on how serious you want to negotiate, which is really my favorite part…
If you do happen to sit down and start negotiations on a car, and they pull out a peice of paper and do that “four box” crap, kick the guy straight in the twig and berries. That shit only serves them to get a baseline on how much you can or are willing to spend. It is always better to ask straight up “what is your best cash price for this vehicle?”. You make them set the first offer, and using the word “cash” means they don’t expect to have to handle dealing with a financing sale, which makes their lives easier. If they ask about trade in, just say there won’t be one; don’t mention that you totalled your vehicle, because then they will use that as you are more in need of a car and not just casually shopping for one, and they won’t be as willing to come down on price.

Very helpful advice, thank you. However at the moment I’m just looking for a cheap, $2-3kish, car and going to use the rest of the money towards a newer one in which case I think your advice will come in very handy.

For the car now, the cheap one, I think I’m pretty much guaranteed to be dealing with a private seller or a shady used car place.

In that price range, don’t deal with a user car place. Use your local newspaper, craigslist, etc to find cars.

To get the best value for your money in that price range, you want an unsexy car. You want something with four doors that has never been driven by any males under the age of 35. Previous owner an elderly person is about perfect, since it means the car was more likely to have been well treated and not hot rodded.

To make sure the car is as cheap as possible to repair, go for models that were very popular family cars in their days. A nice Camry or Accord or Caprice or Lumina isn’t a bad idea. Steer clear of Tauruses in that price range, since it will be an older one and the 90’s Tauruses has reliability issues.

If you really want reliable and cheap and can find one, get an 80’s Caprice or Impala with a V8 engine. Those small block V8’s and transmissions were common as dirt across so many GM cars over time that every mechanic knows how to fix them and parts are dirty cheap.

Getting a car checked out by a mechanic will run you about a couple hundred bucks. Here’s a checklist* for you to take to the mechanic when you find a car and you want take it to a mechanic to have the seller’s claims validated. You might want to put this into table form and make it all pretty.

*-From the pamphlet “How to Buy a Great Used Car” by Tom and Ray Magliozzi aka click&clack.

YES: There is some evidence of this problem/condition. If yes, comment to the severity of the problem, what the condition indicates to you, and any other information you feel is relevant to the buyer of this car.

NO: There is no evidence of this problem or condition.
GOOD: There is no reason to believe this part of the system will fail within six months
BAD: This part of the system is already broken and needs replacing immediately
WILL NEED REPLACING SOON: This component or system shows sever signs of wear and could reasonably be expected to fail within 6 months.

If you check BAD or WILL NEED REPLACING SOON, also provide a cost estimate of that repair.

City driving comments:
Highway driving comments:

Valve train noise (adjustable?) YES | NO COMMENTS PRICE
Piston slap
Bearing rap
Timing chain noise
Timing belt or belt tensioner noise
Power steering pump noise
Alternator bearing noise
Water pump noise
Belt noise
Belt tensioner or idler pulley noise
Air pump noise (if appropriate)
Bent pulleys or misaligned belts
Worn belts
Visible oil leaks
Visible coolant leaks
Clutch master cylinder leak
Brake master cylinder leak
Worn, soft, or excessively hard hoses
Visible brake fluid leaks
Visible power steering fluid leaks
Is timing belt due to be changed
Does CHECK ENGINE light work

Reading:___ Specification:___ Acceptable?
Reading:___ Specification:___ Acceptable?

Clutch master cylinder operation: Good | Bad | Will Need Replacing Soon, Comments, Price
Brake master cylinder operation:
Power brake booster operation:
Condition of “tune up” components (plugs, rotor, cap, wires, filters, crankcase ventilation system, PCV, etc.):

Does it pass required emissions test for this area? YES | NO
Carbon Monoxide (CO) Reading:___ Specification:___ Acceptable?
Hydrocarbons (HC)
Oxygen (O2)
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
NOx (if applicable)

Themostatic air cleaner (if applicable): Good | Bad | Will Need Replacing Soon, Comments, Price
Evaporative controls
Air injection system (if applicable)
Exhaust gas recirculation system
Thermail vacuum switches and hoses
Pressure test
Condition of radiator
Belts and hoses
Water pump/bearing
Electric cooling fan
Antifreeze protection to ____F
Coolant: Clean | Dirty

Load Test for battery: Good | Bad | Will Need Replacing Soon, Comments, Price
Condition of cables and terminal ends

Starter current draw in amps: ___ OK? Yes | No Price if ‘No’:$
Alternator output in amps: ___ OK? Yes | No Price if ‘No’:$
Alternator output in volts: ___ OK? Yes | No Price if ‘No’:$

Underbody Inspection

Bent frame or damaged underbody: : Good | Bad | Will Need Replacing Soon, Comments, Price
Rusted frame or floor
Unusual tire wear
Missing parts (parking brake cable, catalytic converter)
Ball joints
Tie rod ends
Rack and pinion (if applicable)
Steering box/Idler arm/Pitman arm (if applicable)
Control arm bushings
Strut rod bushings
Stabilizer bushings and links
Rear suspension components
Rear ball joints (if applicable)
Wheel bearings
Axle bearings
All universal joints (4WD if applicable)
Condition of drive shafts
Drive shaft support and bearings
CV joints
Strut or shock leaks, front
Strut or shock leaks, rear
Exhaust pipes
Catalytic converter(s)
Fuel tank and lines
4WD system functioning (if applicable)
Transmission fluid level (note condition)
Differential fluid level
Transfer case fluid level (if applicable)


Engine : Good | Bad | Will Need Replacing Soon, Comments, Price
Transmission, cooler and cooler lines (if applicable):
Brake components (brake lines, proportioning valves)
Cooling and heater components (heater core, heater control valve, freeze plugs, etc)
Hydraulic clutch (if applicable)
Steering components (rack, power steering pump, hoses, etc)
CV joint boots
Differential (if applicable)

Body Integrity

Sheet Metal Ripples, poor finish, or other signs of serious or cosmetic body work: : Good | Bad | Will Need Replacing Soon, Comments, Price
Significant rust
Mismatched paint
Body filler:


Brake pads: Good | Bad | Will Need Replacing Soon, Comments, Price
Brake rotors (warped, scored, worn)
Brake shoes and drums (if applicable)
Condition of hardware
Caliper pisons move freely
Caliper slides move freely
Brake component leaks
Wheel cylinders
Parking brake cables
Cracks in flexible brake lines
Axle seal leaks or Wheel bearing grease seal leaks:
Condition of ABS sensors and wiring (if applicable)
Clutch (if applicable)
Shock absorber bounce test
Operation of air conditioner
Operation of heater
Lights, exterior
Lights, interior (including dashboard and warning lights)
Other dashboard/stalk operated items (flashers, wipers, cruise control, etc)

Total Repairs Necessary Now (Rated ‘BAD’ by mechanic) $_____
Total Repairs Likely Within Six Months (Rated ‘Will Need Replacing Soon’ by mechanic) $_____
Grand Total: $______

Ended up getting the nicer used but new to us car first since my gf will be driving it mostly.

Looked around various places and decided on a Honda CRV. Got financing through USAA.

We picked out a few we’d like to negotiate on and went to the dealer. On one of them we pointed out a lot of small cosmetic issues and got in the car to go away when they came chasing after us with a lowball offer even lower than I would have offered as my lowest. After 3 hours sitting around watching them churn paper and arguing over stupid dealer fees the price went up a bit due to said fees but still lower than I thought we would be able to get it for. I was close to walking at the end of the 3 hours when they didn’t remove the stupid addon fee but I think my gf might have killed me. Our final price ended up just a bit over what the NADA guide and KBB list for the trade in value on the car and about 7% more than they paid for it(which I saw then I snuck a glance at their inventory management system), which I thought was pretty decent. The finance guy went yelling and screaming down the hall at the salesperson when I balked at the stupid fees added on and threatened to walk out. I do wish I lived in a state where they cap said fees but oh well. They also agreed to finance us for about 1.5% less than the USAA rate.

This is my first car purchase, I’m still a bit peeved by the addon fees, next time I will try and catch them in the sales office and put a stop to it there. Any tips for future purchases and avoiding said fees?


Finance through a bank, not a dealer, from the dealers perspective you are paying cash now. With that kind of power, you can keep saying no to whatever they tell you. Just walk away if you don’t like what they are saying. When I buy a car I literally say “I am paying X amount, I want W Y and Z options. Any negotiation, upselling or fees will lose you the easiest sell of your day.” and I stand firm.

I might as well put this here, since this thread has already answered several of my questions…

My wife and I are currently looking at a variety of used cars, and I wanted to know if people think Certified Used Cars (regardless of brand) are worth the increased cost? They do seem to come with longer warranties…

I recommend not paying attention to that at all. Get thee to a Honda dealership.

Man, I missed my chance to offer tips. I bought a used truck last week.

In any case:

  1. is awesome. My subscription was worth the money.

  2. Use,, and the nada site. They won’t all return the same value. It’s very interesting to see and learn what each site values.

  3. ebay and some of the other car sites ( is where I found my truck) can be useful for determining the going price for vehicles. Use these sites, even if you don’t intend to purchase through/using them.

  4. A lot of the car sites give you great tips for visual inspection. It helps if you can talk to a mechanic or owner of a car much like the one you want. They’ll give you additional tips (where to look for rust, for example, or what tends to fail).

  5. Some state inspections are more thorough than others. Make sure you check when it was inspected last, especially since you may have to have it inspected very soon.

Channel Bill Dungsroman and threaten to cap the dealer’s sales associate if he does not give in to your demands.

I can’t recommend Carfax enough. The vehicle we purchased had records of being a Honda Certified Used car and service at the dealership every 3000 miles. Carfax also will tell you all the cars listed in your area of a given type, which is very handy. The car we bought was found on Also having outside financing going in was great since they couldn’t screw around with us on that, I only let them try and beat the terms of the financing I already had which they did.

Hey, I had to sell cars for 6 months to survive during the recent depression after 9/11. i am now very happily back in the corporate world.

A couple things to know.

Carfax is good but not the be all end all, does not mean the car might not suck in a few months, beware.

Dealers make the most money on Used cars. That is their cash cow. I would make $100 on a new car, and $1500 the next deal on a used car that appeared to get a bigger discount then the new one.

Don’t fall for the whole internet preferred pricing trick. We would love those, if you uped them it was a done deal, at the Internet price and you had $800 in your pocket. Go in cold, know the price and negotiate the deal.

Take a look at the price they are asking for the car, and take off $3000 - $4000. Yes, that is not a typo. Now you see why if they take $1500 off and you feel like you got a good deal they are still coming out ahead.

Don’t forget you are in a hostile environment. They cozy up, try to make you feel comfortable, buy you a bottle of water, they are your best friends. Wrong. They are trying to make the most money they can off of you. your job is to not let them.

Car dealerships make money a few different ways. Markup on price, they hold back money on the trade, they sell you paint protection and accessories, and they take points on the back end (financing). Don’t feel comfortable thinking it is done in the finance office it is not. Don’t let him bitch about having to redo the paperwork, it is his fricking job. Be wary of extended warranties. By the protector paint protection (it is worth it), offer them $150 for it after they try to sell you package A for between $800 - $3000 (dealer cost is like $100). tell them to take it or leave it, they will.

You will get a hell of a bargain at the end of the month in the middle of the week at 7 PM. That is what I did with my last car purchase (a mercedes C240). I got $10K off of a service loaner that had not been titled (8k miles), and paint protection for $150. I was the only person they sold a car too that day, they gave it to me and were happy to do it.

Beat the crap out of them. Have no mercy because they certainly have none for you. they know if they make a little or nothing off of you, they will make a bunch off of someone else. Be the person they make little to nothing off of.

Be smart, be wary, and kick their ass for me. With the exception of the few, desperate corporate refugees, most car salesman are scumbags who are addicted to something (alcohol,drugs, gambling, porn, you name it).

have no mercy for the weak in this case.

Or you can just go to Carmax and pay their price. Always good advice for the nonconfrontational. Their cars are great (my wife and mother in law bought one each before they met me) reliable, and there is no haggling.