How to Buy a Used Car the Smart Way: Top 3 Tips

Get quality auto partsLet me tell you a cautionary tale about buying a used car. A good friend of mine just bought a Camry from the mid-1990s. Low mileage, no rust. Legendary Toyota reliability. The asking price was $2,200. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

Unfortunately, that’s exactly how my friend approached the purchase: without really using his brain. He basically bought the car on blind faith, no questions asked. And you know what happened? Two weeks later, the automatic transmission failed. He had to pay almost as much as the purchase price just to get his car back on the road.

Look, the fact is that any used-car purchase is a gamble. You can never be a hundred percent sure what you’re going to get. But if my friend had asked me for used car buying advice, I would have given him the 3 tips discussed below, and they might have saved him a lot of time, money and headaches.

So don’t make the same mistake he did. Heed my tips on how to buy a used car, and minimize the likelihood of bringing home a lemon.

3. Read consumer reviews to learn about common problems

The internet is full of online car reviews written by drivers just like you, and these reviews are an invaluable source of consumer information. Why? Because people love to talk about problems they’ve encountered with their cars. For example, if the used car you’re considering has a trouble-prone transmission, chances are you’ll hear all about it in those reviews. Armed with this knowledge, you can ask better used car questions of the seller, and you’ll also have a better idea of what to look for when you’re inspecting and test-driving the car.

I recommend starting at Edmunds.com and looking up the specific year, make and model of the car to access relevant consumer reviews. But don’t just limit yourself to that one year; do additional research to determine the other years in which the car was produced, and check out consumer reviews for those years, too.

2. Run a vehicle history check

There’s really no excuse for not doing this, folks. For only $25 or so, an online vehicle history check tells you if there have been any reported accidents or other damage-causing events (like flooding), and it also tells you if the odometer readings through the years indicate any manipulation.

Will every single issue be reported? No, but the major ones will be, so anything that shows up on one of these reports is a real red flag. I personally recommend buying only cars with clean records: no accidents, no nothing. But if you decide to pursue a vehicle that doesn’t have a clean history, keep in mind that the history report can be a valuable bargaining tool.

The two major online providers of vehicle history reports are Autocheck.com and Carfax.com. Pick the one you like best and go get that report!

1. Have a knowledgeable mechanic perform a pre-purchase inspection

Most people balk at the $100 fee that mechanics typically charge for this service, but remember the story of my friend and his ill-fated Camry. When you’re faced with something like a $2,000 transmission-replacement bill, you’re really going to regret having skipped this step. Paying a mechanic to inspect a used car before buying is the single most important thing you can do to ensure that you’re not getting a lemon. So grit your teeth and fork over the hundred bucks. I promise you’ll thank me later.

If you’re wondering how to inspect a used car before buying, the key is to find a mechanic who is both knowledgeable about the car you’re looking at and indifferent to whether you buy it or not. So if you’re looking at a Toyota, find yourself a local Toyota mechanic with a good reputation (I recommend reading consumer reviews on Yelp.com), and make sure he’s not a business associate or family friend of whoever’s trying to sell you the car. Also, don’t forget to ask the mechanic to “road test” the car in addition to putting it on a lift in his garage.

Oh, and don’t worry if you want to buy a used car online that’s located across the country—Advance’s Find My Mechanic feature can connect you with someone skilled in used-car inspections. Or, companies like Inspect My Ride let you tap into a nationwide network of inspection specialists.

Anyway, that’s the best used car buying advice I’ve got. Hasn’t let me down yet, and I hope it works for you, too. Good luck!

Editor’s note: Once you do find your new ride, count on Advance Auto Parts for the best in quality auto parts, services and more. Buy online, pick up in store.

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