Tips on Buying Used Cars

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There is nothing like preparing for travel season. A few years ago, we purchased a truck to travel to California for a cross-country road/camping trip. This travel season, we find ourselves again, searching for a truck. Throughout our search, we have learned some great tips for purchasing a used vehicle. Rarely do I buy new cars. I like for someone else to drive the depreciation off of the car before we invite it into our family.

Although we have purchased many vehicles in the past, this quest is for a particular setup on a truck (engine, axle ratio, etc.). Our search has been very intensive, and it has caused us to pick up tips on buying a used car that I have never come across in other vehicle hunts.

Tips for Buying a Used Car

I want to share some tips that I have found very useful from Patrick McCall, a seasoned automotive technician for almost two decades. Then, I will follow Patrick’s tips with a few of my own. So join me in learning Patrick’s best tips for purchasing a used car.

Patrick McCall’s Tips on Buying a Used Car

Most people these days have a pretty good idea of what type of automobile they want to purchase before shopping. The buyer may even have a potential vehicle pared down to a specific model or year. As an automotive service professional and a buyer of many used vehicles ranging from turnkey, nice, and ready to drive to $700 and probably needs to go to the junkyard (and even one that was free), I want to share with you a little of what I like to see in a potential purchase.

1. Does the vehicle have a nice overall appearance?

I’m not limiting “appearance” to just shiny paint and no missing body parts. Think outside the box when test driving cars. Ask yourself the following questions. Is there any trash? Does the car smell good? What does it look like under the seats? Does it have the original floor mats? OK, that last one can be difficult to ascertain, but what I’m getting at is determining how well the car has been maintained. If it has been taken care of on the interior, the chances are likely that the current owner also cares enough to keep the mechanicals well sorted on the exterior. Check the engine light and other warning indicators to see if they come on when you turn the key, but go out shortly after the engine is running. Consider giving bonus points for a recently passed emissions test if your state requires one.

2. Crank the car up, listen to it run, roll down the window, put it in gear, and go for a drive.

Do you hear any unusual noises coming from the inside or outside while the windows are down? Engage the air conditioning. Does the air get cold? Go over some bumps, road undulations, and find something that will upset the ride just a little bit. Again, any unusual noises? Rattles, knocking, squeaking, or ticking that you hear while driving, yet go away after you stop, can all be signs of steering and suspension parts are worn and due for replacement. Don’t forget to see if the steering wheel is off-center. I recommend finding a nice straight road for this.

Roll Windows Down

3. Come to a stop and LISTEN.

I don’t get too bent out of shape over brake noise, at least not at first. Some vehicles for sale may have sat for a day or two, or perhaps even a week or two. The first drive after a vehicle has been sitting will most likely knock some trash off the surface of the brakes. However, if you’ve been driving for a while and still hear noises, or worse, you feel vibrations in the brake pedal, it is a strong signal that brake repairs may be due. The good news is that unless you feel the vehicle pull in one direction when you’re stopping, brake repairs are limited to brake pads and rotors, which are no big deal. I wouldn’t let a brake job scare me away from a vehicle, but I definitely would work it into the sale negotiations. 

5. Inspect the Tires

So you finished your test drive. I assume that you didn’t feel any vibrations or other abnormalities that have turned you away? Now it is time to look at the tires. Full disclosure, I’m probably the most insufferable tire snob that you’ll ever meet. This snobbiness comes from a decade and a half of working on Mercedes, Audi, and other luxury European brands while troubleshooting ride and handling concerns. I have found that ninety percent of the time, if there are ride or handling concerns, the tires need to go.

Ride and handling concerns can be caused by a multitude of reasons. First, look carefully at the tires on the car that you test drove. Would you say the tires look reassuring or that they are nothing to write home about? What brand are they? Is the brand recognizable? I find if the tires are nice, there’s a good chance everything else on the vehicle will be nice as well. I give bonus points for Michelin.

Some additional tips on tires include checking for noticeable wear. Turn the wheels all the way to one side so that you can see clearly across the tire. Tires worn slick on one side or wore on the inner or outer sections but are virtually brand new in other places are most likely due to an alignment problem. These tires will still need to be replaced and indicate how well someone has taken care of the car. 

Check the Tires

I can go on and on with tips on purchasing a new car, but in the end, do not forget that a used vehicle is USED. Plan on having to fix something shortly after taking ownership, whether that comes to fruition or not. Everyone has their ideas of what is acceptable when buying a used car and what you find as acceptable may not be to someone else. Have an idea of how much you would be willing to invest in repairs if required. A problem could be as simple as a battery replacement or as complex as needing new shocks and struts or even a new transmission. I usually am prepared to invest $1000 if needed. I wish you well on your used car hunt.

Patrick has been working as an automotive technician for 16 years. He is a Mercedes-Benz Certified Master Technician with extensive experience working in Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lamborghini, and Aston Martin. He and his wife, Anna, live in Atlanta with their 12-year-old son Will. Anna is a fellow blogger friend. Check out her blog at The Ponytail Project.

Brandi’s Tips on Buying a New Car

This most recent quest to purchase a new truck has been particularly trying. I was so happy to have Patrick’s tip of rolling down a window while driving. We recently drove an hour and a half to test drive a truck that seemed fantastic. However, I rolled down the window and noticed that there was a grinding sound each time that Sean accelerated. The truck was a definite no-go after hearing the noise, but we would have never known if the window would have been rolled up.

Here are a few more tips that I would like to share.

Buying a Used SUV

1. Wait on your unicorn.

We call the last truck that we purchased “a unicorn.” Sean did some hardcore searching for that truck, which was a 2017 Ford F-250 Lariat. When we went to sell, the truck was worth over $8,000 more than we had invested in it. Vehicles do not typically appreciate. However, this truck did. In searching for our next truck, I now have the “unicorn standard.” There will be other trucks that have the same fantastic deal as the one that we just sold.

Part of not conceding is also not giving in when you want a particular feature on your vehicle. For example, we want a standard (6.5 foot) bed on our new truck. Searching for a standard bed puts us in the “finding a unicorn” game because the “standard” size for a crew cab is a short bed (5.5 feet). However, if we settled for the short bed, in which there are plenty at the dealership down the road, we will not be able to fit our bikes in the back. Don’t settle for options that are important to you. Your perfect auto is out there, so don’t buy prematurely.

Tow Capacity When Buying Used

If you are going to use the vehicle for towing, make sure that the auto you purchase has the correct axle ratio and that it can pull (and, more importantly, stop) whatever it is that you are pulling. This morning, I was on a Facebook forum where a lady wanted to pull her pop-up with a Honda Odyssey. There were only a few hundred pounds between her max towing capacity and the weight of a camper. This becomes a matter of safety. Don’t buy something you “think” will tow, and don’t listen to the dealers. Their main goal is to make a profit.

When looking into purchasing a camper a few years back, the dealer told us that our Lexus RX450h (a hybrid) could pull a camper that weighed 4,000 pounds. However, this hybrid can tow ZERO. My nice SUV would have been torn up so fast if we had not completed our own research. Know what you are towing before purchasing a vehicle, or buy the vehicle first and then determine how much weight you can tow. Safety first, always! Check out our article on Tow Capacity to learn more.

2. If you have the chance, pre-finance.

I am not going to lie; I am the queen of impulse buying. However, if you are pre-financed going into a dealership, you have the power. Negotiations are in your court. Know your budget. I went ahead and requested pre-financing, and I was approved for $75,000 to purchase a truck. I am not interested in spending that much on a vehicle. Don’t get excited and buy a more expensive vehicle because you can. Be strong and resist temptation. Remember, there is a payment that will tag along with that shiny new car or truck.


3. About that self control…. beware of dealership pressure for extras and add-ons.

When we purchased our last truck, the dealership tried hard to get us to purchase interior protection that I would have never used. It was supposed to be good for tears in leather, marks, and stains, as well as normal wear. However, when we got a pen mark on the tan leather seats, a magic eraser got it right off (I am not condoning this, I am just giving you an example).

I know that there is a good chance that we may not have the vehicle that we are purchasing within the next five years. Because of this, there is no benefit to me purchasing extended warranties. Also, do not commit to purchasing additional ceramic coatings, protective film coverings, bed liners, or tire warranties unless it is something that you would have purchased without the dealership asking you to do it. If the dealer is offering something you want, check to see what it would cost if you add the feature after the purchase. For example, if you will pay $500 for a spray-in bed liner and the dealership is offering to do it for $800, is it worth the $300 to have it done now? Also, check how much these extras will raise your payment if financed into your total purchase.

Look at Interior When Buying Used

Walk away at least once. Don’t be afraid to leave if you feel pressured or if you feel yourself compromising. The power is yours. Negotiating is on your terms. If you find that you still want to look at that vehicle after walking away, send an email to the salesperson with your bottom dollar and how much money you are willing to put down on the vehicle. Then, remove yourself and negotiate online. You always hear that people are braver behind the keyboard; let that work in your favor.

Car Lots WHen Buying Used

4. Are you willing to travel to purchase your car?

We typically travel when purchasing our vehicles. We do not mind expanding our search radius to save money on the price. Many people, however, do not find that it is worth the savings to travel and purchase an automobile. You must decide, is the travel worth it or are you willing to pay more around town for the convenience factor? If you are waiting on a local unicorn, it may not come soon. If you are in a hurry, that is not a problem. Maximizing your savings may require a little work and travel.

5. Salt and Appearance Matter

Salt is a car killer. If you are looking at a vehicle near the coast or from the northern states, beware that salt rusts vehicles. When looking for a truck, there is this crazy pattern of used F-150s from Canada being sold in Georgia. The most popular model of the F-150 made in Canada is called the XTR. People, Ford does not make XTRs in the states. So if you come across an XTR model, check that truck out good for rust.

There is also a load of Ford’s from Quebec for sale at dealerships in the Southeast. We recently found a “too good to be true” deal in North Georgia. When looking at Carfax, we saw that the government-owned it in Quebec. Just for fun, we went to check out the truck one Sunday afternoon. We realized that the lug nuts and the entire undercarriage were covered with rust on a 2019 model when looking at the truck. No thank you!

Rattles When Buying Used

Make sure that you pull a Carfax report on the vehicle that you are looking at. In my heyday of buying cars, I used to have to pay for Carfaxes. However, these days, they are free for most vehicles from a dealer. You can also go to specific websites that will give you the original window sticker on the vehicle when entering the VIN. You will likely have to sign a document when you purchase your vehicle from a dealer that you reviewed and agreed to the Carfax. Check for wrecks and prior damage.

In our current research, I love the detail that Carvana and Vroom give on a vehicle’s imperfections. They are going to drop your “new to you” vehicle off in your driveway. Save yourself the hassle and know what you are getting before it is delivered. I found a truck that had some cosmetic issues in Tennessee. However, the truck was listed about $8,000 below Kelly Bluebook’s value. I know that the imperfections can be fixed at a local body shop for under $1000. This truck is on our top list of contenders because I can fix it cosmetically. However, I don’t do well with dings. Make sure that you can either live with or fix the cosmetic imperfections before purchasing.

Imperfections when Buying Used

Don’t forget the imperfections on the inside too. Is there a rattle in the dash that you can’t find on a test drive? Chances are, a mechanic might not be able to find it either. Check the seats for rips and wear. Make sure that whatever you see is something that you can live with.

6. Buy From a Reputable Person/Dealer

My friend volunteers for a national consumer advocacy group. One of the biggest cries for help from people is because they purchased a vehicle from a shady roadside dealer for a sky-high interest rate, and now there is something wrong with the car. Don’t get stuck in the moment and make a regrettable purchase. I have no problem driving a beater rather than buying a vehicle with a high interest rate. I know that I am going all Dave Ramsey here, but I care that you make a smart purchase. If your gut is telling you no, GO.

7. Trust Your Gut and Your Wallet

Know what you can afford. Will the extra $20 per month for the upgrades hurt your monthly finances? Will an extra $100? Also, check the insurance rate on the vehicle that you are thinking of purchasing. All you have to do is give your insurance company your VIN and ask them for a quote. Compare that rate to your current vehicle’s rate. Did you know that our pick-up truck is 1.5 times more per month to insure than my Tesla? It makes me scratch my head in both dumbfoundedness and sadness. Make sure that you can pay the insurance in addition to your monthly payment.

Buying a Used Car

Don’t love a car that you find so much that you make an unwise decision. There are other fish in the sea and cars on the road… and every once in a while, you can find a unicorn waiting on you to ride off into the sunset.

Interested in learning about how to plan a vacation with your new ride? Check out our Ultimate Guide on How to Plan a Trip!


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