Planning to Buy a Used Car

How To Make a Wise Purchase

Planning to buy a used car? These step-by-step suggestions help you make a list, shop, narrow choices and purchase the right used car.

Having a plan prepared before shopping is the first step to buying a used car. Finding the right used car is much easier with the necessary criteria already decided upon. The experts from suggest beginning by drawing or designing a spreadsheet on paper, using the following column headings – Dealer, Price, Year, Make, Color Ex (exterior) and Color In (interior), and Mileage. Each car will get two rows. Add lines dividing rows and columns. Once the page is designed, print out about 10 copies. 

On the first row, enter car information according to the column headings. On the second row goes the address of the dealership, and then in the row area underneath Price, Year, and Make, notes on the car’s features. In the row areas under Color Ex and Color In, mark the condition of the paint and interior.

Discuss Features, Set Limits

The couple or family should discuss price range, size of the car, approximate age, highest mileage acceptable, exterior and interior conditions tolerated, features needed, and features that would be a plus. Take notes. Decide on an acceptable ratio of age versus mileage. If prospective buyers do not have mechanical experience sufficient to discern how a car with problems might sound or perform during a test drive, then contact a reliable friend who will come along when it is time for the test drive and give advice, once the scouting party has narrowed the list down to a few choice cars.

Study Consumer Guides

Before going car shopping, study some consumer guide magazines or websites to see how the makes and models of cars compare when it comes to repairs. Some consumer magazines depict the frequency of repairs in a certain category (such as brakes, or transmission) by using a small circle graphic. The amount of black color shown in the circle represents more repairs needed on average for that particular make and model over a given amount of time. This sort of comparison helps remove certain problematic makes and models from the shopping list.

Scouting Party

If more than one person is involved in buying the used car, decide based on time and availability who should be the scouting party. This article will assume that the less mechanical person has more free time and therefore will act as the scouting party. The scout will take the printed spreadsheets and visit various dealerships.

Plan on spending about three weeks in this scouting stage of shopping. If children are coming along on the scouting party, involve them as mileage-readers, make-and-model finders, sticker-price-reporters, and so on. Do not get inside the cars at this stage of scouting. The goal is to come away with a list of cars that appear to meet the basic criteria already decided upon. Exceptions can be added to the list but do not add too many exceptions! Should nosy salespeople try to engage the Scouters, get their help, or get rid of them by showing the spreadsheet and insisting that the scouts have no authority to make purchases?

Narrowing Down the List

Every week, or more often if shoppers have the time, get together as a couple or family and go over the list of scouted vehicles. Use a yellow highlighter to mark the vehicles that best meet the criteria. Now is the time to weigh some pros and cons. Go back to the consumer guides and look up the particular makes and models highlighted. Find out if a particular car is prone to one sort of trouble or another. Not all problems will cause a car to be written off the list. For example, if the buyers are trying to find an inexpensive older car, having had a fuel pump replaced recently would be a good thing. The same goes for the replacement of a battery, water pump, power steering pump, master brake cylinder, alternator, timing chains, timing belts, or timing gears.

Some pros can offset some cons. For example, a car with very low mileage for its age might still have its original faded, abraded paint job. The low mileage could offset the looks of the car, and a buyer might consider having the car repainted.

The Test Drive

Now that the list has been narrowed down to a few good possibilities, it is time to bring the more mechanically experienced person on board to take a second look at these cars. Visit the dealership, ask questions about the history of the car or get an online report of the vehicle’s history, get inside the car and assess the condition of the interior, and look under the hood. Look in the trunk for water stains. Kick the tires. This second inspection is not a good time to include the youngsters – get a babysitter.

Take the car for a test drive. An experienced driver with some mechanical experience is better equipped to notice something amiss in the way a car performs – a clunk, a sensation, a suspicious sound. If such a person cannot be found, it is worth the money to take the car to a trusted professional mechanic before completing the purchase.

Here again, are the basic steps.

  1. Draw a spreadsheet for taking notes on cars. Discuss features and set limits.
  2. Study consumer guides to rule out certain makes and models before shopping.
  3. Decide who will be at the scouting party. The scouts should use spreadsheets for note-taking.
  4. Narrow down the list of cars after reading the notes together. Revisit the consumer guides and read up on those makes and models. Choose which of the cars on the list will be given a second look.
  5. Take a mechanically experienced person along to give the shortlist of cars a second look and a test drive.

By working together as a couple or as a family, with everyone doing their part, shopping for a used car can be less stressful. Everyone in the group will have contributed something to the search, and youngsters in the group will learn the value of planning when making large purchases.