Over the weekend I accomplished something I've never done before:  I bought a car.

It's not that I haven't been present during the process–with my father for my first car (a 1980 Cutlass Supreme, one sweet ride sporting a navy half-Landau roof), and with my husband ever since–but I've never been the one solely in the driver's seat.

~ smile!! a hit-and-run pun! ~

I dreaded the negotiation process in advance but I learned something:  rather than disdain me for memorizing the internet as it relates to used cars, dealers and salesmen appreciated a savvy shopper.  I knew what I was looking for and invested time to research comparable models; consequently,

the entire experience was educational, empowering and satisfying. 

I thought it might be helpful to share my approach for those who'll be in the market for a car. I bought used but I imagine some of these tips are just as applicable for buying new.

15 Great Tips for Buying a Used Car

15 Tips for Buying a Used Car
(& saving a LOT of money!)

1.  Narrow your choices

It helps to know what you want (make/model) before you walk through the door.  The better you laser what's important to you, the less likely you'll be sold something you really don't want/need.

2.  Determine what parameters will drive your choice.

There are a lot factors  that go into a new-to-you car purchase:  price, mileage, condition, make, model, year, safety rating, repair history, one- or multi-car owner, gas mileage, color, where it's been driven.  Clearly define in your mind the top one or two considerations and don't let lesser factors confuse you.

3.  Do your homework

The internet is a wonderful tool for equipping you to walk through the door as a confident, informed buyer.  Here's the approach I used:

  • I consulted NADA but there are other portals like Kelly Blue Book or Edmunds.  
  • Check with cars.com or autotrader and see what makes/models are available in your area and what they are selling for.
  • Watch your newspaper for weekend ads; they're your best bet for details about price incentives (and a good source for inventory) because dealers want you to come in!

4.  Test drive several cars.

Chances are, you won't buy the first car you drive and that's okay.  In my case, two were sold out from under me, cars I really liked and would have been happy with.  In both cases, I wasn't willing to accept the dealer's counter offer (extended over the phone; see #12 below) because I had done my homework and they were asking too much. 

The more cars you drive, the more comfortable and confident you will become about what you're learning!!  I can't stress this enough.  You'll begin noticing little things about the cars you drive, and you'll get a real sense for ranking one better than another. 

Also, if a car has an odor, walk away.  Seinfeld taught me that one….

5.  Once you identify a car you'd like to buy, pay attention to where it has lived.

For instance, did it originate from an area that saw significant flooding in recent years? i.e. Southern coastal New Jersey last year after Hurricane Sandy, or 2005 cars (or older) from Louisiana (or really, anywhere from Florida to Texas) following Hurricane Katrina.  If a car didn't require repair, it might still be damaged but not necessarily reported (i.e., older cars, rusting or wear from salt on the roads in snowy, northern climate).

6.  Seriously consider who you'd like to buy from.

  • Though we sold a vehicle on Craig's list, we were not interested in buying via a private sale from someone we didn't know, even if it was a great price.  This is a personal decision–I have several friends who've had great success buying a used car this way (for sale by owner); it just isn't for us.
  • A local used car lot had FANTASTIC pricing on its cars; $1000s below pricing on comparable models everywhere else!  A little investigation explained they were all totaled vehicles, cosmetically perfect but functionally questionable.  Dollars saved now may mean lots of dollars for repair later.

7.  Do NOT buy a car until you've read its Carfax report in full.

Why?  Carfax gives you detailed information regarding:

  • Vehicle registration
  • Title information including salvaged or junked titles
  • Odometer readings
  • Lemon history
  • Total loss accident history
  • Frame/structural damage
  • Accident indicators such as airbag deployment
  • Service and repair information
  • Vehicle usage (taxi, rental, lease, etc.)
  • Recall information
  • You also learn how many owners and where it was bought.

8.  Timing matters.

I've often heard that it's best to buy a car at the end of the month, but in missing that mark, I might have learned something even more valuable:  Arrive at the dealership when it opens on a Saturday morning; even better if they're running newspaper or radio advertising or sales. 

Dealerships like to see their ads working.  They also like to see a sale out of the gate.  Car buyers aren't up and at 'em early on a Saturday morning, so you won't have to compete for attention. 

Added bonus:  even if you aren't financing your purchase, it takes a while to go through all of the paperwork.  If you're the first customer of the day, you don't have to wait in line for your turn.

9.  When you arrive at reception, request the sales person who is their biggest consumer advocate

Car salespeople earn their commission a few different ways:  not only as a sales commission on the front end, but also by reaching sales incentives at the end of the month.  Buyers are well served by the guy or gal who wants to move more cars to meet sales goals, not just the person who wants a fat commission by holding out for a higher price. 

10.  Ask your sales person to test drive with you.

It is in your best interest to get to know who you're working with; something I never before considered until my recent purchase.  At two dealerships I test drove without the salesman; at the one I purchased from, he rode with me. 

I learned a lot.

I knew what he was motivated by in carefully listening to him.  I'll admit, initially, I did not appreciate him riding with me (b/c the others hadn't required this).  But, because I'm a natural question-asker and want to get to know people, he opened up to me on a refreshingly, surprisingly personal level.  It made a difference during negotiations later.

11.  Offer an "out-the-door" price.

You should know how much you're willing to pay before you ever walk in the door.  Period. 

It's somewhat deceiving to determine the price you're willing to pay for a car itself, and make an offer based on that.  Tags, taxes and title add substantially to the price, and dealer fees drive it even higher!  You may negotiate the price you want to pay only to end up paying 10-15% more after all the add-ins!! 

Out-the-door pricing is the total you're willing to pay including all fees.  Let the dealer back out the actual selling price and you'll fast realize that number is pretty sweet.

Oh, one more thing: lower payment is not equal to lowest price!  If you're financing a car, a low payment might mean you're paying a much higher price over all.

12.  Negotiate face-to-face.

If you want the best deal possible, you're going to have to negotiate in person.  Don't waste your time trying to do so over the phone. 

Do not give in to high pressure!  If they even as much hint that a price is "only good today", walk away.  The best defense against a high pressure sale is education and information. 

13.  Be realistic.

Recognize you and the dealership have diametrically opposed goals:  you want to save as much money as possible; they want to make as much money as possible.  In other words, once you've taken my advice in this list and have determined a "good" number for YOU, be okay that they're going to make some money, too.  It's a for-profit business.  They'll stand behind what they sell (if you've chosen a reputable dealer). 

Be happy you've negotiated a price that works for you…for both of you!  

14.  Be willing to walk out.

You've done your homework.  You're sure about a fair price.  If the dealer won't meet it (or maybe an eager salesperson is holding out for a higher front-end commission (see #8)), leave.

If your price is reasonable they are not going to let you walk out the door (especially if you've done #8 & #9 above). 

Do what you say you're going to do; I said I would walk out if they didn't meet my reasonable, out-the-door price, and I meant it.  Truth be told, we went back and forth a bit and they pressed me for just $100 over my price (you're likely to hear the phrase "Let's meet half-way.").  I took a deep breath (literally), told my guy I was going next door to Hardees to get a biscuit and think about it because I had said I would not pay a higher price!  But it was close, soooo close.  When he realized I really WAS going to walk next door and think about it, he went to his GM one more time…and brought back a contract with my offering price.

15.  Make sure to ask for the moon.

It can't hurt to ask for everything they're willing to offer.  Ask them to fill your car up with gas and to detail it when you see you're getting close to signing a contract.  Those might be routine practices for your dealership, but if they aren't, that's something you should be sure to include in negotiation.


Regardless of your experience, go to DealerRater.com and write a review.  Actually, had I known about it, I would have used this in my research and spied on the dealerships.  Instead, I rated both the salesman I worked with and a salesman at another dealership who had called me when they received a car similar to what I was looking for.  I also mentioned everyone by name who had helped me (from the people who greeted me to the finance manager).

Your turn:  Do you have any advice to offer that I might have missed?  Do you have horror stories?  Success stories?  I'd love to hear them all!

Thanks in advance for sharing this post–
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