Shopping for a new—er, new-to-you—vehicle? You’ve heard all those stories about the stereotypical smooth-talking used car salesman and the lemon that broke down on its proud (now devastated) new owner just as she pulled off the lot. So how do you make sure you’re getting a good buy?
I’m in the midst of this process right now, so I know how overwhelming it can be. But lucky for me—and for you—my dad’s a car dealer who’s willing to share his wisdom. Here are his tips for finding, choosing, and buying the right used car for you.
Dad’s first tip? Buy from someone you trust. If you don’t have connections to anyone in the business, look up dealers who are members of the NIADA, a nation-wide independent auto dealer network that recognizes dealers for their quality business.
Even if you’re confident in the person selling to you, do your homework long before getting to the lot. Know your budget. Will you buy outright or need to finance? What monthly payment can you afford? Do you need extras like service contracts, extended warranties, and gap or credit insurance? These can be beneficial, but the dealer also makes a profit on them, so doing your homework ahead of time and knowing what you want will help prevent you from getting sucked in if the salesperson tries to oversell you.
Finally, know exactly what you need and want out of your vehicle. To simplify the factors you should take into account, use the industry’s acronym: SPACED.
S could stand for size, “but it should stand for safety,” my dad says. Look for the ride that will be safest for your driving conditions. My commute up the shores of Lake Michigan will be covered in lake effect snow drifts all winter, so I don’t need a sporty rear wheel drive that will spin me off the road if I hit a patch of ice. A four-wheel drive is probably my best choice. If you’re regularly bumper-to-bumper on the freeways of LA, choose something that’s not going to crumble the first time you get rear-ended.
Know how you’ll use your vehicle. How many passengers will you carry? Do you transport large equipment? Will you need to tow anything? And—most importantly—can you find one vehicle to meet your every need? My dad recently worked with a college student who wanted a pickup to both haul a horse trailer and drive to and from school regularly. In the end, a car like that didn’t end up being feasible on a student budget, so she picked something else. You too might have to hold off on your dream car to meet your immediate performance needs.
This is more important to some than others. If I’m going to spend roughly nine hours a week driving, I want a car that makes me happy, and a car’s appearance—especially a nice, clean interior—is a big factor. My boyfriend, on the other hand, claims that an old beater makes the best commuter car, so he couldn’t care less about whether his vehicle is black, white, or some combination of the two, as long as it’s going to run for another 100K miles.
You’re probably going to be spending a good chunk of your time in this car, and you want to be happy with it for the length of time you own it. So think about what you need for a comfortable drive. Cruise control? Remote start? Leather seats? A working heater and A/C? It’s OK to pay a little more for the luxuries that are important to you—but prioritizing them ahead of time will keep you from being swayed by the non-essentials.
With gas prices always on the rise, of course you’re thinking about MPG. But the cars with the best and worst gas mileage may surprise you, so check out fueleconomy.gov for some handy comparison tools and money saving tips.
And don’t forget to consider maintenance costs. Some of the most reliable cars can be the priciest to repair. Having a trusted mechanic take a look at a vehicle before you buy it isn’t a bad idea, either—he or she can tell you what a dealer might not. A car that looks great at first glance might be due for major repairs a few months down the line, and you’ll want to factor that in to the purchase price.
To get the most for your money, you’ll want to pick something that will last. Doing plenty of research ahead of time will help guide your decision: Compare vehicles at sites like autotrader.com and cars.com. Make sure you’re getting a fair quote by checking pricing guides like NADA, Edmunds, and Kelley Blue Book. Consumer Reports also provides safety and reliability ratings and estimated costs of ownership.
Once you’ve done your research, you’re ready to test drive without worrying about falling head over heels for the wrong vehicle. And with your homework in your pocket, you’ll have the facts to counter any over-sugared sales pitch and negotiate a great deal. So, go find a car that will make you happy—and my dad proud.