9 Tips on Buying Used Cars

Rather than getting taken to the cleaners, here’s how to have a clean experience buying a used car.


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Shoppers who seek out tips on buying used cars can save a lot of time, energy, and money. A second-hand car can be a stellar value, though the process can seem stressful given variables like condition and history that make for an unlevel playing field among used vehicles.

Our nine tips on buying used cars can streamline your search so you wind up with a solid vehicle that's right for you.

1. Figure Out What You Want

You can cast an exceptionally wide net when it comes to used-car shopping, but that can also take ages. Instead, you'll want to whittle down your list of wants and needs to select a body style (sedan, SUV, pickup, etc.) that fits your budget. You don't need to immediately settle on a specific make and model, since you may prefer to do some comparison shopping between similar cars.

2. Look at Reliability Ratings and Reviews

As part of your hunt for the right car, you'll definitely want to get a feel for reliability and running costs. A quick web search can reveal reviews from experts when the car was new, too, which can give you an idea of how well-regarded it was when it first rolled off the assembly line.

3. Shop Both Dealers and Private Parties

Dealerships will usually present a well-detailed car, and many will have recently performed maintenance services. Shopping from a private party can often save you quite a bit of money, however, and it also allows you to ask the seller just how they used the car during their ownership.

A private seller can shed light on whether the car was used for short, in-town commutes, or for longer road trips. Perhaps you'll learn some of the bigger repairs that they've had performed over the years—such information can save you big money down the road if they've stayed on top of preventative maintenance. Additionally, you might learn if the car has ever been wrecked or otherwise damaged.

4. Give the Car a Thorough Walk-Around

You can trust your judgment when it comes to first impressions. Does the paint have a uniform shine and hue? Are there any discernible scratches or dents? Is the interior in good condition and free of worrisome smells? Do the wheels have any damage? Are all four tires the same, high-quality brand, and do they appear to have even wear? When you start the car, does it fire up quickly and idle smoothly? These questions can help make your decision for you.

5. Ask for Service History Paperwork

A car's service history can provide a glimpse into just how well it has been maintained. A fastidious owner will keep receipts from any maintenance and be willing to convey them with the sale. Keep in mind that bigger repairs aren't necessarily a red flag. They can mean that the owner kept the car in good condition and was willing to replace expensive parts.

Additionally, confirm that the owner's manual and at least two keys are included. The original window sticker, which lists the car's standard and optional equipment when new, is also nice to have.

6. Take a Test-Drive

It's generally preferable to start the engine when it's cold to look for any smoke that may emerge from the tailpipe. Regardless of temperature, you'll want to look closely when you drive off, given that smoke is definitely cause for concern.

Once you're behind the wheel, listen closely to the suspension as the car goes over bumps. Clunks or squeaks point to bushings, shocks, or other components that can be costly to repair. When you accelerate, you'll also want to listen for rattles or excessively loud noises under the hood, and you'll also want to confirm that the car moves quickly and that it seems to shift through the gears smoothly (if it has an automatic transmission). When turning, confirm that the car doesn't lean too much and that its steering wheel comes back to center smoothly.

Take the car out on the highway to see if it tracks straight and doesn't vibrate at speed. When braking, confirm that the pedal has a fairly firm action and there is no vibration in the steering wheel. Critically, you'll also want to get a feel for your comfort level. Ask yourself: Is this a car I can see myself driving for a while?

If possible, consider driving a few vehicles of the same make and model so that you become something of an expert on the sounds they should make and the way they should drive.

7. Get a Professional Second Opinion

If you're looking at a car from a dealer, unless you're mechanically savvy, it's not a bad idea to get a pre-purchase inspection by either an independent dealer or mechanic, as it can be worth its relatively minimal cost. A shop will put the car on a lift to give it a thorough underside inspection, and then they'll take the car on a test-drive to look closely for any problem areas.

A mechanic who performs this inspection can also provide you with an estimate of what any problems or upcoming maintenance will cost. You can even ask the mechanic their opinion on the vehicle make and model in general, seeing as they may be aware of particular problem areas.

8. Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Repairs

If the car you've picked out mostly passes muster but may be due for an oil change, new tires, or a tune-up, there's no harm in asking the seller or dealer if they will cover—or split the costs of—this work. In fact, dealers with a service department may find such negotiation tactics more appealing than dropping the price, knowing they can absorb service costs without having to mark them up to make a profit.

9. Confirm You're Getting a Good Deal

Various websites offer value estimates that take condition, mileage, and features into account for both private party and dealer sales. These are a great starting point for value, but you can also look at other, similar vehicles to see if their asking prices are similar. If a dealer or seller is asking way more (or less), that can be a cause for concern. A price too high can make negotiating a challenge, while one that's disconcertingly low may be too good to be true.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz has had cars in his blood ever since he gnawed the paint off of a diecast model as a toddler. After growing up in Dallas, Texas, he earned a journalism degree, worked in public relations for two manufacturers, and served as an editor for a luxury-lifestyle print publication and several well-known automotive websites. In his free time, Andrew loves exploring the Rocky Mountains' best back roads—when he’s not browsing ads for his next car purchase.