How to Buy a Used Car – Explained

Which cars are best? What price to pay? What to watch for?

Buying a used car may be the best option for someone who is looking for an affordable solution to their car needs.

Elsewhere on this web site we’ve discussed the other options which include leasing a new car or taking over a lease from someone who needs to get out of their lease. However, a used car may offer the lowest cost answer, especially if you don’t need a brand new car.

Which used cars are best?

Certain car makes and models have a history of being more reliable and of better quality that other brands. These make the best used cars.

In general, Japanese brands such as Honda and Toyota are good choices, but other vehicles are also very reliable. Some specific makes and models are Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Honda Odyssey, Ford Focus, Scion, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Camry, Acura, Ford Fusion, Mazda Miata, Toyota Highlander, Toyota 4-Runner, Toyota RAV-4, Lexus, Toyota Avalon, Infiniti G35, Infiniti M35, and Hyundai Sonata.

Consumer Reports magazine (and web site) annually reports the results of actual car owner surveys. They compile the data and rate every vehicle in terms of reliability and quality. The magazine’s Auto Issue comes out each year in April (and on their web site) and is an invaluable resource for anyone buying a new or used car. Copies of the magazine are typically available in many libraries.

Interestingly, Consumer Reports also reports on the cars with the worst reliability and quality. Included in this list are the Audi Q5, BMW 535i, Cadillac STS, Chevrolet, Aveo, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Dodge Journey, Kia Sedona, Kia Sorento, Mercedes GL-Class, Mini Cooper Clubman S, Saturn Outlook, Saturn Relay, and Volkswagen New Beetle convertible. Other makes and models are also reported as having a history of poor reliability.

What to pay for a used car

Prices for used cars can vary widely depending on whether you buy from a dealer or from an individual, the age of the car, its mileage, and its condition. Prices are usually highly negotiable.

The key to knowing what to pay for a used car is to determine its current value. There are a number of car-value guide books and web sites available. Examples are Kelley Blue Book ( and NADA Guides ( You plug in the car make, model, optional equipment, year, mileage, and condition to get a value. However, understand these values are estimates and there will almost certainly be differences between sources. Oftentimes, dealers and sellers don’t agree with these values. Therefore, the values should be used as rough guides, not absolutes.

Another way to judge fair car prices is to look at prices being asked for similar cars online at web sites such as eBay Motors and Autotrader. Note that the prices are only asking prices, not selling prices. Dealers and other sellers typically set their asking prices 10%-20% higher than the lowest price they might accept. However, don’t assume that a seller’s asking price, or even his accepted selling price, is actually a fair price for the vehicle. Therefore, always cross-check prices with values found in the value guides that we discussed in the previous paragraph.

How to complete the purchase of a used car

Once you and a seller agree on a price, you pay for the vehicle with your own cash or with a check from a loan finance company, bank, or online loan company. The seller signs over the title to you, which you’ll later take to your local Department of Motor Vehicles to get a new title, registration, and tag in your name. You should also contact your car insurance company even before you drive the car home.

If you need a loan, some dealers can arrange it with a bank or finance company that they have partnered with. However, it’s always advisable to shop for your own loan so that you can compare rates and payments with the dealer’s. This is especially true if you have less-than-perfect credit.

You can get your auto loan online from a reputable service such as Auto Credit Express that specializes in fast approvals, even for people with credit issues.

Always get your most current credit score before you go shopping. What’s your FICO score? Find out now when you check your credit report for $1 at!

If you’re buying from an individual, not a dealer, make sure the seller’s title has his name on it, not someone else’s. If he doesn’t have the title or has lost it, he should get a replacement at the local DMV before you give him money and complete the transaction. If he still has an outstanding loan, both the buyer and seller should go to his bank or loan company and pay off the loan so that the buyer can get the title directly from the loan company. Do not accept a deal in which a seller promises to provide the title later.


Buying a used car requires more care than buying a brand new car. Used cars come in a large variety of makes, models, ages, mileages, and conditions — all of which affects prices. Knowing what price to pay is crucial to getting a fair deal, For more details and advice on buying a used car, see Used Car Advisor.


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