There's nothing better than that new car smell — except maybe the smell of the money you save by buying a used one.
But while bargains are available on gently worn models, it's still no small purchase: The average price of a pre-owned vehicle was a whopping $19,232 in late 2016, up 4.3% over the previous year, according to Edmunds.
Since buying a car of any kind is a big spend, you've got to do some due diligence. How did the previous owner (or owners) treat it? Was it ever in any accidents? How long will it hold up?
Here's how to get a great deal on a secondhand car — while making sure you’re getting a reliable ride.
1. Research Before You Start Shopping
Visit car-buying websites such as CarGurus, TrueCar, Edmunds and Kelly Blue Book, advises Kevin Smith, owner of Carsmith Motors, a licensed used car dealership and new auto brokerage based in the San Francisco Bay area. These sites will give you some idea of what your desired car models go for, and what people in your area are paying for them.
2. Consider a Certified Pre-Owned Car
Typically sold by dealerships, these autos offer the most peace of mind. They’ve undergone a rigorous dealer inspection to root out any problems. Also, “they come with a manufacturer-backed warranty,” says Brian Moody, executive editor of AutoTrader. Of course, there’s a price to pay for all this reassurance: According to one recent study by AutoTrader, certified pre-owned cars command about a 20% premium over their non-certified counterparts.
3. Dig Around for Discontinued Models
There’s generally a drop in demand for cars that are no longer made. This means they often can be had for a great price — even under $10,000, says Moody. He particularly recommends taking a look at Saturns, Pontiacs and Mercurys. Even though they aren’t rolling off production lines any longer, he says, chances are they can still be easily repaired since they share enough parts with other cars.
4. Be Wary of a Hybrid Car
A used hybrid can be a great choice — not only are you saving money upfront, but you’ll also save in fuel costs over time. But “make sure you know what the warranty is on the battery,” says Moody, since it can cost thousands of dollars to replace. The good news, Moody adds, is that “most hybrids have a longer warranty for the battery, battery pack and some drive components.” So make sure the one you’re looking at does, too.
5. Don’t Dismiss Rental Cars
They may seem like a dicey bet, since they have almost certainly been used by multiple drivers, but Moody is a fan of former fleet vehicles. “You tend to get cars that are better cared for because they had a shop taking care of them every week,” he explains.
6. Get a Report Before Buying
“Procure a CarFax or an Autocheck,” advises Smith. These assessments will tell you about the auto’s history. Was it in an accident, or is there an issue with its title? “That will thin the herd,” Smith notes.
7. Take a Close Look
Cars that have been through trauma will tell you, says Moody. First up, look for paint overspray on the taillights — a sign that there’s likely been some wear that was touched up. Overspray can also appear inside the doors or under the hood, so examine those areas very carefully too. Smith also recommends what he calls the five-foot test: “Does the car look good from five feet away?” he asks. With used cars, you can’t expect everything to look entirely brand-new, but make sure that any flaws are ones you can live with.
8. Sniff Around
Has the car been in a flood or suffered water damage in some way? “Stick your hand under the seats,” Moody says — if there is any dampness, it’s a telltale sign. Likewise, smell the mats for signs of mold. Take a whiff of the air inside the general interior of the car, too. “Does it smell like smoke, even if they claim it was from a nonsmoker?” asks Smith. That’s a sign that the seller may not be telling the whole truth.
9. Bargain — And Be Prepared to Walk Away
Try offering 15% to 20% less than the seller is asking, especially if your research has shown you’re still within a fair range for the model year. You may have to go up somewhat, but if the seller won’t budge and you think the price is inflated, you may have to walk. Leave your number behind so you can be reached, but move on. There are plenty of cars out there, and you deserve a first-rate deal on your secondhand wheels.