5 Steps To Buying A Used Car

Step 1: Find Out How Much You Can Afford

Great news! Times have changed and buying a used car can be transparent, safe, fast and easy. Today's consumer has so much information and at Herb Chambers, all of our Certified used vehicles are Smart Priced. No negotiation needed. Learn more about our 5-day money back guarantee.

Decide What You Want to Spend, and Can Spend. Before considering the purchase of a used car, it is wise to establish the amount you are willing to spend or, if taking a loan, calculate your maximum monthly payment - and then make a firm commitment to stay within that amount.

Don't forget to consider the costs of tax, title, registration and insurance for your new car. As a very broad, general rule, and depending upon where you live, tax, license, assorted fees and other costs will add roughly 10 percent to the purchase price. This makes the price of a $30,000 car actually about $33,000 and, if you're financing the deal, you will be paying interest on that additional amount. You should be able to afford the car as well as its costs of ownership.

You may also want to consider an extended warranty plan. Chances are an extended warranty or service contract will be offered to you by the dealership. An extended warranty covers a wide range of repairs and services. The repairs can be done at any authorized dealership and tend to be easily approved. You won't pay a penny for approved repairs unless your contract includes a deductible.

Research the Right Car

Many professionals will tell you that this is where huge numbers of buyers make their biggest mistakes. They don't buy the vehicle that is best for their needs, but instead get smitten with something that doesn't fulfill their requirements, costs far too much money or, typically, both. Figuring out how much you want to spend was the easy part; now you have to find the vehicle that's right for you. But most buyers (yes, most), are not really sure what's out there or even what they need and want. Here are some suggestions: First, make a list of all the things you need your vehicle to do (haul kids, go off-road, get good gas mileage, be absolutely reliable, maintain good re-sale value, be easy to park) and then make a second list of all the things you admire in a vehicle (body style, colors, luxury options). Cross-reference the two. You should end up with a list of required and desired characteristics, which you can use to eliminate models that won't work for you (you can't haul kids in a two-seat sports car or operate a full-size sport utility vehicle on an economy-car fuel budget).

Use Helpful Internet Tools

There is a lot of information available on the internet but, many professionals will tell you, most buyers simply don't use that available information to their best advantage. To help, we've developed a couple of decision guides for refining your search. The Compare New Cars feature will put up to four new or used vehicles side by side for you to compare.

Another useful area of information will be the various websites for the manufacturers. Often, you can learn specifics about not only the new cars, but that manufacturer's previous models, as well.

Step 2: What's the Right Car for You

OK, if you made it this far, we are assuming you have a year, make and model in mind. Now let's go shopping. If you haven't already done so, it's time to empower yourself by visiting Kelley Blue Book's Used Car Retail Values. Here you can find out how much a dealer might be asking for your desired model. While you're there, take the opportunity to get a Blue Book Trade-In value for your own car. You will see how various options, mileage and overall condition will affect the value of your vehicle.

If you need help assessing the condition of your car, we can help you rate it with the Condition Quiz. By filling out a series of questions, we help you determine whether the car is in Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair or Poor condition. When you reach the options check-list page, fill in the vehicle mileage and various options, and then go to the bottom of the page. There is a section titled "Select Vehicle Condition." Check the box titled "Rate It," then enter your information onto the online form. Kelley will rate the condition of the vehicle based upon your input.

Avoid making a very common mistake and do not over-estimate the condition and, therefore, the value of your current car. And do not take the position that you must have a certain amount of money for it. That car will be worth to the dealer exactly what the dealer figures it is worth, on that day, at that time, and sales managers, particularly those at larger dealerships, tend to have very accurate reads on current market conditions and therefore vehicle valuations. If you deceive yourself into inflating the value of your current car, it will only lead to difficulties later, when the dealership will deliver a reality check.

Step 3: Find Your Car's Value

Used Vehicle From a Dealer

If you visit a large, reputable dealer like Herb Chambers with several franchises, there will likely be a variety of used vehicles for sale on the lot. These vehicles will have available an extended or "aftermarket" warranty or service program. Because dealers offer warranties and service programs, the used cars they sell must be refurbished to meet warranty standards.

Pricing for retail cars at a dealership will vary, but because of the refurbishing a dealer must do to ready the car or truck for sale, the retail price of the used car will typically be a bit more than a private party price, but probably well worth it.

Used Vehicle from a Private Party

It's unfortunate that in this day and age we must be wary of buying from individuals, but this is where the risk of used car buying is at its highest. Before arriving at the home of the private party seller, it is advisable to ask the seller a series of questions about the vehicle. Get as much information as possible on ownership history, mileage, maintenance upkeep and especially the condition of the car. Is there any body damage, even relatively small dents or dings? Is the exterior paint dull, chipped, scratched or peeling? Is the interior of the car stained, faded, cracked or torn? How does the car drive? Does the steering pull to one side or the other? Are the brakes working well? Do the tires have wear and do they match? Another very important question is this: Is the seller in possession of the title or certificate of ownership? One good way to protect yourself from buying an unsatisfactory car is to check the vehicle's history by requesting an AutoCheck Record check.

Used Online Buying

If you want to buy a used vehicle online, there are many used car buying sites, including eBay Motors, where you can search for the car you need and easily get in touch with the seller.

For private party purchase, online classifieds can greatly increase the quality of communication between you and the seller with photos, history, mileage and other vital facts that are clearly displayed on each vehicle entry. You can also apply online for an extended warranty on your used car for added security.

Certified Pre-Owned

Manufacturers' certified programs have taken much of the risk out of used car shopping by offering excellent warranties on very clean, refurbished used vehicles, called Certified Pre-Owned, or CPO. Only certain vehicles qualify for certification. Typically, the vehicle must be under five years old and have less than 75,000 miles on the odometer, although each manufacturer will have its own standards.

Manufacturers vary in how many points of the Certified Pre-Owned vehicles are checked or reconditioned, but most put a vehicle through a complete check of all major systems. Visit our Certified Pre-Owned section to familiarize yourself with the different certified programs and you will be better able to make a decision. Certification is actually done by the dealer and, since it costs the dealer money, expect to pay more for a certified used car.

For many buyers a Certified Pre-Owned vehicle represents the best deal in the industry. The vehicle will be in excellent condition, in most cases it includes additional warranty coverage, which can be quite extensive, and it may also be applicable to that manufacturer's financing programs. Since it will be a used car, that means the initial, and heavy, depreciation will have been taken by someone else - the first owner. You get a very clean used car, with the advantages of reduced depreciation and the peace-of-mind of some level of additional warranty coverage, which in many cases exceeds the original warranty. Unless you're the type of person who absolutely, positively needs a brand-new car, you will benefit tremendously by checking out a manufacturer's Certified Pre-Owned inventory, which can usually be done on-line through that manufacturer's website.

Step 4: Conduct a Thorough Walk-Around

A physical assessment of the vehicle is obviously a good idea before the purchase. Take your time and be thorough with your examination, drive it and ask questions as needed. A reputable dealer should stand behind every used car they sell. Learn about our 5-day money back guarantee.

Look for the following warning signs:

Signs of Poor Alignment

Check the tires for wear. Uneven tire wear -- balding on the sides or in the middle -- could indicate the need for a front-end alignment or a more costly repair to a suspension component.

Signs of Possible Body Repair

Bring along a small refrigerator magnet and place it gently (so as not to scratch the paint) along various body panels (lower door, front fender, etc.). If there is any plastic body filler present the magnet will not stay in place, indicating the vehicle has been involved in an accident. Stand away from the vehicle and look at its panels and seams. Does everything line up correctly?

Signs of Repainting

Open the trunk, hood and doors. Look for paint over-spray, a telltale sign all or part of the vehicle has been repainted. Now walk around the vehicle. Are all the body parts precisely the same color?

Signs of a Cracked Block

Check the radiator fluid. If it is foamy or has oil droplets in it, there is a good chance the car has a defective head gasket or, worse, a cracked block or cylinder head, any of which will cause the coolant and oil to mix together. If so, don't buy the car.

Signs of Flood

Reach up under the car and feel around the top of the gas tank. If you find mud or leaves up there, chances are the vehicle was involved in a flood or, in the case of a sport utility vehicle, taken off-road with some frequency. You can perform the same test inside the car by carefully reaching up under the instrument penal. If you find any signs of this sort of water damage, don't buy it.

Step 5: Conduct a Thorough Test Drive

It looks good and sounds fine, so now it's time for the all-important test drive. This gives you the opportunity to gauge a vehicle's driving characteristics and also minimizes the chance of future buyer's remorse.

Seat Comfort

Is the seat too hard or too soft? Does it hold you firmly with good lateral and thigh support? Do your legs start to cramp? Does your lower back feel like it needs more support? Take your time, because the seat is the one feature you use constantly every moment you're in the car. Imagine paying lots of good money only to find after the first hour on the road that your back is in agony.

Cockpit Ergonomics

Is the steering wheel too high or too close to the instrument panel? When adjusted to a comfortable position, does it cut off your view of any or all of the gauges? Look at the layout of the radio and heater controls. Can they be easily adjusted without taking your eyes off the road? Look over your shoulder. Are there any blind spots that you cannot compensate for by using your mirrors? Climb into all the seats and check the head and legroom for future passengers. Do the headrests come up far enough? Do they touch your head or are they raked back at an angle away from you? Does the seat belt have an adjustable anchor or does it cut into your neck? Are there child-seat anchors? Check to see how far the rear windows roll down. Some models have windows that go down only a few inches or are sealed in place and don't roll down at all. Take your time to explore all these areas. Then take it for a drive.

Dashboard Lights

Before staring the car, turn the key to the "Accessory" position (the last position before the engine starts). All the dash warning lights should illuminate. Be sure both the "check engine" and, if equipped with antilock brakes, the "ABS" lights illuminate. If they do not, the problem could be as minor as a burned-out bulb or as serious as tampering to disguise a problem. In either case, insist the problem be corrected or inspected before proceeding.

Engine Noise

Upon first starting the engine, listen for any tapping or ticking sounds. A prolonged tapping could be valves needing adjustment or a bad hydraulic lifter. If equipped with power steering, turn the wheel from side to side and listen for belt squeal. Pump the brake pedal a few times and then press hard with your foot. If it slowly sinks all the way to the floor, there is either a leak in the line or the master cylinder or brake booster needs repair. Shift into gear. If the car is an automatic, the transmission should engage immediately and, as you drive, shifts should be crisp, firm and quick. There should be no grinding or groaning sound of any kind from the transmission when you select gears. With your foot firmly on the brake, shift from drive to reverse; clunks or grinding noises could indicate worn or broken engine or transmission mounts, bad universal joints or differential wear.

Steering Vibration

As you drive along, does the steering wheel shake or vibrate? It shouldn't. Vibration in the steering wheel can mean anything from an unbalanced tire to a loose steering rack. If the steering wheel shakes but only when you are braking, this could indicate a warped brake rotor or sticking caliper.

The Brakes

Cars with ABS (antilock brakes) will have a slight pulsating action in the pedal when the brake is applied with great force (panic stops, for example). Cars without ABS should not have pulsating brake pedals under any circumstances. The car should also continue in a straight line when the brakes are applied. If the car pulls noticeably to the left or right, it could indicate a problem with the front brake calipers or pads, some other area of the brakes, the suspension or steering gear.