Love that new car smell, but hate that new car payment? Buy used! There are several good reasons to consider purchasing a pre-owned vehicle rather than one that is fresh off the showroom floor:
• A pre-owned vehicle that is only 1 or 2 years old is 20% – 30% less expensive than new.
• You can usually save money on insurance.
• A newer pre-owned vehicle may still be under factory warranty.
• With later models, you can still get reliability in a used vehicle.
Ask Yourself Some Questions
Before you make a decision to purchase any vehicle, you need to consider a few questions. First and foremost, you need to make sure you can afford the car. Carefully review your household budget and set a hard number. As much as you may want to deviate from that number when you find the perfect car, don’t. Way too many people are still making payments on cars they no longer enjoy (or that no longer run); as a matter of fact, my advice is to only buy what you can pay cash for—you are much better off if you can avoid a car payment entirely.
You should also determine what you are looking for before you ever set foot on a car lot or in a private owner’s driveway. Decide what type of vehicle you need and pick a few models that appeal to you. Although necessary, it is sometimes difficult to take the practical step of examining needs before wants. If you need to be able to haul a spouse, 3 kids and a bag of baseball equipment, you will require something bigger than that Nissan 370Z you may like. Here are a few questions to ask when selecting a type of vehicle:
• How many passengers do I need to be able to fit in my vehicle?
• How much cargo capacity is right for me?
• Will I be doing any hauling or towing?
• Do I want to be able to park the vehicle in my garage?
• Do I want a manual or an automatic transmission?
• Is 4-wheel-drive really necessary for me?
• What safety features are important to me in a vehicle?
• How much power do I need—really?
Once you determine your needs, you can round out the list with your wants. Use your list to pick 3 or 4 vehicles and do your research.
Do Your Homework
After you pick 3 or 4 vehicles, you will need to research each to determine which has the best blend of features, reliability and style for you. Go online and gather as much data as you can for each vehicle in which you have an interest. Resources like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book offer a wealth of information and reviews on used cars. Be certain to check for negative feedback that appears multiple times in reviews. As an example, there is a certain truck still in production that had issues with cracking dashboards for a number of years. If multiple owners claim the same concern with respect to a vehicle that you are considering, be prepared to address that issue if you decide to purchase the car.
Inspect Before You Buy
A careful inspection of any used car is an important part of the buying process. You don’t want to discover hidden issues after you have made the purchase (breaking down in rush-hour traffic is never fun).
• Dings, Dents, and Scratches: Walk around the car and take note of any severe scratches, scuffs or dents. Look down the body of the vehicle for any ripples in the body panels that could indicate a previous collision. Check to see that the windshield is undamaged. Small chips and cracks can be easily repaired; however, a crack longer than 6 inches or extending to the edge of the windshield will likely require new glass.
• Paint color: Look closely at the color of the paint on adjacent body panels as a difference may indicate collision repair.
• Door gaps: Look at the gaps between the doors and the fenders to ensure the gap is even. Open the doors and try to lift them as there should not be excessive play in the hinges.
• Tires: Take a look at tires as even an inexpensive set of new tires will likely cost you over $400. Check the amount of tread left and the wear pattern (which can be an indicator of suspension issues).
• Rust: Rust is not an easy fix, so you will definitely want to determine if this is an issue for the vehicle. Pay extra attention to areas that are particularly susceptible to corrosion like wheel wells, rocker panels and the bottoms of doors.
• Hood and Trunk Lid: Open and close the hood and trunk lid to be certain there are no issues with alignment or latch mechanisms.
• Upholstery and Carpet: Are the upholstery and carpet excessively worn? Make sure you lift the floor mats (if present) to see what the carpet looks like underneath. Minor interior damage can be easily repaired by a local reconditioning specialist.
• Dash and Door Panels: Leather, vinyl and hard plastics can all wear and crack over time if not properly cared for. Take a close look at all interior surfaces for cracks and other damage.
• Controls: Make sure that all of the bells and whistles work correctly. Turn all of the knobs and dials; press all of the buttons and levers. Be sure to bring a CD with you to test the sound system. No matter what the time of year, test both the heating and air conditioning in the car. If the car has power locks, make sure the rear ones work too.
• Lighting: Do all of the interior lights work? Check the dome, dash and door panels to be certain.
• Odor: It may sound odd, but smell the car. A musty odor could mean that the car has been letting water leak in. Excessive air freshener use may indicate that the previous owner is working to disguise smoke, water or some other stinky unpleasantness.
• Starting: The car should start easily and without hesitation—no matter how cold it is outside. There should be no irregular noises, smells or vibrations coming from the engine. The engine should run smoothly and should produce no smoke.
• Handling: Steering should be easy and the car should track straight if you release the wheel. The car should feel stable at both low and highway speeds with no abnormal creaking or groaning when making sharp turns or traveling over bumps.
• Shifting: Whether the car has an automatic or a manual transmission, shifting should be an easy affair. The car should go into gear easily and should shift smoothly and quietly. If the car has a manual transmission, pay attention to how easy it is to shift and watch for clutch slip (which is when engine speed increases, but the car does not accelerate).
• Braking: When braking, there should be no vibration or noise. The pedal should feel firm and the car should stop quickly and should not pull to either side under braking conditions.
Make the Decision
Buying a car is a difficult blend of rational thought and emotional desire. Most of us want an awesome-looking car that does everything we need it to. A strong emotional connection to a vehicle can easily persuade us to buy something impractical, unreliable or unaffordable. Think very carefully before you make a decision; be sure the car fits you and your lifestyle. Take the time to record the vehicle identification number (VIN) and run a vehicle history report through one of the available online services to uncover any accidents or title issues before buying. There are several compelling reasons to consider a pre-owned vehicle for your next ride. From a strictly financial perspective, buying used instead of new is the smart play. Long-term reliability can certainly be achieved in a used car as many of today’s vehicles can easily go 250,000 miles if well cared for. What’s holding you back now—the new car smell? If you really must have that new car smell, you can buy that in a can for just a couple of bucks.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.