Buying a used car can be risky business. Let me offer some strategies that might prove helpful in that situation.

First, do your homework. Look online, read consumer magazines, peruse some used car lots, investigate the “For Sale” ads in your newspaper and check out Kelley Blue Book for reasonable pricing. Take all the time you need to figure out exactly what you’re interested in—make, model and even options.

Once you’ve narrowed your search, it’s time to find that perfect vehicle—whether you intend to buy from an individual or a car dealership. Study the car, walk around it and look at it from different angles. Once you finish assessing the cosmetic aspects, then sit behind the steering wheel. Touch everything you can touch. Check out the wipers, the radio, the heat and air, the glove box and the lights. Make sure everything works, including turn signals, power windows, power locks, power seats, rear wipers, and so on.

If everything checks out, let the seller know you’d like to take about 45 minutes to an hour to road test this car. If they want to ride with you, that’s fine, but make sure they’re willing for you to spend the time you need.

Most people drive the car around the block or spend ten minutes driving up the road and back and say, “I’ll take it”—but not you. You’re too savvy for that. During your test drive, listen to the vehicle. Notice the way it feels, handles and steers. You don’t have to be an automotive mechanic to know if something is not quite right.

If you hear a noise that concerns you, or there’s a shake or shimmy in the steering, or anything else that doesn’t quite seem right, then make note of it. Spend time driving both on the freeway at highway speeds and in town at normal speeds. See how the vehicle take corners, slows, stops, accelerates—just as you would drive the vehicle on any given day.

Use your senses. Don’t play the radio. Make sure the radio plays, then turn it off and listen. Use your five senses to note if anything seems abnormal.

If everything checks out, move to the next step—take it to an ASE-certified technician for a used-car inspection. If you bring it to us, we’ll check it out for a small fee. Our trained technician will inspect the exterior and interior of the car, take it for a drive, bring it back into the bay and raise it up to do a more thorough inspection. The technician will know exactly the kinds of things to look for, the kinds of things that could signal a future problem.

Please, don’t wait until you’ve already bought it! One of the worst things we experience is when one of our clients comes in and says, “Hey, can you check this car out for me? I just bought it. Just check it over and let me know what it needs.”

We always cringe when we hear they’ve already bought it. Checking it out has led to people actually standing there in our shop and crying. We’ve found cars that have been badly wrecked and just repaired enough to look good cosmetically, not repaired structurally. In addition, we often find other major mechanical problems and frequently find there has been a severe lack of routine maintenance, which can spell major problems ahead. Never buy a used vehicle until after the shop you trust has checked it out for you. We understand how devastating it can be to learn, after the fact, that someone has sold you their problem.

If the person you are buying from does not want to allow you to take the car to a shop, then walk away. There’s a reason for it. Don’t bring us every car that you look at, just bring us the car you think that you have your heart set on. Our charge is minimal and in fact, if we see there’s major damage, we won’t even charge you for it, we just tell you to run away from this and bring us another one.

The inspection fee is a very small investment for having us look the vehicle over, finding out what the maintenance and/or repair needs are and giving you an itemized list with prices. Now you have something to take back to the seller as a bargaining chip.

You can take that list back to the owner and say, “I had the vehicle checked out, here’s the list of things it needs. If you knock off half (or whatever) of the cost on this list, I’ll buy the car.”

You can use that list to get a better deal on the vehicle and then apply that money toward the maintenance items. Once you get that list, always include those costs in the purchase price when you’re thinking about what you’re paying for the vehicle. For example, if your price limit is $4,000 and we find $1,500 worth of maintenance needs on a car priced at $3,500, you need to think twice. You would be spending $5,000 on this car to bring all of the maintenance up to snuff and have a good solid starting point. So you’re now $1,000 over your limit. Is that vehicle really worth it?

The ASE-certified technician can help you decide about repairs that need to be done now or in the near future as opposed to those that can be deferred. That will also give you greater wisdom and leverage in making an offer to the seller. Once you decide to buy this particular car, you’re ready for the final step—making the deal.

You should not talk about price, or make any offer until you have taken all these steps. Then you’ll be able to approach the seller and tell them, “I’d like to buy this car. I’ve had it inspected and here is the estimate of the items that need attention to get it into satisfactory condition. With that in mind, I’m willing to pay this amount for it—and if that’s agreeable with you, I’m ready to buy it today.”

Of course, we may find the vehicle you’re considering is in great shape. And when you get an “all clear” from someone who truly knows what they’re doing, it will give you great confidence. But if that’s not the case, you are now in a better position to make a good deal.

That is the right way to buy a vehicle. Constrain your emotions, have a certified technician inspect it and know what you are getting into before you make an offer. By following this process, you will save yourself from some unpleasant surprises that could cost you a lot of money.

Want more great advice on saving money on car repairs? Order Russell McCloud’s book Knowledge is Power by clicking here

Posted in Car Advice