Do you want to buy a quality used car but are afraid of getting ripped off?
You’re not alone, and for good reason. Used car sales are far and away the most lucrative segment in the auto industry in terms of commissions that the sales people and dealership makes and therefore, the GREED factor comes in when selling cars is concerned. The potential for being taken advantage of increases for the unwary and uninformed car buyer.
Having said that, there are still quite a few honest, credible used car dealerships out there and if you are prepared with some of the tips in this article, then you can drive off with a nice, clean used car AND a good deal.
There are TWO basic types of Used Car Dealerships you need to know how to differentiate between the two.
1. Your garden variety of used car dealerships that most towns and cities have almost everywhere. These dealerships, generally sell cars bought at local auctions or were higher mileage cars bought form a local dealership, or taken as trade-ins on their lot. Generally speaking, you won’t find the latest models with the lowest miles and still under warranty. What you CAN find are clean reliable cars, maybe with higher miles that you wouldn’t find at a brand dealership, but often lower prices. The typical used car dealership has nowhere near the overhead of major dealerships so, their gross profit margin – the difference in costs they have in a car and what they can sell it for — can be lower, thus, ideally, saving you some money.
Most of the better used car dealerships offer financing and warranties for all their cars at an extra cost, of course. Some, but not most have a place to service their cars before putting the car on their lot. You need to make sure whatever car you are looking at has at least had an updated inspection.
Used car dealerships can be a great place to find a good car, BUT, be careful, some of the cars can be rough around the edges and you need to know what to look for and how to look at a used car.
2. Your automobile dealerships that sell new and used cars. Usually, these dealerships keep a selection of what they like to refer to as “pre owned” or even “certified pre-owned” vehicles and they usually spend more time on the prep of the car before it goes on the lot. They have a shop and certified technicians to go over these cars and make sure these cars are in good shape. Especially the Certified Pre Owned cars need to look and run close like new. All of this does, of course make the Brand Dealership Used cars priced on the higher end. Be ready to haggle!
Buying a used car or “pre-owned” car can make a lot of sense regardless of where you buy one.
Any new car will drop 25 – 40% once it drives off the lot. In this day and age of better cars and cars lasting over 100k miles, used cars, especially almost any Japanese car, can last to well over 200k miles and you get an even better price. Again, make sure the Car Fax checks out!
BIG MYTH: “When you buy a used car, you’re buying someone else’s problem”Not necessarily so. Many used cars are lease turn ins. Many used cars the owners simply out grew the car or, like so many people on the road, they just like to trade cars often and change cars like underwear!
Following are some tips on how to maneuver through the sometimes shark infested waters of used car dealerships.
1. Know what you want. Or at least, have an idea. Do you want an economy car? A luxury sedan? An SUV? You will find a good selection on some of the many Used Car lots that dot our landscapes. A good way to shop discreetly is to shop online. Compare similar models and makes.
Check Consumer Reports for Best Used Car deals or the Kelly Blue Book online.
2. What will it cost? Once you have an idea of what you want, get an idea of what it would cost. The most popular and the oldest service is Kelly Blue Book. At KBB, you can select practically any model, make and year of vehicle and get a “good-better-best” price, depending on the vehicle condition and various features. With KBB, you can get a general idea of pricing or even narrow it down to specific features. For instance, if that cool sports sedan you’ve spotted at a lot has leather upholstery and alloy rims vs. cloth seats and wheel covers, then you’ll pay more for the leather and rims. Also, you MUST know what the mileage on the car you are interested in. Cars with over 100,000 miles automatically drop in price compared to similar cars with under 100k miles.
3. Get a Car Fax report! A Car Fax report provides the detailed history of practically any vehicle on the road today.. To do this you need to accurately write down the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).
A Car Fax report will tell you a LOT! It will tell you important stuff like: Has the car been wrecked? Total loss? Has the car been in a flood? Are there any recalls? Has the air bag ever been deployed? Has this car been “salvaged”? Has the car been inspected annually? How many owners and where? If the car you are interested in has been through several owners, that could be a red flag so pay attention to the number of owners in the past.
These are important things to know before even taking a test drive! You can get the Car Fax yourself, or ask the dealer to present you with a recent Car Fax Report.
NOTE: Any good used car dealer ship will likely have one on file and gladly show it to you.
IF this dealer Fancy Dances around this issue, then move on!
4. Visually Inspect the Car yourself! Walk around it and look at the fit and finish. Not all wrecked cars will be reported, but if you see uneven spaces between the doors, and hood and fender, then watch out! Check for “over spray”. If the car was repainted, it may not show up on a Car Fax either. Look around the black moldings, and exterior fittings like headlights, door handles, etc. If you see “over spray” it likely means the car has been repainted. Now, for a car older than 10 years it could be perfectly reasonable to have a re-paint. Just try and find out who and where the work was done.
5. Look Under the hood. Even if you are clueless at what you are looking at, do this anyway. Is the engine clean? Is there mud on the inner sides? What do the battery cables look like? Clean or corrosion built up? Not good if the engine area is not spotless and had a good steam cleaning.
6. Check the oil and all the other fluid levels. This seems obvious, but still, you want to know if the oil has been changed and the fluids – brake and transmission — are topped off. If any of these levels are low – RED FLAG!
7. Inspect the tire tread. A method for checking tread depth is to insert a penny in one of the grooves with Lincoln’s head upside down and facing you. If you can see the top of old Abe’s head, it is time to replace your tires and make sure the dealer knows this is a concern. At the bargaining table, you may get a new set of tires!
8. Inspect the wiper blades. Normal wear and tear on wiper blades are common, but if you are buying this car from a dealership of any kind, you should have fresh wiper blades.
Once you’re satisfied that the car you are looking at is worth of your attention, THEN and ONLY then take if for a test drive!
Next step Test Drive!9. The salesman may or may not give you some BS about him driving the car off the lot and down the street some distance to switch for “insurance” reasons. Not true! They want to keep as much control over the process as possible that’s all.
There are several things to look and listen for when starting out:
10. Start the engine with the window down so you can HEAR and SEE what its like.
Is the muffler quiet? Is there smoke blowing out?
11. Assuming you are in an automatic, move the transmission back and forth between the gears,
“P”, “D”, “R”, “N” etc… does if shift easily? What does it sound like when you put it into the drive gear? If there is a CLANK sound, look out, could be trouble!
12. If it’s a manual drive, make sure the gears shift easily from one gear to the next. Test the clutch.
Is there a lot of “play” when you press down before the clutch catches? If there is “play” then the clutch could be worn.
13. Driving. First, get into an open stretch and accelerate as fast as possible. Is the acceleration smooth? Does it hesitate or halt or stop? Not good!
14. BreakingNext, apply the brakes firmly but don’t slam on the brakes. Does the car auto zlom swerve to the left or right? If so, could be alignment problems. Not good! How far does the brake pedal go before engaging? If a lot, then the car may need brake work. If it goes to the floor, then you have real brake problems.
15. Interior Controls.Does the Air Conditioning work and blow cold? Is the heater working? How’s the stereo?
Do the power windows roll up? Do the crank windows roll up easily?
Do the locks work? Make sure you take the time to learn about the interior aspects of your potential next car.
16. Take the car for a good drive! Have fun! Crank up the stereo! Bring along a CD to play!
Drive in traffic as well as on an Interstate Highway if possible. Listen for any unusual noises or loudness. Accelerate and brake frequently to test the car’s responsiveness.
Okay, you took the Test Drive, you think you love the car, now what?
Make sure you have paid attention to steps 1, 2 and 3. Demand a Car Fax report. Always seriously pour over the report as if you were preparing your Last Will and Testament.
NEVER let the sales person know you are totally thrilled with the car or in any way desperate for a car. This opens up an opportunity to be taken advantage of.
Also, if you want to trade your old ride for a new one, NEVER tell the dealership you intend to trade up front because this can skew the numbers you are being offered. You ALWAYS want to know what the car will cost BEFORE the trade!
It goes without saying you need to be ready to walk away from any deal you are offered. If it smells fishy, it probably is! DO NOT let your emotions get the best of you! There’s always as good or better car out there with your name on it!
In summary, be like the Boy Scouts whose motto is: “Be Prepared” and you will likely find a good car you can live with for several years or more.
J Gary Dean is an author and videographer in Greensboro NC. Also, a former used car salesman himself, Mr. Dean brings a unique perspective in the area of buying a used car.