What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

December 16, 2022
A man sitting in the drivers' seat of a car, checking his rearview mirror.

Buying a used car can be daunting. No one wants to mistakenly purchase a “lemon” car, riddled with defects that aren’t apparent at first sight. Thankfully, there are many resources and tools that can help you make an educated buying decision. Take the guesswork out of car shopping by following these used car buying tips and reviewing our used car inspection checklist.

  1. Do some general car research
  2. Set a budget and stick to it
  3. Find the best deals
  4. Have questions ready for when you contact the seller
  5. Conduct your own car inspection
  6. Take a test drive in the used car
  7. Get a vehicle history report
  8. Negotiate the price
  9. Research car financing options
  10. Use your instincts

1. Do some general used car research

Before you go to the dealer and start looking at cars, make a list of the car models you’re targeting. Once you have your list, research each car model to find out common defects, repair costs and price points when they begin to age. With your research in hand, you’ll enter the market with some bargaining power and a keen eye for the weak points in each car model.

2. Set a budget and stick to it

When purchasing a car, you will want to make a down payment of at least 20% if you plan on taking out a loan; this will lower your monthly payments. [1] You may want to consider paying even more upfront, as pre-owned vehicles can often need more repairs in a short period of time than a newer car would. In addition to repair costs, it is also a good idea to research car insurance quotes and how much gas the vehicle will use.

You will also need to decide if you want to purchase your car as used or certified pre-owned (CPO). A CPO car is a previously owned vehicle that’s usually less than 5 years old and usually has fewer than 60,000 miles on it. [2] Some reasons to buy a CPO car are that they are preselected, inspected and come with extended warranties and a number of additional services, which can offer you peace of mind. One of the main drawbacks of purchasing a CPO vehicle is that it will cost more than a used vehicle due to the inspections.

Mileage and added features can affect a car’s value, so cars of the same model and year may have different price tags. Kelley Blue Book’s pricing tool can help you get a price quote. [3]

3. Find the best deals

Aside from dealerships, you can find great deals on used cars at local public auctions and on used car websites. Each source has its merits.

  • Dealerships: Dealerships will have the widest selection of used cars available. They also often offer extras such as new tires, a second key and floor mats.
  • Online: Websites such as autotrader.com have listings from private sellers all over the country. Search locally and you might even find a gem in your own area.
  • Auctions: Steep discounts can be had at car auctions, but vehicles are sold without any warranties. So be sure to do your homework and learn as much about the car’s history and health as you can.

4. Have questions ready for the seller

When contacting a dealer or a private seller, get as much information about the used car as possible. Don’t be shy; dealers expect their buyers to come prepared with questions.

Questions to ask when buying a used car:

  • Why is the car being sold?
  • How many previous owners have there been?
  • Can you describe the condition of the car?
  • What is the mileage on the odometer?
  • Was the car involved in any collisions?
  • Has the car had any electrical damage?
  • Has this model had any recalls?
  • When did this vehicle last go through inspection?

5. Conduct your own car inspection

Before taking it for a spin, make sure to carefully inspect it and check for anything that could potentially lead to headaches in the future.

This means checking the exterior for signs of body repair, damage, rust and the shape of the tires, as well as the interior for any strange odors, wears in the upholstery, and the functionality of the controls. You will also want to remember to look underneath the hood to make sure everything works properly. If possible, take the car to a trusted mechanic for a more detailed analysis.

6. Take a test drive in the used car

After giving the car a thorough examination, it’s time to get behind the wheel for a test drive. Test the car both in a large parking lot and on a road where you can drive the vehicle above 60 mph. To properly assess the used car, take your time when doing a test drive, testing out all the components, including:

  • Steering-wheel alignment
  • Brakes
  • Windshield wipers
  • Air conditioning/heating
  • Power windows
  • Headlights, directional lights, taillights
  • Audio and Infotainment system (if applicable)

Checklist for buying a used car

When you’ve tested everything else, turn off the radio and listen for any odd sounds that could indicate problems. For a more comprehensive, printable used car checklist to bring with you, download our PDF.

Used car inspection checklist
Click here to view or download

7. Get a vehicle history report

Some sellers may not disclose major problems to the buyer. To avoid purchasing a lemon, write down the vehicle‘s vehicle identification number (VIN) – a 17-digit code found at the dashboard – and look up the number on sites like CARFAX or Autocheck to get a detailed vehicle history report.

8. Negotiate the price

Car salesmen will almost always counteroffer with a higher price, so start with a realistic but low offer. Look up the current market value in a pricing guide such as Kelly Blue Book to arm yourself with solid information to base your negotiation. Remember to stick to your budget and price limitations. If the salesperson makes a counteroffer close to the current market value, you’re getting close to a good deal. If the final asking price is unreasonable, you can always walk away from the deal. [4]

Buying a used vehicle from a private seller could be an option if you plan to pay cash. Negotiating used car prices with a private seller could lead to a better deal, but keep in mind that you might not get any type of warranty with the purchase. [5]

9. Research car financing options

While most dealerships offer financing options for auto loans, you’re probably able to check several sources to find better rates, starting with your personal bank. It never hurts to compare.

10. Use your instincts

A little common sense can go a long way when purchasing a used car. Ask yourself if the dealer seems trustworthy. Know about techniques that are used to hide flaws, such as using air fresheners to mask strange odors and tampering with odometers.

Avoid making an impulse buy just because you finally found a car that looks nice from an outward appearance, and don’t give in to high-pressure sales tactics. If it seems too good to be true, it may be.

When is the best time to buy a used car?

Because dealerships have quotas to meet, it may be beneficial to shop for cars at the end of the month, quarter or year so that the salesperson could be more willing to negotiate to meet their goal.

Also, shop when the weather is good so that the sun can show dents, dings, scratches, rust, bubbling paint and any other flaws the exterior may have. Buying in the winter or the off-season means the demand could be lower, but so are the prices. [6]

Do you need insurance to buy a used car?

Before you even step foot on the lot to negotiate buying a car, you should shop for car insurance. Waiting to buy a vehicle until you’ve sorted out your insurance needs could save you hundreds of dollars because some vehicles can carry higher insurance rates. [7]


[1] “How Much Should Your Car Down Payment Be?” moneyunder30.com/car-down-payment (June 1, 2022).

[2] “What is a Certified Pre-Owned Car?” autotrader.com/car-shopping/what-certified-car-196340 (Nov. 2, 2021).

[3] “Certified Pre-Owned Pros and Cons,” kbb.com/car-advice/certified-pre-owned-pros-and-cons (Sept. 25, 2020).

[4] “How to Negotiate to Buy a Used Car,” nerdwallet.com/article/loans/auto-loans/negotiating-basics-buying-car (June 28, 2019).

[5] “How to Get a Good Deal On a Used Car,” investopedia.com/articles/investing/091714/how-get-good-deal-used-car.asp (July 7, 2022).

[6] “The Best Times to Buy a Used Car,” cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/advice/best-times-to-buy-a-used-car (July 18, 2018).

[7] “8 insurance points to consider before buying a car,” nationwide.com/lc/resources/auto-insurance/articles/insurance-tips-for-car-buyers (accessed Aug. 25, 2022).


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