The used-car market has changed dramatically in the past few years. Today's new cars -- and thus used cars -- are simply made better. Overall quality and durability has increased as U.S. manufacturers pushed hard to catch up to imports. A second factor is the rise of leasing.
Follow these steps to get the best deal:
If you want a used car, start by checking prices of the vehicles that interest you. Among the best websites are Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book. Both are free, and both will let you check the going prices for almost every make, model and year you could want.
Before going to look at cars, peruse the Official Used Car Guide of the National Automobile Dealers' Association. It lists recent prices fetched by specific year models in your region. The range between the trade-in value and retail value is your room to maneuver.
Used-car superstore chains are also making it easier than ever to buy with huge inventories and no-haggle shopping.
Car dealers, backed by manufacturers, offer "certified" used-car programs for newer used cars (usually up to 3 years old). Manufacturers insist that a used car must pass a series of inspections before it can become certified. And once a car passes, the manufacturer adds a fresh warranty, sometimes 12 months or more.
For those willing to venture farther from home, eBay Motors lists used cars for sale. You can restrict your search to cars in your area, but you'll probably do better by looking at cars all around the country. eBay provides various protections, as well as partnerships with used-car inspection services, to take some of the worry out of buying a used car entirely online.
Once you zero in on some possibilities, you need to double-check them. Unless you are buying a certified used vehicle, spend a little extra to check any specific car, truck or van you are close to buying.
Take a test drive:
Before buying, try to arrange a test drive at night and another on a rainy day. Nothing reveals a cheap windshield like oncoming headlights, and a replacement windshield may mean the car's been wrecked and then given a convincing paint job. Also, it's impossible to know if trunk and door seals are leaking except when it's raining. Leaking seals may mean that the car's been wrecked, especially on a car only a few years old.
Check the VIN:
Make sure the odometer is honest and that the car has never been totaled. Firms like Carfax and Autocheck will track down the history of your prospective vehicle by its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), usually listed on a metal plate just inside the windshield.
Get an inspection:
Once a car has passed those big hurdles, you still need to get it checked by your own mechanic, if you have one. If you don't, many cities have specialized mechanic services that will make on-the-spot inspection of used cars. If you are considering spending $15,000 for a used car, that $100 to double-check it may be well spent.
If you're buying on eBay Motors, they've got an auto inspection service. Sellers can have their car inspected and a report posted for potential buyers to see.
The most important thing to remember: Anything's negotiable except the right to inspect. If the seller won't let you and your mechanic inspect the car, walk away, no matter how nicely it runs.
Often, this rule of thumb means you'll be buying from an individual rather than a dealer, for many dealers don't allow inspections. Those who do typically won't let you take the car off the premises and won't let you use their lift.
Having your expert on hand can make all the difference, because even if you know a lot about cars, you need an expert witness to present the damning evidence. Like any expert witness, mechanics must be paid. Some shops offer a pre-purchase checkout for a set amount that can vary widely depending on the shop and the procedures performed. Others offer on-premises inspections for their hourly labor rate, which can range from $40 to $70 an hour, depending on the region and the type of shop.
If the seller touts the car as an immaculate jewel, be sure to negotiate an acceptable price before bringing in your mechanic. Failing to do so could leave you with no bargaining leverage if the car actually is in great shape. Once your technician determines the car's shortcomings -- and there are few used cars on the market without any -- it's your job to put a generous price on each repair needed.