How to Choose a Reliable Used Car

Sorting through used cars can be a challenge. There are so many brands, models, prices, trim levels, and configurations to choose from. But if you want to get a cheap, reliable used sedan, hatchback, or coupe, there are some easy ways to target your search and find exactly what you need. Follow these nine tips laid out by Well Rigged to find the most reliable used car that’s perfect for you.

Choose a brand that’s known for reliability

This one seems a little too obvious, but it’s good to lay out there anyway. Want a reliable used car? Buy a used car from a reliable brand. Instead of that hot little convertible, consider a Toyota Corolla or a used Honda Civic. They may not give you the goosebumps, but you’ll get better reliability

Look at brands like Toyota, Honda, Lexus, Subaru, and even up-and-comers like Hyundai. If you don’t know where to start, start with the most reliable used midsize cars like the Honda Accord, Subaru Legacy, and Toyota Camry.

Rear view of a yellow Honda Accord with New Jersey plates. The Honda Accord is a very reliable used car
Reliable used Honda car | Haidong Liang via Unsplash

Look for reliable used cars for sale by one owner

In general, private car sales are cheaper than buying the same make, model, and year from a dealership. You’re also more likely to access relevant and accurate vehicle history, and have more accurate service records than a car with multiple owners. Another bonus: no shady car dealership deals.

Sites like Edmunds, Autotrader, CarGurus, and more should all have the option to be able to search by used cars for sale by owner.

Buy the cars that only drove to church on Sundays

It may be nothing more than a stereotype, but it’s a commonly held belief that the older generation just does a better job of caring for their cars. They tend to put fewer miles on the engine, keep up with maintenance more rigorously, and store their cars indoors. 

There’s an old joke about the Cadillac that only ever drove to church on Sundays. Those are the reliable used cars that are most likely to give you another decade or more of use. Just make sure to keep babying them the way their former owners did.

Check for a clean record: no flood or accident damage

One way to get a reliable used car is to avoid any used car with an accident record, and don’t mess with flooded vehicles. One exception is unless you can view records and receipts that the accident damage was very minor or only cosmetic, such as damage from hail storms.

If you’ve got the budget for a slightly newer car, three-year-old cars offer affordable and attainable value, they’re less likely to have been in an accident, and the right car can be reliable for a decade or longer.

A small blue hatchback stuck in high water, its driver wading away from the vehicle. Flood damage does not make for a reliable used car.
A man wading away from a stranded car in flood water | Jacob King/PA Images via Getty Images

Ask about dealership maintenance history

Shopping for reliable used cars can leave a lot of unanswered questions, but you can clear up a lot if you get a detailed maintenance history on the vehicle. It’s a bonus if a dealership has serviced the car over its lifetime. This isn’t to say that a local independent mechanic can’t provide exceptional service. But, maintenance provided by certified dealerships tends to be better documented.

You can even try to compare the service records to the car’s recommended maintenance schedule included in the owner’s manual. If the car doesn’t have an owner’s manual (this may be a red flag for reliability) you may be able to find a copy online.

Always get some sort of maintenance records

Whether you’re buying from a private sale or a dealership, always try to get proof of maintenance. If you buy from a seller who’s been obsessive about maintenance and repairs, your used car is more likely to be reliable for the long term.

What to look for in used-car maintenance records:

  • On-time oil changes
  • Consistent service visits that match the recommended intervals
  • Repairs made with high-quality OEM parts

Shop for cars with majority highway miles

How many miles is too many for a used car? A sedan with over 100,000 miles won’t necessarily be an unreliable used car. Ask about the owner’s driving habits—if those miles were mostly on the highway, you’ve got a good deal in front of you. 

High-mileage used cars are typically much cheaper than those with less than 75,000 miles, but can last twice as long as a city-only driver the same age and model. 

A beautiful long, open stretch of well-paved highway cutting through a plain. There are tall snow-capped mountains to the left and a blue sky with soft white clouds
Highway driving | Meriç Dağlı via Unsplash

If you’re starting from zero, you can always look at reliable used vehicles recommended by trusted sources like Consumer Reports, U.S. News, or Kelley Blue Book to narrow your search. From there, you can start to narrow down by price and look for terms like “one owner,” “accident-free,” “dealer-maintained,” etc. 

It may take a little longer to sort through the hundreds (or thousands, depending on where you live) of used cars near you, but Well Rigged assures that this method can help you find the needle in the haystack.

Embrace your inner minimalist

If you want a really great deal on a used car, learn to live without the leather seats and fine features. Premium vehicles with all the bells and whistles tend to not only be more expensive, but less reliable used cars. You’ll also likely pay more for more repairs over the long term.

If you’re willing to pay a little more, make sure you do some extra research into the most reliable used luxury cars to make sure you get the best fit.

Want to be an even more savvy shopper? Watch the video below for the top 12 things to look for when buying a reliable used car. 

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