How to Be Smart About Buying a Used Car

Source: Thinkstock

When it comes to buying a car, for most people, buying used is a much better idea than buying new. No one wants to buy a money pit, though, and buying a used car can be scary. It’s hard to know for sure what kind of history the car has, and there’s always the fear that the engine will drop out the second the title is put in your name. Luckily, if you’re smart about shopping for a used car, you can mitigate most of that risk while saving a huge amount of money versus buying new.

First, you have to decide what car you want to buy. It sounds elementary, but the more thought you put into narrowing down what you’re looking for, the easier the search will be. That means that instead of immediately asking for recommendations from friends and family via social media, you should decide on a reasonable budget range, figure out what you need to use the new car for the most, and decide what features you consider a necessity. Then hit the Internet to find cars that offer you what you want for the money you want to spend.

One drawback to used cars is that, unlike new ones, a lot of them are missing modern safety features. Whether you’re buying a car new or used, most wouldn’t feel comfortable buying a car that doesn’t at least come with anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control. If you have to pay more to get a car with those three features, absolutely do. There’s no amount of money that you can save that will make getting into an otherwise avoidable accident worth it.

If you’re buying a 3-year-old version of the current model, such as a 2012 BMW 535i instead of a new 2015, that’s unlikely to be a concern. As your budget gets lower and the cars you’re looking at get older, however, even ones with great reputations stand a good chance of lacking those important safety features. You’d probably be surprised how recently traction and stability control have become standard on a Toyota Corolla.

Source: BMW

Luckily — or unluckily for some, we suppose — depreciation hits luxury cars like a brick, and if you want a lot of car for not a lot of money, a used luxury car can be a great buy. Not only will it have more modern safety features than a comparable non-luxury car, but it’ll also have more modern technology and better build quality. Unlike a lot of writers who don’t take their own advice, this is something I’ve actually done.

When I bought my 1999 BMW 540i two summers ago, my friends and coworkers were amazed how much car I got for $5,000. One coworker who had just purchased a Chevrolet Malibu for a little more than $10,000 was legitimately mad. Everything about how my car drove, rode, and felt was better than hers, which cost twice as much. To this day I still think it’s an amazing car, and I’d have to spend three times as much to even consider a different car.

The obvious difference between a Malibu and a 5-Series is that the maintenance on a 5-Series is going to be a lot more expensive. Parts are more expensive. Labor is more expensive. Even oil is more expensive. The most straightforward solution is to buy a few basic tools and plan on doing maintenance and basic repairs yourself. Changing the transmission fluid on my BMW would cost something like $500, but I do it myself in less than 30 minutes for $40. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, the Internet is full of instructions and example videos that make doing most repairs about as complicated as following instructions.

A lot of people don’t trust themselves to work on a car, though. In that case, you want to make sure you buy a model that’s considered generally reliable and get a mechanic to inspect it closely before you buy. You don’t just want to make sure it’s mechanically sound. You also want to get a good idea of how much time you have until major parts wear out. Part of the reason I bought the specific car that I did was because the owner had recently replaced the timing chain. That cost him $3,500 at the dealer, and even though I paid him a little more than another 5-Series I was looking at, the prospect of not having to worry about making that repair again for a long time made it the better buy.

Source: Thinkstock

You also don’t necessarily have to go to the dealer and pay their exorbitant labor rates, either. If you ask around and do a little bit of research, it isn’t terribly hard to find a reliable, independent mechanic. Their labor rates are usually significantly lower and they’ll use non-OEM parts, saving you quite a bit of money in the process. The price difference isn’t always this drastic, but when I replaced the window regulator on my car, I paid nearly a tenth of what it would have cost to order one from BMW. Those are some serious savings.

Ultimately, the more you know going into a car purchase, the better your experience will be. Buying a new car can seem safer, but you pay a pretty penny in depreciation for that peace of mind. With a little bit of research, you can let someone else take the depreciation hit, still buy a car with modern safety features, and not pay out the wazoo for maintenance and repairs. It may be intimidating at first, but if you’re smart about how you do it, you really can get a great deal on a used car.

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