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How to Buy a Used Car

Tips to prevent you from getting ripped off.

Illustration by Caitlin

Illustration by Caitlin

Whoa, you just got your driver’s license? Congratulations! I know that grown-type people are probably acting all terrified of your new status as a TEEN DRIVER, but having just memorized the driver’s handbook, you probably know more about driving than they do right now. The family vehicle is great for rolling around town, but it always comes with time restrictions and major rules. But if you live in a city where you can’t get around without a car and you have a job you can’t walk to or an intense after-school schedule, or no one in your house has a car you can borrow, you might need or want your own wheels. I’m here to tell you how to get one, even if you don’t have a lot of money.

I bought my first car when I was 16 years old and freshly licensed, with $100 and 20 hours of babysitting from the family I worked for. It was just sitting in their driveway, never getting driven, and I said, “Hey, what’s the deal with that car?” It was a rusty Chevette—the beige fabric on the inside of the roof pulled away at the center and sagged down, curving like upside-down umbrella; the muffler was non-existent; and the engine seized up in the winter so terribly that I regularly had to tap on the starter with a pair of pliers to get it to turn over. In other words, it was perfect. There was nothing I could do to that car that would make it worse than it already was, which was reassuring somehow. Plus, most important, it was all MINE. I spray-painted it, tacked staples to the ceiling to fix the fabric, and learned a lot about engines from constantly having to fiddle with the one in my Chevette.

I’m not sure that I would have known how to find a car if one hadn’t just shown up in my life like that. My grandparents grew up in Harlem and never learned how to drive, so they were no help when it came to automobile shopping and on my after-school-job budget I didn’t have a lot of options. Finding and buying a car isn’t hard, but you need to know a few things to do it right and not get ripped off.

Some obligatory safety warnings before we start:

  • Never set up a meeting to see a car by yourself. I’m sure most people advertising online just want to sell you their car, but you want to err on the side of safety and always bring an adult with you when you finally get to try out your wheels. On the same note…

  • Always have the seller meet you in a public place, not at their house. This is helpful on two levels: One, you want to make sure the car is drivable and can make it across town; two, you don’t ever want to go to a stranger’s house. Suggest the parking lot of a local grocery store or some other place where there are generally a lot of people around, just in case.
  • Never bring a wad of cash with you. If you are dead set on owning the car that day, have your parents or another adult bring a check or money order. You can also leave a down payment and offer to bring over the rest later, still using a check or money order for both the down payment and future payment. (This is important, because you never want to show a stranger your debit or credit card number, and you definitely don’t want to pull out a bundle of money in a public parking lot—it opens you up to getting mugged, or, if I’m being less paranoid, what if you lose it? There’s no way to track down an envelope of cash, but you can put a stop payment on a lost check.)

OK, now let’s get you some WHEELS!

1. What’s My Budget?

Before you even start looking at cars, figure out how much you can spend—based on what you have in your bank account right now, not how much you’re hoping to get for your birthday or a summer’s worth of paychecks. Don’t even look at cars that cost more than that or let anyone talk you up past your limit.

2. Finding a Car

You might luck out and see a For Sale sign taped to the window of your dream car announcing a low low price, but why rely on random luck? There are tons of more-reliable sources you can use. Start your search close to home, with people who are eager to see you in a good, safe car for minimal dollars. Do you have an aunt looking to upgrade and get rid of her current car? A cousin with a beater in their garage? Work those connections! If you don’t personally know anyone who’s selling a car, CarsDirect and AutoTrader can help you narrow down your search by make, model, and price. Craigslist is a good resource since a lot of people don’t want to pay to list their cars (which they do with those other two services). Once you’ve spotted a good prospect, check it out in the Kelly Blue Book to make sure the seller isn’t asking too much money for the vehicle (or too little, which is a red flag that something is wrong with it).

3. Car Ads: How Do They Work?

You don’t have to be a mechanic to find a good car, but it helps to know the language a little bit. Let’s look at some lingo from a typical classified ad I just made up:

97 Volkswagen Jetta. OD 12,981. 5sp manual. $3000 OBO.

97: This is the year the car was manufactured.

Volkswagen: This is the make, or the company that makes the car.

Jetta: The model, or type, of car. If you see “Toyota Prius,” Toyota is the make and Prius is the model.

OD: This is the odometer reading, or how many miles the car has been driven on this engine. It’s important to know, because the more miles an engine has on it the more parts you’ll have to replace or have looked at (more on that later).

5sp manual: There are two types of transmissions—manual and automatic. An automatic transmission kicks over into the different gears on its own as you speed up or slow down—all you have to do is push down or ease up on the gas pedal. A manual transmission needs to be put into each gear by the driver, which you do with a clutch pedal (on the floor next to the brake) and a gear shift (between the front passenger and driver’s seat). Manual is also known as “stick shift.” It’s not impossible to learn how to drive a stick shift—driving schools offer classes, or you may already know someone who is willing to teach you—but you want to keep this in mind when you are buying just in case you don’t know how to do it yet. (An old roommate taught me how to drive stick shift while we were barreling through the windy mountain hills of Santa Cruz, California; I do not recommend this, as it is terrifying. Pick a flat space, like a parking lot, if someone offers to teach you, and work your way up to hills—it’s harder to shift on a hill.) In this ad, “5sp manual” means “five speed manual transmission.”

$3000 OBO: The number is the proposed price of the car; OBO means “or best offer,” meaning that you can (and should!) negotiate with this seller to lower the cost.

4. Get Some Answers

Congratulations, you found a car you’re interested in! Now you need to contact the seller. If they list a phone number give them a call, but maybe use your household landline if you have one, or do that thing where you block your number from being visible to the person you’re calling. This might sound overcautious, but that’s a good side to err on—in the days of caller ID, I had someone call me DAILY to ask if I was still interested in their car, and I basically had to hurt their feelings to get them to stop calling me. It was annoying; avoid that if you can.

During this call, you should ask the following questions to get a feel for what the car has to offer. Ask these before you make an appointment to see the car, just to make sure you’re not wasting your time:

How many miles are on the original engine? This is crucial. The more miles a car has accrued, the more work and maintenance will eventually have to be done. Find out up front the exact number on the odometer—for a used car that you will mostly drive around town, shoot for something with less than 100,000 miles. Chances are great that you’ll own or use this car for just a couple of years, so it’s OK if the mileage is not super low. If the car has 100,000 miles or less, it usually means that some maintenance has been done (oil changes, etc.) but that there probably haven’t been any major replacements of parts. (Some people are shady and might tell you that a car has 1,000 miles on it, but they’re talking about the miles on newly replaced parts, not on the original engine, which could have 200,000 miles on it for all you know. Ask them for a recent work order or a receipt from their mechanic that officially shows how many miles are on the car. If they tell you that parts have been replaced, find out which parts, which you will check out with a mechanic later [more on that in the next section].)

When was the last time the car had a full-service maintenance? Cars need work and routine maintenance—coolants leak, filters need to be changed, brakes and brake pads need to be replaced. Find out how regularly the car has been maintained and what was done during that maintenance so that you don’t buy a car you immediately have to pour thousands of dollars into. There’s no surefire way to check this if the person lies, unfortunately, but most states have something called Lemon Laws that will protect you within a certain time window (like 30 days) if you buy a dud.

How often do you change the oil and filter? Do you have receipts or a maintenance log? The manufacturer’s recommendation is that you change the oil every three months or 3,000 miles, so find out if this has been done regularly.

When were the headlights and interior light bulbs last replaced? In some states you can get a ticket for having a headlight out. Depending on the car, they can be pretty easy to replace on your own, and all major auto parts stores sell headlights over the counter—but you might need to buy a special screwdriver to put them in place. But on a lot of newer cars the headlights are connected to a larger electronic system that runs the car, so replacing them on your own is impossible. Keep this in mind as an expense you might have to shell out for.

Are there any obviously broken parts in the interior (glove compartment not opening, window that doesn’t roll down)? Does all of the safety equipment (e.g., seatbelts, hazard lights) work? This is obvious, but asking will let the seller know you mean SERIOUS BUSINESS.

When was the last time the emissions were checked? You don’t want to have a gas-guzzling environmental-pollution machine on your hands, so find out if the car is in compliance with state and federal guidelines about emissions. You can ask for documentation of the last emissions test.

Have you used this car for long-distance driving (highway miles) or general day-to-day driving (city miles)? The majority of car experts think that highway miles are better for your car than city miles, since being on a highway means less stops and starts. It doesn’t mean the car is junk if it’s all city miles, but it could contribute to the overall health of the car, so find out.

When was this photo taken? If they’ve posted a photo, ask if it’s recent. If the photo posted shows the car in brand-new condition but it’s currently a rusted out bucket of bolts, you’ll want to know that before you take time to go see it.

If any of the answers you get to these questions don’t sound 100% good to you, make a note to use it during your price negotiations. For example, if the seatbelts in the back don’t work or if the front headlight is out, find out the cost of replacing them and ask the owner to take amount that off the cost of the car.

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13 Comments

  • AnoHana June 28th, 2013 4:55 PM

    I always find it weird that most people in the US don’t know how to drive a manual car. It’s standard in Europe, and pretty much the only thing we learn.

    • Yip June 30th, 2013 5:04 PM

      Learning how to drive a manual car is also required to get your license in Belgium.

    • lizzyheinie July 2nd, 2013 2:11 PM

      I just learned how to drive a manual yesterday!

      I’ve been wanting to learn since I got my license, but the problem is everyone I know has an automatic – my friend’s mom is the only person with a manual and her car is wayyy too nice for me to learn on, haha. It took me literally three years to find someone with a stick shift that would teach me -_-

  • Sophie ❤ June 28th, 2013 5:37 PM

    All I can muster right now is THANK YOU!
    Now my sis is less grumpy about not being able to get a car!!!

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • MeBeKi June 28th, 2013 7:44 PM

    Yay! Now I just have to pass the test. Fourth time’s the charm?

    http://justletmecatchup.wordpress.com/

  • azultardis June 28th, 2013 10:20 PM

    Great post, I have a vocho or herbie or bug whatever you call them in us and europe, and it’s my baby,I love it,but I’m thinking about getting other car and pass my car to my brother,and these tips are great!

  • Lorelei June 28th, 2013 11:25 PM

    I got my first car this past winter. The engine would almost die every time I stopped for longer than a few seconds, like at red lights. It was pretty nerve-wracking. Then one day on the way to school it actually died right before it was my turn to go at a four way intersection and I caused a huge traffic buildup. Sometimes when I lock my doors the driver’s side one won’t open and I have to climb in through the passenger’s, which is kind of embarassing. I’ve also killed the battery twice by leaving the lights on accidently. But I love my car so much, even though it has some issues.

  • _glitterpunk June 29th, 2013 7:07 AM

    I am not yet at the point pf buying a car even though I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Love this, thank you. Really helpful.

    http://glitterpunkx.blogspot.com

  • Kaede June 29th, 2013 10:56 PM

    Great tips! I just got my first car (used), so this article hits home. In the US and Canada there’s a service called Lemon Squad that will go anywhere you need them to to check out a used car you want to buy. They helped me avoid lots of terrible cars.

    Also you should ask to see the car’s Carfax, which tells you how often it’s been serviced, how many owners it’s had, and if it’s been in any accidents.

  • artobsessed June 30th, 2013 2:50 PM

    show me tha carfax, brah.

  • wallflower152 July 1st, 2013 10:08 AM

    I got my first car, the one I still drive, for FREE from my awesome cousin! I’ve had it for almost four years and even though it’s not the sexiest car I still love it, it has taken me on so many adventures. Sadly, it’s seen its better days and it’s almost time for a new car. I want a brand new one though haha.

  • barbroxursox July 5th, 2013 4:45 PM

    The insurance on my little clunker is liability only (which it totes fine, because repairs would cost more than the car is worth), so it’s only $6 added onto my mom’s insurance every month, and she kindly pays for it. :)

  • korita_ October 5th, 2013 5:48 PM

    I bought my own car and it’s a stick shift. I love it and driving manual transmission makes me feel like a skilled driver. And it’s cheaper!