All You Need to Know About Buying a Used Car

woman looking to buy a used car

Buying a previously owned vehicle can be a great way to save big on one of your most valuable possessions. If you’re in the market for a deal on used wheels, follow the steps below for a smoother ride.

Crunch the numbers

How are you paying for your new car? If you’re paying cash, you already have a car budget in place. If you’re taking out an auto loan, your lender will determine how much you can afford.

Calculate your monthly vehicle payment with our free, online auto calculator. Your monthly payment will be based on the price of the vehicle, the interest rate and the loan term.

Also consider getting pre-approved with your credit union for an auto loan before visiting the dealer’s lot.

Create a target list

What make and model car do you want to buy? Check out Consumer Reports for reliability ratings on vehicles from the most recent model years. Aim to narrow your choices to three or four model cars.


Start researching prices and listings for your vehicles of choice. Visit sites like or to get started.

Private-party sellers will likely offer lower prices. However, these cars are not backed by dealerships, so you could be taking a bigger risk with the purchase.

When researching available cars, be sure to consider the vehicle’s year, make, model and mileage. It’s also a good idea to find out what the average asking price is for the car you want to buy.

Call the seller

Contact the seller to verify the information you’ve learned about each car. If you’re using a private-party seller, ask about any possible mechanical issues. If you’re working with a dealership, ask if the car is still in stock and for any information you couldn’t find on your own. If everything checks out, set up an appointment for a test drive.

Test drive

Pay attention to these details during your test-drive.

  • Is there sufficient legroom and headroom?
  • Is the ride smooth?
  • How is the acceleration?
  • Is the “check engine” light on?
  • Do you have full visibility?
  • Are the brakes working well?
  • Do all the lights work?

Next, ask for the vehicle’s service records to determine if it’s current on scheduled maintenance.

Get the vehicle history report

Once you’ve narrowed down your search, learn all you can about each vehicle. What kind of repairs or maintenance did it undergo? Was it ever involved in an accident? Find out with a vehicle history report.

You can get a detailed vehicle report on or Ask the dealer if they have one available for review—policies vary, but many will gladly show it to you or email you a copy. If obtaining one on your own, you’ll be asked for the vehicle identification number (VIN) or the license plate number.

Have it inspected

Private sellers and most dealerships won’t have a problem with you taking the car to a mechanic for an inspection. Having your car professionally inspected will only cost you about $100 now, but it can save you loads of aggravation and lots of money down the line.


Make an opening offer based on the average price for your car and use all the information you’ve learned about your vehicle as bargaining chips. Be firm and you will end up with a fairly priced vehicle.

Make it official

If you’re buying your car off a private-party seller, make sure the title and registration are officially transferred to you. Read the contract carefully and make sure you have insurance before you drive off the lot. Now, you’re all set to take your new car for its first spin.