If you go new car shopping, your main worry is price. You don’t have to worry about the particular car. The red one sitting next to the silver one that’s parked next to the yellow one on the dealer’s lot . . . they’re all the same. It doesn’t really matter which one you pick – other than colors and options.
And, of course, the price.
With a used car, it’s exactly the opposite.
A given used car is an individual – distinct from the thousands of others of the same make/model that rolled off the line that year. It was driven differently – and maintained differently. It may have been babied – or it could have been abused. No two examples of a given make/model/year used car will ever be the same as far as their mechanical and cosmetic condition, the miles on the clock, the stains on the seats or the intervals at which necessary service (such as oil and filter changes) was performed.
Condition – rather than price – is what matters most when used car shopping.
Unfortunately, condition involves variables and subtleties that make haggling over new car prices seem like a cakewalk. Most people know about dealer invoice vs. manufacturer’s suggested retail price – and how to research dealer incentives and all the rest of it. It’s not rocket science; the info is available and it’s all pretty straightforward – being just numbers.
But how do you determine whether the used vehicle you’re looking at was ill-treated by its previous owner? Whether high-quality service parts were used – or the cheapest no-name crap on discount at Wal-Mart? Dealers (and even private sellers) can cover up stuff better than Lady Gaga’s make-up people. And once you’ve signed the contract and handed over your dollars, any problems are now your problems – because in most states, there is no warranty implied unless it is specifically stated. Sales are generally considered “as is” – unless there’s something in writing asserting or promising otherwise. Telling the small claims court that the seller told you there were no problems with the car will usually cut no ice. And, to be fair to the seller, he may not have known about the problem that cropped up after the sale. It’s a used car. Wear and tear. Bad luck. Stuff can – and does – go wrong. That’s why the standard in court for pursuing a successful claim against a seller is usually pretty high. In most cases, you’d have to substantiate willful, knowing misrepresentation. Absent that, it’s your car now – warts and all.
Scared yet? That’s a good state of mind to be in when shopping used cars. I like to compare it with my personal policy when riding a motorcycle: Assume every driver is deliberately trying to kill you. A little precautionary paranoia in dicey situations can save you a lot of trouble. All right. So, how about some practical used car buying advice?
Try to stick with popular models
This may seem counterintuitive, because popular often means pricey. However, popular also tends to mean good. If lots of people are buying a given make/model/year vehicle – and prices are strong – it strongly suggests that make/model/year vehicle is a good vehicle. Personal case-in-point: I own two of the last-generation (1998-2004) Nissan Frontier pick-up truck, the generation before this model got up-sized to mid-sized from compact-sized. I paid the same money in 2011 for my 2004 that I paid back in ’04 for my ’98. The value of these trucks has held strong – because they’re known to be sturdy little trucks that are very hard to hurt, even if you try to. Mid-late 1990s-era Toyota Corollas – and all Mazda Miatas – are two more examples of known-good cars that were made in the millions.
It’s still important to vet the particular example you find – but being able to fixate on a certain make/model/year helps a lot. And if it’s popular, it’s likely you’ll have lots of examples to choose from – another advantage of going for a well-liked car. And parts – especially trim parts – will likely be available for longer.
And for less.