For many, buying a used car offers a chance at getting the transport you need for a lower price point, in exchange for some quirks inherited from the previous owner. No used car is pristine, but it pays to be able to pick the diamonds out of the rough and avoid the worst of these inherited issues. Once you understand what resources are available, and what to expect within a given price range, you stand a good chance of coming away with a reliable used car, and not keys to a money pit.
Preview Your Options Online
Most used car dealers maintain a listing of their available inventory on a company website, allowing you the opportunity to browse at your leisure before you ever turn up at the lot. This will help take some of the guess work out of the experience, and reduce the amount of time you spend looking once you're there. If you do choose this route, bear in mind that not every car in a dealer's inventory will be represented online.
Using the dealer's website will also allow you time to compare the retail price to the industry standard for that make and model of car. The standard pricing can be made even more accurate if the listing includes mileage, as this will affect the value of the vehicle. Further, you can often find vehicle history reports online, and many dealers include these reports along with their listings, so you can make the most well-informed buying decision possible, even before you've left your house.
Not every repair made to a car is going to be listed in a vehicle history report, especially if it's custom work done in the previous owner's spare time. Backyard mechanics and hobbyists don't have to report back to insurance companies or other databases about the work they do, so it's in your best interest to carry a healthy dose of skepticism while used car shopping. If you're not the most car-savvy person around, you may want to bring a friend who knows more than you do along to help you judge the value of a vehicle.
Unless you or someone you know is a certified mechanic, there's a good chance you won't be able to spot every potential issue with a car. If the lot allows you to take the car on a test drive, call up a mechanic you're familiar with and ask if you can swing through so they can give the car a once over. Most mom and pop auto repair businesses will be happy to help, and some may not even charge you for the time. Either way, you'll have a professional opinion of the car's state and can feel more confident about any decision you make.
Buying a used car offers you a chance at a great value, but that doesn't mean your evaluation should stop with the price tag. Be critical, and take your time when shopping, or you may not like the results.