So you need to buy a used car, now what?

Now you find yourself in a position of needing to buy a used car. Maybe your replacing a clunker or perhaps you’re a parent that needs to get your kid a first car. Whatever your reason, you should do your homework. Under no circumstance should you make the decision based on price alone.

Start your home work with the vehicle requirements. What do you need the car to do will lead you into the class of car that best meets your needs. Do you carry a lot of stuff? Do you need to move four or five people around often? How about fuel economy? Is the primary driver young or older? Can the driver handle a low to the ground sedan or do you need to sit up higher? Most people keep their cars for about 8 to 10 years and you don’t want to make a mistake. Once you have identified your requirements your next stop is Consumer Reports.

Ideally, you are looking for a vehicle that offers low long-term cost of ownership. That is where CR comes in. Reliability is one of the key factors CR tracks and monitors. After carefully reviewing the data, you will find that the Asian manufacturers make a better long term car than the American and certainly the European manufacturers. European cars, Mercedes, BMW, Audi’s, will cost much more to maintain in the second half of their lives than others.

After you have identified the car that best meets your needs there are several different ways you can go about making the purchase. This is an important decision because the risks are directly proportional to the method of purchase. A Certified Used Car from a mainstream dealership is much less risky than a Craigslist offering but also more expensive. A Certified Used Car comes with a warranty while a Craigslist or a car from a neighbor comes with no warranty. The risk is measured in dollars and you must consider that in your decision and budget. You are not going to find a $3000 car as a Certified Used Car but you can find dozens of them on Craigslist.

Another way to lower your risk is to do a pre-purchase inspection. Most shops will do them for between $75 and $100 depending on how much time they take and how deep into the vehicle the shop goes. Cars are so computerized now that you can’t tell by looking at the engine if it’s a problem waiting to happen or a reliable machine. At the very minimum you should insist on a full module scan from the shop. That is where a computer is plugged into the cars data port and then proceeds to reach out to all the computers on the car and inquire as to their status, potential problems and ability to do their jobs. If the report comes back clean, that’s a green flag. If the report shows that the Transmission control module has a problem, that’s a red flag.

If you decide to not have a pre-purchase inspection done, at least ask the seller if you can have one done. If they say “no”, run away. If they say “sure”, then at least there not trying to hide something.

Good Luck in you hunt.