how to buy a used car

How to Buy a Used Car (and Avoid a Lemon)

We received a lot of buzz from our article encouraging others to avoid buying new cars. While most agreed with our take, others brought up very legitimate concerns about buying used.

Although some of these concerns can be easily remedied, one concern stood out.

Several people stated that they would still rather buy a new car because of the warranties. If something happened, they knew it would be fixed.

These people did not trust that they could find a good used car, and instead, would rather spend WAY more money on a new car for peace of mind.

This got us to thinking.

Why would someone deliberately spend more money than they needed to when there are plenty of good used options out there? It isn’t like buying a new car guarantees that it won’t have issues.

Then it hit us. People are afraid to buy used cars because they don’t know how to buy a used car.

This idea completely makes sense. People don’t tend to take risks, so unless people feel confident about their ability to find a good used car, they’ll likely avoid it even if they know that it’s not a good financial decision.

With this realization, we’ve put our heads together to come up with some strategies for buying a used car. These strategies are things that we, and those we know, have used for buying a reliable used car.

While there’s no guarantee with a used car (really, there isn’t with a new car either), these tips will drastically reduce the chances of getting a lemon.

Here is how to buy a used car and avoid getting a stuck with a lemon.

Do Your Research and Know What You Want BEFORE You Look

Okay, this really applies to ALL car buying, but it’s also extremely important when looking for a used car.

You need to do some research and decide on what kind of car you want to buy BEFORE you start looking.

This tip is especially important if you will be looking for your used car at dealerships. If you go onto a car lot just “looking,” then every vehicle is fair game and you run the risk of being upsold to something more expensive than what you had in mind.

Bad news.

Car salespeople are REALLY good, and use all kinds of marketing tactics to convince you that you deserve something really nice (and more expensive), and worse, that they’ll make it work for your budget. They might even convince you to upgrade to a new car, which is where they make the most profit.

On the other hand, if you have your car picked out already then you’ll only be stepping on a lot because something that fits your criteria is already there.

Take my used truck search for example. I knew I was looking for a Chevy Silverado half ton crew cab. Mileage and package were flexible, but I even had my ideal truck narrowed down to the color (I can be a little picky). I also had a budget I wouldn’t go over.

With this criteria, I used searches to find trucks that fit and only looked at those in person. That way, when I went onto the lot I had a specific vehicle in mind and salespeople didn’t even try to upsell me.

The only exception was the first truck I test drove. It was a Silverado half ton crew cab, but the wrong color and price. I only drove this truck to get a feel for the model and to see if I could fit it in my driveway. I told the salespeople this going in, but man did they try every trick in the book to sell me that truck. I finally offered them half of what it was worth and told them if they took it I would just turn around and resell it for more, then buy what I wanted!

Car salespeople are pushy, but if you already know what you want then they’ll typically focus on selling you that car as opposed to anything they feel like.

Take Someone Experienced With You

We put this tip near the top because it’s something you should do no matter what strategies you employ on your used car search.

Nothing can replace experience, and so it’s a good idea to get advice from someone who has been there before.

The best option would be to take along someone who knows a thing or two about cars. If you know a mechanic, or someone who works on their own cars, this person will be able to check things out for you and give you a good idea whether it’s a good car or not.

Even if you don’t know a mechanic, many people have a basic understanding of cars and know the big things to watch out for. Anyone who has been through the car-buying process before will be able to offer insight and their opinion.

One area they will be especially helpful in is knowing how to properly test-drive a used vehicle. It isn’t just about how the car drives down the road, but how well it accelerates, brakes, and handles.

You should always put a little stress on the vehicle during a test drive to see how it performs, and if there are any concerning noises or movement. You should also try every gear, feature, and button on the inside to make sure everything is working.

We cannot emphasize enough the power of experience. Always take someone with you when looking at a used car, and preferably, someone who has bought several themselves.

Get it Checked by a Mechanic

It’s always a good idea to have everything checked out when making a large purchase.

This is why home buyers have a home inspection, why someone buying a horse has a vet check, and why many people choose to have a mechanic check a used car before they buy it.

In fact, it’s kind of funny because this strategy isn’t used as often with cars, even though it’s almost universally used with home buying.

Many people may feel confidently enough in their ability to find a good used car that they forego a mechanic inspection, but if you’re concerned about your purchase you can have it inspected for relatively cheap.

The mechanic I use will check any car out for $100. While that is an added expense, $100 for an inspection is much less than the thousands of extra dollars you’ll pay when you buy a new car.

This strategy may be especially helpful if you’re buying from a private party or a less reputable used car dealer, as these venues may be less trustworthy.

Long story short, if you’re concerned at all about the car, get it checked out before you buy it.

Buy From a Dealer

If you’re still unsure about buying a used car from a private party or used car dealer, another option is to look for used cars at brand or reputable dealerships.

We know, going to a dealer isn’t always super fun. The salespeople often bug and pressure you, but if you use our first tip and know what you want before you go they’ll back off significantly.

Here’s the thing with dealers.

If they’re reputable, or a brand dealer, then they’re really concerned about their reviews and image. There are hundreds of dealers to choose from in all corners of the country, and with online services like Kelley Blue Book available, anyone can easily tell about what a vehicle is worth.

You have tons of options out there, so when they get you on their lot looking at a specific used car that only they have, they want to make sure that they leave a good impression.

Why do we care?

Because, all the above factors combine to mean that reputable dealers DO NOT want to sell you a lemon used car.

No way. If they did, and it happened regularly, they wouldn’t be in business very long because no one would go there!

As a result, reputable dealers will only put the nicest used vehicles on their lot. These are vehicles that are in good shape, have value, and that they think they can sell for some profit. But before they do, they have a team of mechanics check it out and do any necessary repairs. They don’t want to risk their reputation by selling bad used cars.

Reputable dealers include any brand dealer (Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, Dodge, Honda, etc.), as well as places like CarMax. You can also find used car dealers that are reputable, just make sure to read the reviews.

Now, this doesn’t guarantee that the car you buy will never have problems. The car could be in perfectly good shape and then need a repair a few months after you buy it.

It happens, but buying from a reputable dealer should give you confidence that the vehicle was in top shape when you drove it off the lot.

Plus, there’s a way to ensure that a used vehicle will be taken care of if it does happen to need repairs soon after purchase, which brings us to our next tip.

Buy an Extended Warranty or Repair Protection Package

Did you know that most big dealers offer some sort of repair package on used vehicles they sell?

Yep, just like the ones you’ll get for new cars.

Now, these warranties are an added expense and aren’t typically for as long as a warranty for a new car, but they can still give you that new car peace of mind without the new car debt.

I had the opportunity to purchase one when I bought my truck for a couple thousand extra, which would have covered any repairs for the next year or so.

Aside from the dealer offered protection, newer used cars may also be eligible for an extended factory warranty. These warranties are an extension of the original new car warranty, and may be a good option for vehicles that are 3 years old or less.

Again, if you’re concerned about purchasing a used car just buy an extended warranty or repair protection package from the dealer. You get the same peace of mind as if you’d bought a new car, but for a much lower price than if you’d actually bought a new car.


This tip should be used whether you’re thinking of purchasing from a dealer or a private party.

Just say, show me the Carfax!

Carfax is a web-based company that supplies vehicle history reports for both dealers and individuals. These history reports include accidents, odometer readings, the presence of a branded title, as well as past owners and their locations.

The accident history and past locations of the vehicle may be especially relevant in making your decision.

Sorry East-coasters, but your salted winter roads wreak havoc on cars!

Luckily, all the dealers I’ve ever been in give you the Carfax report. However, if you’re purchasing from a private party you’ll need to spend a few dollars to get the report.

Either way, viewing the Carfax report will allow you to know more about the history of the vehicle and whether there are any major red flags that would dissuade you from purchasing it.

Buy from an Older Person

This is more of a fun tip than a hard-and-fast rule, but it has been effective for multiple people we know.

Buy your used car from an older person, preferably a lady (a nice lady!).

It may sound silly, but you’ll often get the best used cars from older people.

There are several reasons for this: 1) older people tend to be easier on their cars, 2) older people tend to drive less, and 3) older people tend to take REALLY good care of their cars.

How many of you have grandparents?

Do they drive slower, easier, less often, and take their car in for all its regular maintenance and for every little thing?

We bet they do!

For all these reasons, cars sold by older people tend to have less miles, less wear and tear, and are typically in really good shape.

This idea even holds true if the vehicles is older.

Take my grandparents for example. They bought both of their cars new, a Chevy Silverado in 1999 and a Chevy Trailblazer in 2004. Both are in tip top shape, and the truck has less than 100k miles.

Trust us, even if the car is 10, 15, or even 20 years old, if an older person is selling it it’s worth at least a look.

Be Patient

Last but not least, when looking for a used car it’s important to be patient and take your time.

We know this is easier said than done. Life happens. Maybe your car was totaled in an accident, or broke down unexpectedly. You probably need a vehicle to commute, and your life doesn’t stop just because your vehicle did.

Despite all those factors, it’s really important to wait for the one you want when it comes to buying used cars. Any time you’re in a rush you run the risk of making a poor decision that you’ll regret later.

Even if you’re not expecting to need another car, it’s good to have some idea of what you might be interested in just in case.

If you think your car is on its last legs, start doing research and know what you want before you’re put in a position where you need another car.

Whatever method you choose, make sure you don’t rush into purchasing a used car. Like any other major purchase, it is something that ideally will be well-researched, thought out, and planned.

Moral of the Story

Despite the fears of many, buying a used car doesn’t have to be a shot in the dark.

Especially in today’s world, there are many tools available that significantly reduce the risk of you buying a lemon.

Some general tips for buying a used car include doing your research and knowing what you want before looking, taking someone experienced with you, buying from older people, and being patient.

Other tips include buying from a reputable dealer, getting a Carfax report, having the vehicle inspected by a mechanic, and buying an extended warranty or repair package.

Buying a used car doesn’t have to be a scary experience if you know what to do. Use a combination of these strategies to help ensure that you’ll get a nice used car and save yourself a lot of money.

Don’t let fear get in the way of making a sound financial choice. With these tips for how to buy a used car, you no longer have that excuse.

Talk about Money Saved!

17 thoughts on “How to Buy a Used Car (and Avoid a Lemon)”

  1. Great tips! I never would have thought about buying from an older owner as a strategy, but what you say is true. I’m an older owner myself now and my car has low miles and is in great shape. Sorry folks, it’s not for sale! 🙂

  2. This post is coming at a perfect time. I’m looking for a used car and have been having a hard time. You are right when you say you need to have patience.

  3. The Panicked Foodie

    This article has a lot of great advice! I especially liked the part about bringing someone knowledgeable with you. The other thing I like to do, since I am a female, is to have a knowledgeable male present with me. For whatever reason, women get taken advantage of a lot in these sorts of situations. Personally, I wouldn’t buy I used car. I am a survivor of a severe car accident, so buying/leasing a new car every few years when the major safety features improve is now very important to me. 🙂 Not only that, but you know exactly what the history of the vehicle is. I live in the Northeast, and the salt in the winter time (like you pointed out) absolutely destroys the car and gets into every little nook and cranny. This is something that isn’t captured in a Carfax report, and can cause some serious damage and safety issues down the line. With a new car, it hasn’t been exposed to the salt yet so you don’t have this issue.

    1. You made some good points. It’s true that women are typically seen as having less knowledge when it comes to cars and people do try to take advantage of that. In your case, it makes sense to look for cars less than 3 years old.

  4. Many will tend to buy used cars since they come in cheaper as compared to brand new cars. Even so, precaution must be taken to acquire a nice car. I agree that buying from a reputable dealer and getting it checked by a mechanic are must-dos. But when it comes to buying from a nice old lady, that sound funny although it’s true.

    1. Those are both good strategies. Taking someone with you is especially important. Even if you’re experienced they might pick up on something you miss.

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