Tips for Buying a Used Car in Today’s Market

After looking around the used car market for the past six months (and more seriously within the past one month), I have a few observations and recommendations to share. Because it’s a jungle out there.

(I also –almost — *fingers crossed* have a new ((to me)) car).

Here is what I’ve learned in the process:

Tip #1 – Do not be in a hurry. Give it time.

Although there are many fake virtues in today’s world, patience is not one of them. We are culturally conditioned to expect instant gratification, but the truth is that, in many cases, waiting a little longer will reward you, often in in unexpected ways.

It may require some sacrifices, such as having to walk, bike, use pubic transport, or carpooling, but those situations aren’t so bad when they’re only temporary and you know you’ll be moving on to something better soon. A short-term sacrifice will allow you to save up more money so that you can afford the best thing possible, and it will also allow more time for that thing to show up.

And even when you do find the perfect car, still, don’t rush into it. This might take more faith than most people are willing to give, but another truth is that if something is meant for you, then it will be yours — and you’ll know it. You’ll feel it. I don’t really know how to describe the feeling — it just feels right, somehow. It also feels like peace, and gratitude, and hope.

What it doesn’t feel like, is anxiety. In a competitive market there is often pressure to bid or buy quickly before the car is gone, and this tactic is often used to make a sale. This pressure was applied to me a few times with “hot deals” that “won’t last long”. While there were indeed some attractive things about these cars, and they did disappear from the listings quickly, I was okay with letting them go to someone else, because there were other things about these cars that signaled that they were not the one for me (I’ll get into detail below).

The more time you give it, the more time you have to research, get clear on your goals and needs for the car, ask questions, allow any potential problems to crop up, negotiate, get your funds ready, and make sure that this is 100% the right decision. It’s far better to do this before money changes hands, when you still have that power. Because once your money is gone, if the car fails (even if due to seller, um, error), it can be a hard time, if not impossible, to get your money back — a painful and costly lesson which can be avoided with patience. They have something you want, but don’t forget that you have something they want. Don’t hand it over until you are sure that you are actually getting what you want, and not just something that looks like what you want, but is in fact a piece a very expensive piece of junk.

Tip #2 – Always get a pre-purchase inspection by a mechanic.

This is an absolute requirement if you are buying a used car, and something I learned the hard way not only once, but twice. Both times I took the seller’s word for it that the car had been inspected by a professional mechanic and was mechanically sound. Both cars then immediately presented major mechanical problems within 24 hours after purchase — the latter failing permanantly at a busy intersection only 15 minutes after sale. (I know. -.-)

Both sellers denied any wrongdoing, refused to returned my money, and asserted that the car was my responsibility (problem) now.

After this, I discovered that it’s a common scam for sellers to disconnect the car’s battery, which temporarily shuts off the ‘check engine’ light.

Buyer beware, indeed. It’s appalling.

Having your own mechanic inspect the car before purchase is crucial in order to protect yourself from this happening to you. Yes, it’s an extra step in the process, but it’s so much less complicated than having to deal with a lemon. If the car’s bad, you can just walk away.

If you don’t have a mechanic already, it’s also worth exploring and finding one you like and trust. I knew I found the one when he was friendly on the phone and was able to schedule an appointment for the same day (others were a week out), right away in fact. When I brought a test car to him, the shop was clean and quiet and family-owned, with a portrait of the family on the wall. And after the inspection, he walked out and the first thing he said was, “you didn’t buy this car yet, did you?”

xD

Then he pulled up the inspection report on his monitor, which was very thorough, and showed me everything that was wrong with it, and recommended not buying.

This cost me less than $50, and saved me thousands (as well as emotional stress).

Taking a used car to a mechanic for pre-purchase inspection is a must. Even if the car seems to be in good shape, you just don’t know exactly what’s going on with it until you look under the hood (or pay someone who knows what they’re looking at to do it for you).

Because that’s what the car really is.

It’s been amazing to me to see all these car advertisements, and very few of them ever mention the mechanical aspect of the car — which is, you know, what is actually going to get you from A to B. But what they will mention is the bells and whistles, which might be nice but are totally unnecessary – Bluetooth, sunroof, heated leather seats, etc. Those are extras, and not why you buy a used car, yet they are often featured at the top of the ad.

I’ve also noticed many sellers taking advantage of reputable brands like Honda and Toyota to list for a shockingly high price. At the time of this writing, 2007-08 models — almost 15 years old, and above 200,000 miles — are listed for $6,000 and up.

While these brands are known to make quality vehicles that can last 300,000 miles or more, that is really only an accurate selling point when they are new. A 2007-08 Honda isn’t purely a Honda anymore: it’s a Honda + the previous owner’s care of it (or, potentially, lack thereof). There is 15 years’ worth of history, mileage, wear and tear along with that good name — which can possibly change the realization of that car’s life span.

In other words, a Honda that is not cared for, can still end up being parted out in the junk yard.

So, even though an older high-mileage Honda or Toyota could be a good car that has a lot of life left, just because it’s a Honda or Toyota doesn’t guarantee any of that. How the previous owner(s) treated it factors into the equation as well. Don’t get fooled into believing that a car is automatically worth more just because it has a good brand. The car is really now Brand + Owner(s) Treatment.

And the best way to get a clear picture of how the owner treated the car, and thus what the car is really worth, is to get a mechanical inspection of it.

Do not take the seller’s word for it — they stand to profit from your decision, so of course the greedy ones are going to try to influence it.

One seller I talked to said he didn’t “have time for games” when I told him I’d have to bring the car to a mechanic first.

So that one clearly wasn’t meant for me.

I knew I found the right one when the seller not only agreed to an inspection, but also knew and approved of my mechanic and even offered to drop it off there for me.

Yep. It’s worth it to wait.

Tip #3 – Establish your life goals and what you need from a car in order to reach them

So, owning a car is kind of plan B for me. If the world and my life were exactly the way I want it, then I wouldn’t own a car, and I would be happy. I would live in a seaside village somewhere, and I would walk to an outdoor market for fresh food, and I would walk the hills in the countryside for fresh air, and that would be my life. Possibly in a foreign land, like Italy or Greece.

But that’s just a dream. Prior to 2020, I did believe it was possible that we could live our dreams, but the current world takeover situation has thrown that all into sharp relief. It’s hard to figure out what life is really about now — if we will be able to do what we want and have a good life, or if the coming years are going to be a fight just for survival.

So I’m adapting to create a blend of the two. And even though car ownership is a compromise in some ways, it still seems to be the best option, despite the drawbacks (state extortion via registration, yearly renewal, and insurance, as well as pollution, traffic, and the fact that most of the time, the car just sits unused). It’s going to take me where I need to be, so I can do stuff I need to do — as personally un-infringed on as possible (I don’t wear a mask).

Without getting into the specifics of what that is, here is what I’ve established that I need from a car:

  • Low miles. Longevity is a priority.
  • Mechanically sound (obviously).
  • Good tires – and prefer AWD, but not a deal breaker. (Can get snow tires)
  • Good fuel economy (road trips).
  • Cruise control (also road trips).
  • Hatchback for maximum cargo space (but not SUV — low fuel economy).
  • Light-colored interior and exterior so it doesn’t bake in the sun (harder to find than you might expect).
  • Clean, non-smoking previous owner, preferably only one.
  • Navigation would be a nice extra, but I can easily install my own.

So basically, I need something that’s capable of taking me far, far away, and keeping me going for a long time.

I considered getting a Prius, not as a political statement (how funny would it be though to put a pro-Trump bumper sticker on it), but because they seem to meet almost all of these qualifications — except for the low miles part. Unfortunately, due to the Toyota brand and the crazy market inflation we’re currently experiencing, these Prius cars that are more than 10 years old and have more than 100,000 miles are being listed around $10K.

Maybe I’m just old school, but I have a really hard time with that. I can’t do it. Especially since I’m not totally in love with these cars. I thought the ‘Pistachio Green’ color was nice, and had a weird moment one day when I was looking online for one in this color, and then I went outside and it drove past me — also right after watching a Wachowski Brothers film (not The Matrix) which mentioned the word ‘coincidence’ several times (God, this place is so weird).

I didn’t know how to read it. I’ve been wrong about signs before, so I just said “okay” and continued with my search.

Tip #4 – Research Extensively

The more you read, the more you’ll learn, and the more confident you’ll be in making a decision.

The car that I eventually arrived at, I didn’t even know existed until almost the end of my research. There aren’t too many of them on the used car market, and I consider that to be a great thing. There are tons of used Priuses, and many of them have multiple owners in their history. People seem to get rid of their Prius after a few years, which is a good indicator that it’s not a desirable car.

The more you research, the more you’ll pick up on patterns like this.

Search Facebook Marketplace (yeah, I did temporarily reactivate my account for this reason), Craigslist, local car dealership websites, AutoTrader. You can also take a drive around and just see what people have put out for sale by the side of the road — this can indeed be magical, but wasn’t practical in my case, since I didn’t currently have a car, and didn’t want to rent one or inconvenience a family member to drive me around looking.

Search the make, model and year of the cars that interest you and look at their reviews on Edmunds and other sites like this. It can give you very helpful insight of what to expect from the car and help you decide what you really want.

For example, I thought I wanted a moonroof, but then I read a woman’s review describing an accident she was in with a deer. It was a very dramatic story, and that was the entire review — maybe she just wanted someone to hear it, or maybe it was a testament to the quality build of the car, since deer collisions usually result in totaling, but this car apparently held up, except for the moonroof, which “rained down glass” on them and caused the only injuries they had.

So I realized that maybe I don’t really want a moonroof. xD

I also researched how to take care of a hybrid car, which it turns out isn’t all that different from a normal car. I had heard horror stories about $2K hybrid battery replacements, but the reality is that you can avoid this with routine maintenance, like oil changes (possibly even done at the same time). You just go to a shop that can service hybrids and ask them to check the battery, and they can recharge it if needed, and you’re good to go.

Tip #5 – Buy Local & Negotiate

I live in a small city, so there isn’t as much available as in big cities further away. The selection is smaller and prices are higher here. But tempting as they may be, it’s better to wait until something turns up closer to you.

I know from experience. For one, pictures don’t always give you the whole truth. For example, a car I traveled across the state for turned out to have cigarette holes burned into its ceiling. If that had been a local car, I might have passed on it for this reason alone.

Traveling for a car puts more pressure on you to buy it, because you don’t want to waste a long road trip. If you are going to travel for a car, don’t tell the seller (especially if it’s a dealer) that you’re traveling, because then they’ll see you as already partially invested in it, and it will decrease your power of negotiation.

The key to negotiation is the ability to walk away. You have to not need it.

And the key to not needing it is to not be attached to it, at least, not before you buy it. Be more generic and get attached to the best possible outcome instead, which means you can let this car go if you have to.

Having a mechanical inspection can also help with this, not only to let you know if this is the right car for you, but if there is any mechanical work that needs to be done, you can use that in your negotiation.

You can also get a better price, and more peace of mind, if you buy from a private seller rather than a dealer. While a dealer can sometimes offer a thorough mechanical inspection and service and warranty (depending on where you go) their prices will also reflect that, and their prices usually tend to be higher in general anyway.

And, in the case of a dealer, all you will ever know about the car’s history will come from the CarFax report, which is helpful in its own way but is nowhere near the whole picture. Whereas with a private seller, you might find a vehicle that has had only one owner, so you can get a much better sense of its history.

A dealer is also much different in the sense that it’s a business, so its interactions with you will be angled to get as much money out of you as possible, which they are professionals at doing. There’s a reason they have the reputation they do. That’s not to say private parties can’t do that too, but the difference with private parties is that they can also be a little more personal. Since they are not running a business and are more likely to be selling for personal reasons, like life changes, you may have more room for negotiation.

Finally, be polite in your offer. When I found my perfect car, I almost felt like it was wrong to come in low, because it was such a nice car. But I simply did not have the number they listed it for.

So when I contacted them, I asked if they would even be willing to consider a lower offer. I was close, but not quite there. And while some people might recommend to negotiate in person, I felt it was better to be upfront about the fact that I would not be paying full price before we go any further, especially since the ad did not say “or best offer”, and again, it was such a nice car. I just didn’t want to insult them, put them on the spot in person, or waste anyone’s time.

They asked for my offer and I told them what I could do today. They came back requesting a bit more, which was fair, but would have been more than I could do — it was already such a stretch.

But then I got a check in the mail that same day, which would cover the extra amount. Serious.

This confirmed for me that this car was meant to be.

Tip #6 — Prepare for a Different World

Prices for everything are crazy high right now, and the used car market is no exception — which you are probably well aware of, and we are really seeing only the beginning of it. Whatever your budget is, double it, unless it makes sense to you to buy a car with 200K+ miles on it. For me, I want this car to last a long time, possibly the rest of my life. I don’t want to have to buy a car in this crazy world and market again.

One thing I considered too is how long cars, at least as we know them, are even going to be an option. With the rise of self-driving and electric cars, the future of cars on the road could be much different than the past. I remember my employer saying in 2016 that kids being born today (in 2016) would never get a driver’s license or own a car themselves. Since we can get a license at age 16, that means by 2032 we are supposed to be seeing major changes, which does fit in line with the ‘Great Reset’ (world takeover, and the real reason for the ‘pandemic’, the controlled demolition of the economy and the restrictions of our liberties).

For this reason I considered possibly getting a plug-in hybrid, but they are still too new, and so too far out of my price range. Plus, I don’t know that electric cars will really be able to take off that fast (heh). It’s still only a projection, a possible future.

Still, it is concerning that the car will be dependent on gas being available (and affordable), as well as mechanics who can service and fix the car. I also have to consider being able to have my license and registration renewed and a home address to send them to, as well as having funds to support all that in an increasingly unstable economy.

It’s a little scary. But I’m not going to give much energy to negative potential outcomes. The future is not set in stone, despite what the Georgia Guidestones might have us think, and I don’t believe anyone is really in control.

But being behind the steering wheel in your own car can definitely help with that.

I do love driving on a sunny day with the windows down and the tunes up. I’m looking forward to my next adventure and the possibilities it entails.

And who knows, maybe we’ll break free of this economic prison and develop cars that can power themselves for free with the energy generated by their wheels running on the road.

xD

If you’re still reading this article, I’m sorry it turned into more of an ebook, but it’s been such a long process and I had to get it out.

Finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. 🙂

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