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Buying a used car is a tense process. The choices, of course, are all vehicles that have been driven and maintained by someone else–strangers. And there are all kinds of used vehicles: cars, trucks and SUVs that had stuff wrong with them, and the previous owner decided to trade it in instead of fix it; vehicles coming off leases; vehicles that have been owned by two or three people; vehicles that were in rental or corporate fleets.

It takes more than kicking the tires to increase your chances of getting a good used vehicle. It takes some research, patience and the willingness to walk away from a vehicle you might love if all your smart work says you should.

  1. Research your vehicle: Check sources like Consumer Reports for long-term reliability ratings. Also check the Internet forums where owners post their problems and experiences. This will reveal things like whether the make, model and year of your car experienced epic transmission or head-gasket problems that may not have been fixed yet.
  2. Check on to see how many owners the vehicle has had. It is best to find a car that has had just one owner. This report will also show you if the car has been in a wreck, which is also a vehicle to stay away from.
  3. Vehicles that are former rental cars are not the best choices regardless of the arguments from the dealer about how well the rental agencies maintain the vehicles. Rental agencies are notorious for letting scheduled service go longer than is desirable. Plus, if you have rented cars, you know how well worn they are. Hundreds and hundreds of different drivers of all shapes, sizes, driving skills and hygiene drive that car over the course of one to two years.
  4. Buying a used car from a dealer who originally sold the car, which will show you, is a good bet. In this case, the dealer should have the maintenance records on the car to show you. A dealer who is selling used a car he previously sold as new is an indication that the dealer is a good one if the previous owner kept coming back.
  5. Don’t buy a car on impulse. Even if the one you see on the lot is the color and make you want, research the car, and go find the version you want at a dealer or private party that meets your other preferences–one owner, no wreck, etc.
  6. If you have a mechanic you like and trust, insist to the seller of the vehicle that you want him or her to check it over. Insist. This will reveal whether the transmission has been maintained, if it needs new tires, new brake rotars–all stuff that will hit your wallet in the near term. If the seller says No or tries to discourage you from having your mechanic go over it, run away.
  7. Don’t finance a used car at the dealer unless it is a zero-percent offer from a manufacturer’s financial arm (this will be very rare). Go to your bank or credit union. Shop around for best rate.
  8. Be willing to walk away from any deal that doesn’t feel 100% right.
  9. Be thorough. Operate every button and switch. Open and close every door. Crawl inside the trunk and see if you get any whiff of mildew (a bad sign indicating water damage that’s being covered up).
  10. Check the tires for wear, and ask when they were replaced. If it looks like tires need replacing inside the first year, you should dicker down the cost by that much.

Free Vin Lookup

Vin Lookup

The Vehicle Identification Number is located in many different places on a car. It is very common to appear on the dashboard and/or in the drivers side door sticker. You can do a free VIN look up to check vehicle problems on the button above.