Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

An aerial shot shows the car lot at a used car dealership.

5 Steps to Finding a Cheap Reliable Used Car

There are multiple reasons to buy used cars. Sometimes, you just need a second car for getting back and forth to work or for the convenience of not having to juggle schedules with other drivers in your household. Whatever the reason, it makes sense to buy a used car that will reliably get you around town at a low price. So, how do you find a cheap, reliable used car? Here are five tips that will help you out when it’s time to head to the used car dealership.

#1 – Decide What Type of Vehicle Fits Your Needs

You want to start your search by deciding what type of vehicle will work best for the job it needs to do. If you need a car for a daily commute, you probably want something that gets good gas mileage and has comfortable seats. Maybe you need a truck to tow your RV for the occasional vacation, which means it may need to have room for your family in the cab and the right amount of towing capability. Whatever you plan to do with your used car, you want to start by searching for a type of vehicle that can do what you need it to do.

Once you make a list of things you need, then plug those items into a search engine to see what you find. Write down at least five vehicle options based on what you find. Stay open-minded and try not to get too attached to the idea of one specific vehicle. Even if one particular brand or style stands out with features you really like, if you stay open to other options, you are more likely to find a vehicle that both fits your criteria and your budget. Consider brands outside of the box, and you might just find more features for a lower price if you are willing to try something new.

#2 – Use Research to Guide You

After you find a number of ideas, read up on the cars’ reliability rating. There are lots of resources to check, including JD Power, Kelly Blue Book, and comments by individual owners. This allows you to see what vehicles were given the highest ratings for dependability in each year so that you know which brand and year to search for once you start to look for available models. Remember to search for years at least three to five years old, and be willing to go back 8-10. If you want a cheap used car, that means it will be older.

Alternatively, you can search by the type of vehicle, such as sedans, to see how each vehicle rates. This may give you a more well-rounded look at the type of vehicle you might prefer. For instance, if you want a sedan for your daily commute to work, you may have searched for cars that get good gas mileage. You may have looked at Honda Civics because they get good fuel efficiency, and now you can look at each year of the Honda Civic to see how well they have held up over time. When you look up each vehicle according to ratings, list them in order of best to worst for overall ratings.

A man at a used car dealership is shaking hands with a salesman in the front seat of a car.

#3 – Choose Must-Have Features

Decide what features you absolutely can’t live without, like air conditioning, armrests, or intermittent wipers. We all have particular things that will drive us crazy if we can’t have them in a car, especially if it’s a daily driver. Choose just two or three things you must have, and then be willing to discover what types of vehicles might be out there in your price range. If you’re willing to buy a vehicle that was an entry-level model of the brand you want, as long as it has those key features you feel will keep you happy, then you will find a vehicle for less.

Try “used vehicles near me” as a search term and add one of the key features you hope to find, along with the brand and year you researched. Narrowing your search this way will scour the internet for vehicles that match your specific terms. Go through your list of brands and years to see what the internet provides, and write down or favorite the pages that have vehicles matching your criteria so you can keep track of them. If you don’t find anything that matches your lists, you can try searching with other terms like “reliable,” “maintained,” or “one owner” to help match the terms that may be used in a listing online. Part of the process is figuring out what terms match the features, which usually matches what type of person previously owned the vehicle.

#4 – Test Drive According to Price

Once you find a few vehicles for sale that have the features you want, arrange them by price. Again, try to stay objective about the car. Even if you find a vehicle that looks perfect on the internet, you may arrive at the dealership and discover a smoker owned it, and the smell is atrocious. You won’t know if a vehicle is right for you until you drive it, so start by price and contact the dealership for a test drive. Take it on both highway and city roads to see how it feels when braking, accelerating, and cornering. Ride quality matters if you need to drive it a lot, so give it a good road trip to see how it feels for the job you need it to do.

It’s a good idea to take it to your own personal mechanic if you can so it can be looked over for issues. Buying an older used car can be a dice roll, even for reliable brands. If you need to buy out of town, bring someone savvy with cars so they can advise you. Make sure you check things like the climate control, lights, turn signals, and wipers so that you know everything works.

A person is holding a set of car keys out of the window of a car.

#5 – Choose the Best Deal

Provided you were fortunate enough to find vehicles in the price range and model years you wanted, hopefully, you were able to test drive at least three. Narrow it down by the factors you searched, starting with price. Which one costs the least? Next, look at the model year and odometer. Higher miles can be okay for some brands, especially if the car was driven a lot on the highway. City driving is rougher on all the vehicle’s systems, so you want to find out that information if you can. Ask the dealer if the car has been through any accidents and whether or not it was given regular maintenance at the dealership – ideally, they will have a CARFAX vehicle history report. These are all factors that affect a car’s longevity, and you can use these details to help you choose the best deal.

Last, use your criteria for features to help make the final cut. Which car had the features you couldn’t live without? If you find more than one, choose the one that drove the best and had good ride quality. Before you make the deal, find out what kind of warranty or return policy a dealership offers, so you have the option of bringing it back if you find something really wrong with it. As soon as you get it home, take it to your mechanic to be sure the vehicle is safe and in good condition. If it is, you just bought yourself a cheap, reliable used car.