Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

A row of used cars are parked on a dealership's lot.

Best Tips When Searching for a Used Car

The time has come (and you knew it would). It’s time to go out hunting in the world of used cars. Maybe you’re helping out a first-time buyer or looking for a reliable commuter now that you had to retire the old one, but whatever the reason, you know if you approach this in the correct way, the whole process will go a lot smoother.

Preparing to search for a used car can be a bit like studying for an important exam or certification — it requires some careful planning, a bit of research, and a good chunk of time. That is unless you don’t care and are just going to wing it. Our recommendation, though — don’t wing it and you’ll be satisfied with the results.

Set a Budget

An important step for preparing for any major purchase is to make sure you can afford to make the purchase in the first place. Of course, there may not be other solutions, so you’ll have to see how you can afford something like purchasing a vehicle.

Part of the budget-setting process should include how much you’re willing to put into the purchase. You may have a decent amount of money saved up, but that doesn’t mean you should completely use it all in one go. It’s always a good idea financially to have some money saved away for an emergency. That actually may have led you to be in this situation in the first place (your previous car died, and now you have to dip into the emergency fund for a replacement). If so, you can see why an emergency fund is ideal.

A couple is setting their budget before shopping for used cars.

Also, it’s important to have some specifics in mind when researching what type of vehicle you’re looking to purchase. This applies to the budget because there are a lot of features on cars these days that aren’t actually necessary. Sure, the power windows are definitely convenient, but are they a deal-breaker? If choosing a vehicle simply because of convenience features will put you over budget, then it’s a deal-breaker. Safety features and other features (like hybrid engines) are different because they could end up being very good investments down the road. You can’t put a price on your life. And, hybrid vehicles could end up saving you money longterm.

Get Specific with Your Choices

It was touched upon earlier, but you need to be specific when it comes to what you’re looking for. The reason being, it’s going to save you time and money throughout this process. Being open-minded is a fine thing, but when it comes to looking through used vehicles, it might not be the best mindset to have. There are thousands of used vehicles in any given area, and you don’t want to spend all your time looking through every single one of them. Yes, it’s worth it to put in a decent amount of time for your research, but you can eventually cross the line of researching too much to the point that you’re actually losing money from all the time you’re spending. Yes, time is definitely a form of currency.

You’ll most likely end up choosing between the different types of vehicles available without too much overlap. For example, you’d choose either a car, truck, SUV, or van. That’s a great starting point. You can narrow it down further by having a specific brand or two in mind and then getting into specific details like not being older than 2014, having less than 100,000 miles, and no obnoxious colors (like a bright green or yellow). If you can string together some specifics like those mentioned, you’ll have a much better time going through websites and browsing used car inventories.

It can be an issue if you get too specific. If you only want a specific make and model from a specific year with a specific color and specific features. It might be a while before something pops up that you’re looking for, which can be an issue if you actually need something quickly. If you have the time to wait around for what you want, then, by all means, go for it.

Certified Pre-Owned vs Used

A certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicle is still a used vehicle. However, a used vehicle isn’t necessarily certified pre-owned. It can be a bit confusing, but what it means is there are a lot of used vehicles out there, and some of them will go through rigorous testing and repairs before being set for sale to the public. These would be your CPO vehicles. All other vehicles that haven’t gone through the same rigorous process are your plain, old used vehicles.

A red certified pre-owned 2017 Ford Fusion is driving on a bridge with a city skyline in the distance.

That isn’t to say a used vehicle is bad and will definitely malfunction or break down. It is saying, however, that CPO vehicles have a much lower risk of having issues because they’ve already been checked out so thoroughly. There are high standards to meet to get that CPO badge, and you may even get additional benefits like extended warranty and/or roadside assistance, although it all depends on each CPO program.

A CPO vehicle will normally cost more than your average used car with similar specs because of the associated benefits involved. It would be recommended to definitely look into purchasing a CPO vehicle if possible, but it’s not always possible. If you’re looking at used vehicles without the CPO badge, then just make sure you’re checking them out yourself (or with a friend) as thoroughly as possible. Take the vehicle for a test drive and do your best to try out the many different functions, like braking, accelerating, driving at increased speeds, using the electronics, and whatever else you can think of. Also, be sure to find out what the return policy and/or warranty coverage is in case you have any issues later on.

Find a Reputable Dealership

One of the most important factors when looking through the used car market is finding a dealership that actually has your best interests in mind. There are probably dozens, maybe even hundreds, in your area, so it’s important to find one that has a good reputation. Check the reviews online, go through their websites, and chat with someone over the phone or online. Get a feel for how they do business so you can see if it’s worth it to bring them yours. Through this process, you’ll be able to weed out dealerships that don’t have a very good online presence, have bad reviews, or just rub you the wrong way.

Purchasing a vehicle is a big thing, and it’s important to remember that throughout the process. If you aren’t happy about something during the process, just take a step back and ask yourself why. Then, regroup and keep going, making sure whatever issue that came up is rectified. At the end of the day, you should have a good experience with your used car search, especially because you’ve put in the time and effort that you should have.