Where to buy a used car: A user’s guide

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A female salesperson at a used car lot is giving her customer the necessary information to make an informed used car purchase.

Buying a used car is a great way to economize, but do you know which direction to turn when you're in the market for one? (Photo: ThinkStock)

When you’re in the market to purchase a used car, it pays to know what details are important. Consumer protections such as the FTC Used Car Rule help ensure that you aren’t being taken advantage of when you’re at a dealership, but what if you’re stuck in the early stages of simply trying to decide where to buy a used car? Our friends at Edmunds recently laid out some helpful tips on simplifying the process of buying a used car. They took look at the most common outlets people use for used car purchases and ranked the various buying criteria. What follows are the highlights you need. As you’ll see, each outlet has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Where to buy a used car? How about CarMax?

Edmunds‘ “Where to buy a used car” quest begins with CarMax. This independent dealer chain has 100 stores across the U.S., and it’s a legitimate alternative to buying certified pre-owned (CPO) via a dealer. All vehicles are well-tested; the company claims less than half of the cars it receives actually make it to CarMax dealers for sale. Salespeople work on flat commission, except in California stores, making it no different for them whether you’re buying a luxury vehicle or a compact. This frees up the salespeople to focus more readily on a customer’s specific needs. Regardless of type, all vehicles come with a 30-day limited warranty (60 in Connecticut) and a five-day money-back guarantee. While some outlets are cheaper, CarMax fared well in the Edmunds poll when it came to selection, warranty, buying experience and vehicle quality.

Buying Certified Pre-Owned

If you want extra peace of mind, buying a CPO is great. You’re buying from a dealer that specializes in the same brand, and the dealer has performed extensive inspections. Any reconditioning needed has been done with factory parts, too. The crown jewel of this option is likely the quality of the warranties offered. A 12,000-mile bumper-to-bumper with a five-year/100,000-mile power train warranty is not uncommon, claims Edmunds. However, the trade-off here is that buying a CPO used car is generally the most expensive way to buy used. Yet if you like quality and a strong warranty to back it up, CPO may still be right for you.

Buying Dealer Non-Certified

Dealer trade-ins don’t always match up perfectly by brand. Thus, dealerships have used cars of other brands to sell. Since these cars aren’t of the same brand, they can’t be officially certified. Older vehicles from the same brand also qualify as dealer non-certified. They all receive a thorough inspection, although not with the same fine-toothed comb detail as CPOs. If you don’t mind a “what you see is what you get” experience when buying a used car, then dealer non-certified could save you some green.

Going independent

Sometimes going with a homegrown dealer rather than one of the big monoliths is a great way to combine lower cost and professional inspection. Keep in mind that they won’t have the resources – and perhaps the know-how – to spot every little problem, but offering older used cars at lower prices is their forte. Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to find one that specializes in a particular brand, which makes the inspection all the more ironclad. Regardless, make sure your vehicle of interest has a recent CarFax report and understand that if you need an auto loan, an independent dealer might not be able to get you a great rate if you have less than perfect credit. That’s OK, however, because if you’re reading this, you’re at Car Deal Expert. We can help you get the best auto loan rate available for your specific credit situation.

A private affair

For-sale-by-owner vehicles are generally going to be the one outlet where a used car customer can negotiate the best possible price. Used cars can be found via Craigslist, Auto Trader, eBay or your local newspaper classified ads. Just keep in mind that you’d be buying a privately owned used car as-is, which is a situation loaded with potential risk. If you’re a mechanic or have one you trust, get an inspection before you buy, and even a CarFax report.


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    • Steve on

      Thanks, ElizabethL: for the kind words and the helpful tips!