Shopping for a used car is a great way to get the most vehicle possible for your money, and there are lots of preowned gems out there just waiting to be found. These simple steps can help you choose one you can drive happily for years to come.
Calculate your budget and explore financing
Keeping your total ongoing car costs (including loan payments, insurance, maintenance and gas) within 20% of your net income should leave you enough cash for other expenses and a little fun as well. An online loan calculator can help you figure out what you can truly afford to borrow. Then compare financing options to get your lowest possible rate and, if you can, lock in a preapproved loan and rate.
Shop only for cars that fit your lifestyle
Your individual style is one of the most important considerations when it comes to choosing a used car. If you often drive in severe winter weather, for example, you'll likely do better with an all-wheel-drive vehicle rather than a sports car. A long daily commute means that fuel economy matters, and that you'll want seats with good back support. Those who have to haul lots of gear for kids, hobbies or work should look for something with ample cargo space.
Research the true costs of ownership
When you find a car that appeals to you, check out the reliability record and ownership costs for that model from trustworthy organizations such as J.D. Power, Kelley Blue Book or Consumer Reports. It also pays to contact insurers to make sure you'll be able to afford the premiums on that vehicle.
Investigate the car's past
Becoming a used-car detective is easy when you get an official car history report from a reliable organization that's been vetted by the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. The report will reveal any reported accidents involving the vehicle and how many owners it's had. To rule out the possibility of an unreported accident, flood damage or other issues, look the car over carefully yourself. It should smell clean and have matching carpet throughout, and the paint job should be uniform.
Go for a test drive
Taking a car for a drive can give you a feel for the vehicle. While driving, be sure to try out all the controls, including windows, wipers, moonroof, heat and air conditioning. The car should start easily, run smoothly, and everything should work. If all looks good, have a trusted mechanic give the car a once-over for added peace of mind.
Close the deal
Once a price is negotiated and financing is approved, you'll be ready for the final exchange. Inspect the title carefully to ensure it's legitimate, and that it's a standard rather than a “salvage” document.
Making an informed used-car purchase is well worth the extra time. The reward for the energy invested is driving away in a car that works with your finances, habits and unique personality.
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