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Learn how you can buy a used car with confidence

Updated Nov. 5, 2021, at 2:30 p.m. CT

Buying a used vehicle isn’t for everyone.

But when you go this route, you can usually spend less money, save on sales tax and insurance premiums, and give yourself a wider selection of vehicles to choose from.

Not all used vehicles are created equal, though.

So, how do you spot a fair price, figure out if you can afford it and know it’s safe to drive? Follow these six steps to help you buy a used car with confidence.

Ready to apply for an auto loan? Start here

Get pre-approved before you shop

If you’ll be borrowing money to buy your vehicle (new or used), it’s a good idea to get pre-approved for your auto loan before you shop.

This way, you’ll know how much car you can afford. It also helps you narrow your choices, saving you time as you shop, said Adam Dodds, indirect lending supervisor at Dupaco Community Credit Union.

When you go through the pre-approval process, you’ll be able to review your credit score. The higher your score, the less interest you’ll pay on your auto loan!

Find out the best way to build your credit >

Even if you plan to pay cash for your car, this is a great time to pause and review your monthly expenses. A free Dupaco Money Makeover can help you review your budget to determine what you can afford to spend. (It might even help you free up extra money!)

Request a free Dupaco Money Makeover

Research the car’s history

Whenever you buy a used vehicle, it pays to know its history:

  • Who’s owned it?
  • Did the previous owners take care of it?
  • Has the car been involved in any accidents?

You can get a vehicle history report from a site like CARFAX by simply entering the vehicle’s VIN or license plate number.

“You’ll find out, for instance, how long the vehicle has been sitting on the dealer’s lot,” Dodds said. “If it’s been there a while, ask why.”

You can also request repair invoices and receipts from the seller. Pay attention to any new parts that have been replaced, and don’t be afraid to ask why.

Use our free resources to help you find your next car

Take the car for a test drive

Always physically look at the car before purchasing it. (Photos can be misleading.)

Not only that, but take the vehicle on a thorough test drive. When driving the car, you’ll want to pass on the music. That’s because music can mask suspicious noises and rattles.

It’s also important to have a reputable mechanic look at any used vehicle before you buy it. Paying for an inspection could save you thousands of dollars of repairs down the road.

Here are a few things to pay attention to when you buy a used car:

  • Inspect the exterior: Look for rust, offset doors and fenders, cracks and differences in paint color.
  • Check the interior: Look for wear and tear and water damage. Don’t forget to check the odometer. Does it add up?
  • Check the tires and wheels: Look for even tire wear. Uneven wear could mean that the wheels or suspension are out of alignment.
  • Look at the engine: Make sure the coolant is clear and the oil, transmission fluid and brake fluid are all the correct colors.

If you or your mechanic see problems, mention them. And request that the seller fix them. If the seller won’t fix the issues and you still want the car, negotiate a discount.

Know your options when you buy a used car

If you’re in the market for a newer used vehicle, consider buying a Certified Preowned (CPO) car.

These vehicles are relatively new with low miles and have been inspected and refurbished by the dealership prior to the sale. CPO cars also might come with additional manufacturers’ used car warranties.

Due to the certification, though, these used cars will often come at a higher price than comparable used cars that are not certified, Dodds said.

Use your free resources

Take advantage of the many online resources that can help you compare vehicles and their values, including:

  • Kelley Blue Book: Get pricing, photos, reviews and other important data.
  • CARFAX: Ensure that the vehicle has a clean title, the vehicle’s mileage matches what CARFAX says it should be and the vehicle’s valuation.
  • Learn whether recall work has been performed on the vehicle.
  • Edmunds: Learn the five-year ownership cost of a vehicle.

“No two used autos are alike due to miles, options and condition,” Dodds said. “Pricing will vary between similar cars.”

Estimate your payment before you buy

Trust your instincts

If it feels wrong, don’t be afraid to walk away. Trust your gut. And remind yourself that there are other cars out there if it doesn’t work out.