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how to buy a used car

One driver's trash is (often) another's treasure. When you're used-car shopping, use these tips to help find the pre-owned gem that's right for you.

Why buy a used car?

Before we delve into how to buy a used car, let's zip through 3 perks of shopping secondhand in the first place.

  1. They're cheaper than new cars
  2. They have character and history — history you can track
  3. They're cheaper (worth mentioning twice)

Tips on shopping for a used car

Shopping for a used car can seem stressful, but it really doesn't have to be — especially if you keep these tips in mind.

Research, research, research (and then research some more)

Stay patient and do your homework on the make and model you want. Look into a car's safety ratings, gas mileage, past recalls, and possible maintenance costs. Consumer Reports is a good place to start this fine-tooth-combing, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is a good resource for safety info.

Check the car's individual history

car accident

You don't need a time-traveling DeLorean to find out what a car's been up to (and these days who can spare the gigawatts?). All you need to request a vehicle history report is the vehicle identification number (VIN).

A vehicle history report can provide valuable information — actual miles on the odometer, number of previous owners, past accidents — and give you a good idea of a car's recent activity.

Find out how vehicle history reports can help you steer clear of a bad purchase.

Know the expenses

dollars

Buying a car, new or used, is a big expense. So it helps to familiarize yourself with the different fees wrapped up in car ownership. The Edmunds True Cost to Own® tool can help dig up things the price tag won't show, like loan interest, depreciation, and estimated insurance premiums.

Look into insuring a used car

Once you know the make and model or, better yet, the prospective purchase's VIN, get a car insurance quote to see how much a policy might cost.

Or if you're already an Esurance customer, see how adding that vehicle to your car insurance policy could impact your premium. Your car's make, model, crash (or "loss") history, and crash-test scores can all contribute to your premium, particularly if you have comprehensive and collision coverages on your policy.

Conduct the pre-purchase inspection

Before driving off, check out the car on your own or take it to a trusted auto mechanic and examine the following:

Car body

Car body
Check for dents, cracks, and rust. Here's a cool trick to help: test for past accident damage under the paint by placing a magnet on fenders and near doors. Anywhere it won't stick indicates a problem.

Tires

Tires
Examine for damage and wear.

Manufacturer's label

Manufacturer's label
It's usually located on the inside edge of the driver's door. If there are any signs of altering, walk away.

Interior

Interior
Evaluate any scratches or tears in the fabric.

Electrical features

Electrical features
Test the power windows, radio, and other remote functions.

Heat and Air Conditioning

Heat and A/C
Make sure these are working. They can be expensive to fix.

Flood damage

Flood damage
You can find hints of water damage in the upholstery or by spotting rust inside the car. Flood damage can sometimes cause a car to be totaled. Be on the lookout for unscrupulous sellers trying to get rid of a car with a salvage title — these cars can be difficult to insure.

Depending on what you find during your pre-purchase inspection, the above items could be used as negotiating points or reasons to walk away from your purchase.

Know what your warranty covers

If you're buying from a dealer, here are a few of the most common types of used car warranties:

  • Implied warranties are required by state laws and hold the dealer responsible if the car doesn't meet reasonable quality standards. Read the fine print of your paperwork. If you see "as is" or "with all faults" in your contract, the implied warranty may be negated.
  • A warranty of merchantability is common in used-car sales and applies only to damage at the time of sale. This warranty usually applies to the basic functions of the car (that it runs, for example) and may not provide financial protection from other things that go wrong.
  • Unexpired manufacturer's warranties can cover damage to the car through the manufacturer. Ask the dealer for the necessary paperwork if the car is still covered by this type of warranty.

If you buy the car "as is," the dealer is assuming no responsibility for anything that goes wrong after the sale.

To find out more about the different types of warranties available, read the Federal Trade Commission's guide to buying a used car (PDF).

Car insurance for your shiny new used car

Once you complete your purchase, it's time to insure your newly discovered treasure and make sure you have financial protection in case something happens to it. Consider adding comprehensive and collision coverages to your policy if you don't have them already.

If you're an Esurance customer, you can add a car to your policy online anytime. Or if you're shopping for new car insurance, start your free quote now.

Related links

Insuring a new car
Can't decide between getting a used car or a new one? Check out our FAQs about new car insurance.

Crash tests
Find out how crash test results can affect what you pay for car insurance.