It’s still a golden time to buy a used car thanks in large part to the number of late-model cars, trucks and SUVs that have poured into dealerships due to the end of a large number of lease agreements, according to an analysis by NADA Used Car Guide, a division of J.D. Power.
The good news for shoppers is that the glut of gently used cars provides you with an unusually large selection of vehicles from which to choose. Plus many prices are lower than they have been since 2010. But that doesn’t mean every car on the lot is a gem.
“People get themselves into real trouble when they go into car shopping unprepared,” says Matt Jones, Edmunds’ Senior Consumer Advice Editor. “This is a major purchase. It’s not like a TV, where if you get it home and don’t like it, you can return it. You owe it to yourself to do research.”
That research should include calling various dealerships and finding a salesperson with whom you mesh. Work with the person on the phone or computer to ensure they’re attentive, return your calls and communicate well.
Choose the right salesperson
Do you want a detail-oriented salesperson? A laid back salesperson? Most of us aren’t sure. Many car experts recommend you walk into a dealership cold, tell the receptionist you want to work with the best salesperson. He or she will know whom to call.
A good relationship with a salesperson is vital — especially when you are considering used cars that have a wide range of vehicle histories — because they are the ones that can steer you to a car you hadn’t previously considered but that best suits your needs.
“You won’t be able to tell a car salesperson a scenario they haven’t heard before,” says Jones, noting they work with hundreds of customers each year. “They’ve heard ‘I recently got a divorce and need a low payment,’ to “my wife’s pregnant with triplets’ hundreds of times before. Those life changes are why people shop for cars.”
Of course you don’t want to completely rely on a salesperson, no matter how competent, when you shop for a used car. Consider these strategies from Jones and other auto experts to best assess used cars to get a smart deal on the one that’s right for you:
Establish your budget
Before you even start looking for a car, it’s imperative that you determine how much you are willing to pay. Don’t make the mistake of setting a monthly maximum. You want to know the total you will pay for the car — including taxes and delivery. Then decide if you will finance the entire price of the car. Zero financing means zero, but you may save more money if you pay at least a portion of the cost upfront, says Howard Lowenthal, finance manager, Bob Davidson Ford, Baltimore. Another note: Some buyers prefer dealerships with “no haggle” pricing. That’s fine, but you won’t likely get the lowest available price for a certain car, says Jones.
Check loan rates
Dealerships offer an array of financing options that often aren’t available through other lenders. You owe it to yourself though, to check the rates at your bank , credit union and other reputable lenders before you shop for a car. If you know those figures, you are better able to assess if dealer financing is a smart move for you.
Change your salesperson if necessary
Even if you think you chose the right salesperson based on the advice above, don’t be bashful about switching if the partnership isn’t working for you. Tell the sales manager you want to work with someone else. There will be no hard feelings, says Jones. The dealership wants you as a client and will be glad to accommodate you.
Keep an open mind
You may come to the lot seeking a certain make or model, but tap into the salesperson’s expertise. All cars – even the same models – vary especially among model years. Salespeople know what’s on their lots and — as mentioned above — they understand customers’ needs and can match them with various models. Listen when the salesperson suggests model options.
Understand the definition of a Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) car
When most people talk about a CPO, they mean a lightly used car – usually 1 to 5 years old with less than 60,000 miles – that a factory-trained technician has “certified” as meeting all manufacturer requirements. If something was found amiss it was replaced or repaired. Warranties on these cars are sometimes better than those on new cars, says William J. McCormick, sales representative, Bert Wolf Auto Group, Charleston, West Virginia. But beware – just because a dealership reports a car is “certified” doesn’t mean it’s a CPO. Ask about the details of what “certified” means at the dealership. Is the dealership certifying the car or is the manufacturer? What are the warranties? It’s important to remember that auto warranties are not a replacement for auto insurance.
Be as critical as possible when you drive the car. Do you feel jiggles? Pulling? Disturbing noise? Odd rattles? Whining? Is there an odd smell? Potential buyers should tune into these and other abnormalities and question the seller about them, Steve Steeb, owner of Steve Steeb Service in Ann Arbor, Michigan, tells Popular Mechanics (PM). Also, make sure you test drive the car on a variety of roads, from bumpy back roads to highways. “I tell folks to trust their intuition,” Steeb told PM.
Edmunds has a list of recommended checks potential buyers make during test drives including: ease of entering and exiting; comfortable interior with plentiful head, hip and legroom; comfortable steering column seats (can be they adjusted?); easy to reach and understand control panel; visibility and blind spots; unusual smells or sounds; tire condition; brake feel (are they mushy?); and air conditioner temperature (does it blow cold air or is it warm?).
Insist on a vehicle report
When you go to a dealership, they will likely present you with a vehicle report that tells you the background of the car, specifically if it had been involved in an accident or otherwise damaged. But don’t stop there. If an independent technician repaired a vehicle, the information might not be on a CarFax or other vehicle inspection report. Also, check the car’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) to see if there are any recalls on the car, recommended Edmunds. You can easily do that online by going to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Dealers will tell you if there is a recall, but mistakes and oversights do happen.
Have an independent inspection
Most dealers report almost no one asks to do this and that’s a shame. Reputable dealers invite buyers to have used cars independently inspected because it underscores the quality of the car. And if a flaw is found, you’d rather know before you sign the contract than after. The only exception to this rule may be CPO’s with manufacturer-backed warranties, noted AutoTrader. Spending a few hundred dollars can save you thousands in repair costs later, the magazine noted.
There are plentiful used car bargains on lots today, but your deal will only be as good as your research. Spend some time analyzing your budget and needs, then go to dealers with an open mind. These are key to finding the best bargain on a used car that’s right for you.
READ MORE: Why Used Cars Aren’t As Bad As You Think