Dos and Don'ts of Buying a Used Car

Don't even think about buying a used car without looking at these tips first.

June 23, 2008 — -- The declining dollar has some consumers turning to used vehicles instead of newer ones. But before you head out and purchase a pre-owned car, get the dos and don'ts to make sure you get the most bang for your buck. Check out the tips below.

The Dos

Before you ever go out to look at cars, consult the Consumer Reports list of the most reliable vehicles and then check out Web sites like, which offer realistic prices for the car that interests you.

Get your own financing. Try to get financing from your bank or credit union. This way, you won't have to rely on a dealer's financing, which is just one more variable they can play with during negotiations. Of course, if the dealer offers a phenomenal financing deal, you'll take it.

Test drive a car on a superstore lot. Your first stop should be a used car superstore, like Carmax after you've completed the previous steps. They have a broad selection, so you can test drive a variety of makes and models and decide what car you really want. As for buying, Carmax and others offer fixed pricing, and if you're allergic to haggling, that could be good for you. Their prices are probably somewhere in between the sticker price and what you could get if you're a great negotiator.

Consider a new car dealer. Another option is to buy a used car from a new car dealer. That can be a good choice because they keep all the best trade-ins and sell them themselves. Plus, many dealers now offer certified used cars with warranties.

Play hard to get. It's important to play hard to get when you're negotiating. One technique is to bring along a friend to play the bad cop and loudly question whether you really want the car and whether it's a good deal. Another is to walk off the lot and tell the salesman you want to think about it.

Run a check on While you're away, you should run a background check on the car's VIN number through a database, like It's a crucial step to avoid flood cars, salvage vehicles and odometer rollbacks.

Get the car checked by a mechanic. It's the most important "do" of all. Get the car checked out by a mechanic before you sign on the dotted line, or make the contract contingent upon a successful inspection. There are also mobile mechanics who can come to you to make it easier to obey this crucial advice.

The Don'ts

Don't believe you have three days to return a car after you buy it. That is not true. Once you sign on the dotted line, by law, it is yours. The only exceptions to this rule is California, which recently passed a law that gives consumers a couple days to return a car.

Don't buy a car you see for sale on the side of the road. It's quite possibly a rebuilt wreck being sold by an illegal, unlicensed dealer, called a curbstoner.

Don't reveal you have a trade-in. Do that after you have negotiated the price for the car you're buying. Otherwise, it gives the dealer another number to play around with and confuse you.

Don't pay for add-ons, like credit life insurance and protective coating. They aren't worth it. Don't pay made-up fees, like conveyance fees, either.

Don't buy from questionable used car lots. Don't buy from a used car lot that is brand new, changes names often or moves around. Some experts say don't buy from these businesses at all because they get the second-rate used cars the new car dealerships don't want.

Don't bargain from the list price down. Bargain from the realistic price up -- the price you looked up online.

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