Buying a used car has some real advantages. Chief among them is the dollar savings you can achieve by letting a previous owner bear the brunt of the depreciation all new cars experience upon being sold.
On the other hand, those savings come with a degree of risk. After all, used cars are almost always sold as-is, with no warranty protections. In other words, what you see is what you get. However, you can also get what you don’t see.
That’s when knowing the smart way to buy a used car online can pay off.
Here’s what you need to know.
Research the Model Online
Once you’ve settled on the year, make, and model of the car you want, conduct a search engine binge to read everything you can find about it. Stick to those specific parameters so you can find the quirks peculiar to that iteration of the vehicle.
Run searches using keyword strings such as known issues with (model year, make, and model) to see what comes up. Having this knowledge will help you conduct conversations with the seller as you try to discern the condition of the car.
Look for reviews provided by the larger automotive publications to learn what experts thought about the car when it was new. Running a search for the J.D. Power reliability and quality ratings of the model can help you get a sense of what you’re about to get into as well.
Use the Kelley Blue Book, National Automobile Dealers Association, and Edmunds websites to get an idea of how much people are paying, based upon the mileage, equipment and color.
Pictures Are Your Friends
While only an experienced professional can spot many potential issues, the untrained eye can observe quite a few. Look carefully at the photographs in the listing for paint imperfections and surface irregularities. These could be indicative of poorly executed body repairs. Look at the tires, both for evidence of wear and to ensure they’re wearing evenly all around. Are the wheels scratched? If so, they could be out of round as well.
Interior pictures should also be examined carefully for wear — particularly to the driver’s seat, shift lever and steering wheel. This can give you an idea of how “used” the car is. Look carefully to ensure that the car also has the equipment it should have — based upon its trim designation.
Undercarriage shots should be provided to help you get a sense of the mechanical condition of the vehicle. Look for torn rubber parts, oily looking areas, and other places that appear wet or stained. Pay careful attention to rust, discoloration,and missing bolts as well.
Read Between the Lines
The best car buying sites for used vehicles insist upon sellers providing as much information about a car as possible. At minimum there should be disclosures regarding the number of miles the car has been driven as well as its recent service history. How many owners has the car had? Have there been efforts to mitigate the known faults of the model you read about when you researched it?
Mileage should be as exact as possible rather than rounded. Key equipment/features should be listed as well. In general, more information is better than less, as it indicates the seller is trying to be as forthcoming as they can about the nature of the car.
Most of the better sites offer CarFax used vehicle history reports. These can help you learn about accident damage, as well as give you a general idea of how frequently the car has been serviced. It’s worth purchasing your own if the seller doesn’t provide one.
Get an Inspection
This can be tricky when the car you’re buying is located thousands of miles away. However, it’s important to do so just the same. Again, turn to the Internet to find the noted experts regarding the car of your interest in the area in which you’ve found it.
Insist upon a pre-purchase inspection as a condition of the sale and ask the seller to take the car to the shop YOU choose. This is critical, as an unscrupulous person could be in collaboration with a local mechanic to shift faulty vehicles.
Conducting the Transaction
Look for an escrow service to act as a go-between to ensure you get the car at the same time as the seller gets the money. You’ll find them all around the country; use the Better Business Bureau to find one with a strong reputation.