How to Buy a Used Car

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Buying a Used Car

I think a good follow-up post for How to Sell a Used Car would be about how to buy a used car.  My parents have bought five many years ago.  I have bought none, because I simply inherited those old cars (free) from them when I was in college.  The following recommendations are not comprehensive yet helpful.

Top 3 things NOT to do

  1. Do not test drive or inspect a car during the night time.  My first family car was purchased during night time.  It broke down next day in the freeway, because the radiator had a hole and was empty; anti-freeze was leaked.
  2. Try not to purchase from auto-mechanic unless he or she is really your friend.  Auto-mechanics, like auto dealers are selling for maximum profits.  Auto-mechanics may sell a used car below auto dealer's price, but the transaction is without clear legal protection.  Many years ago, my parents bought a 5-years old Honda sedan from a neighborhood auto-mechanics at a price that was slightly lower than the same sedan of the same model and year, from an auto dealership.  Later we learned that the car was a salvage.  The auto-mechanic insisted not to show us the car title even during title transfer at the DMV office.
  3. Do not pay to seller of the car  until the car title is verified to be clear of liens, and non-salvage if the price paid is for a non-salvage car.  Private car seller may not want to display the car title to buyer to show his address.   DMV office should be able to become the middleman and verify title state.

Where to Buy Used Car

  • Auto Dealership - certified used car. This is the most expensive but car quality would be the most reliable.
  • Auto Dealership - non-certified used car.  This is less expensive than the certified ones, but the used car may have issues.  My friend bought a Subaru SUV three months ago from a Subaru auto dealership, and noticed oil leaking problem the next day.  Eventually she had it fixed and the dealership covered the expenses.  But it brought her much inconvenience and effort to convince them that it is their fault.
  • Government auctioned vehicles. These vehicles are open for online bidding.  Excellent values if there is not much competition.  You are also bidding for car that you have not tested drive yet. :-).  Check out
  • Private Party. We bought used car from listings in  This is the most risky yet best value if car seller is honest.  Once money are exchanged and car title is transferred, I do not know a way that the used car seller is liable for any unexpected problems of the sold car.
  • Friends circle.  This should be the best value and reliable if one is available.  I have sold my parent's 1993 Honda Accord for $700 to a friend who makes living from fixing used car and re-sell it. A couple days later my parent told me that their own friend offered $1000.  I was willing to sell the Accord under market value.

Top 5 things to do
  1. Like buying a house, there is the buyer housing agent to help.  Check out the used car with a friend who knows car if the car buyer does not.  This can not be emphasized more if purchased from a private party.
  2. Regarding European cars, a certified used ones from auto dealership usually come with extended warranty, cheaper than a brand new ones.  There is the humor saying that BMW is famed for its luxury and power, and not low maintenance; it is like a play-boy car.  So extended warranty would be cost-savings to cover repairs.
  3. Start informing friends circle several months ahead if you are interested to purchase a used non-fancy car such as Honda Accord or Ford Mustang.  Buying a used car from friend is usually the best deal.
  4. Research the used car market price from and/or
  5. During test drive, check the following. (I had one year of auto-mechanics education and frequent chat with my auto-mechanic friend)
    • CV Boot. Is there sand noise making turns? Turn the front wheels, reach out to touch the joint connecting the wheel. Are there oil?  Replacement cost is about $250 including parts and labor.
    • Brake quality.  Is there noise before stepping on the brake?  How much would your foot need to step on the brake pedal before the car slows up?
    • Power steering.  How sensitive is the power steering?  People have different preferences.  I prefer highly-sensitive.
    • Engine.  Open the hood, is oil notice-able around the engine block? When was last time the engine timing belt replaced?  Replacement labor cost is the main cost factor, because engine would need to be lifted up to have parts replaced.
    • Muffler.  A good muffler can last many years.  Kneel down to look for holes on the muffler.  A broken muffler would fail smog test. The seller is required to show proof that the used car passes a smog test anyway.
    • Air conditioner.  I value AC is more important than heater.  I can wear more clothes if feeling cold, but can not drive naked if feeling really hot. :-)
    • Tire quality.  Last but not least, depends on the auto you are purchasing, these days a good tire for a small car would cost at least $100.  Four of them would amount to at least $450 including taxes.

After all, we get what we pay for.  I would not expect a $2000 Porsche would run well, but a $2000 Honda Corolla should still run quite well.  There are also people who bought a nice-brand used car at a junk price ($500) and fixed it like a fixed-upper house in a good school neighborhood.

Why did not I buy a used SUV?  Answer: Affordability and Preferences
A reliable and used SUV is not cheap.  I actually looked into used SUV market (BMW and Volvo) for a few months, asked my auto-mechanic friend to email me current auction BMW and Volvo SUV offerings, which he promised but never did.  With the attractive 1.9% 5-year financial incentive, high mpg of new model of Acura RDX SUVbelow-invoice price offering, 100K-miles-no-tune-up-requirement, and the pearl-white color we want, we settled down with the new SUV.

P.S. We are currently satisfied with the 2014 RDX SUV.  It runs comfortably like a sport sedan with 24 mpg.

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