These days, many people are finding themselves in need of a car. Unfortunately, just as many people are finding themselves without much money to spare, and new cars are extremely expensive. Luckily, you don’t need to buy a new car. It may be better to buy a used vehicle.
But buying used cars adds a whole bunch of wrinkles to an already complex process. Which car do you get? How do you find a trustworthy seller and decide on a fair price? And where should you search? So many factors go into buying a used car that it’s easy to get overwhelmed and freeze.
That’s why I’ve written this. This article is a guide that compiles the lessons I’ve learned buying cars, helping others buy, and talking to mechanics. It should serve as a roadmap to get you past the freezing phase and on your way to a new car.
Section 1: Figuring Out What You Need
The first step of buying a new car is introspection. If you want to find a good car, you need to figure out your needs, wants, and priorities, so that you can line them up with the options available to you. Below, we’ll tackle the questions you should ask yourself. It will help to write your answers down as you go.
Question 1: Why Do You Need this Car?
This is a crucial first step, but it’s sometimes a hard question to answer. When we say “need,” we don’t mean the bare necessities. We’re talking about your primary reason for getting this car. Do you need the car because you’ve got kids to drive around? Are you going crazy at home and need it to become the hiker you always wanted to be? Does your job require a lot of driving? Or maybe you’ve got gear to haul.
Whatever your reason, write it down and keep it in mind!
Question 2: What Else Will You Use the Car For?
Even if you get the car for work, you’ll probably use it for other things. So, outside of the bare necessities, what other uses might you get out of the car? Road trips? Journeys into the mountains? Taking up a side hustle as an Uber driver?
Question 3: What’s the Weather Like?
It’s important to know what the weather is like, not only where you live and need to use the car, but also where you’re likely to want to use it in your free time. Pay attention to winter weather in particular, as that has a huge impact on which cars will be best for you.
Question 4: How Much Do You Know about Working on Cars? Do You Want to Learn?
Some cars require more maintenance than others. And, despite how worried some drivers get over popping the hood, basic mechanical work is surprisingly simple. There are a lot of problems you can solve with a simple toolkit and access to YouTube. Of course, if you live in a big city and don’t have any space to work on the car, that might change things.
Now that you have all the answers to these questions, it’s time to figure out your priorities. Taking your thoughts and answers into consideration, think about what’s most important for you in a new car: performance, functionality, price, longevity, reliability, or just getting a car right now? You should have minimum requirements for any of those factors that are important to you. Once you’ve figured that out, we can move on to…
Section 2: Which Car to Buy?
Unless you’re in desperate need of a car—any car—right now, you should narrow your search down to a few specific cars. The questions you answered above should make that easy; all you need to do is do a Google search for cars with the qualities you’re looking for or ask some friends who know a thing or two about vehicles.
It’s wise to look for roughly three cars—meaning make (the brand) and model (the specific build)—that suit your needs (outside of price, which we’ll get to). If you have access to any of them, it’s wise to go for a test drive and see if they feel right. The reason we narrow down the search like this is to make it more targeted. Otherwise, you’ll quickly feel overwhelmed by all the options available to you.
Once you know the make and model you want, figure out which years and mileages will suit your needs. It usually takes several years for a significant change in a specific model, so year ranges will be your best bet. Likewise, some cars handle mileage differently. A Subaru Forester, for instance, can be completely drivable for 400,000 km, while another car may become more trouble than it’s worth after 150,000 km.
Now, with makes, models, years, and mileages in hand, you need to investigate prices and see what fits your budget. There are three good sources to use for this: Kelley Blue Book, Facebook Marketplace, and Kijiji. Start with Kelley Blue Book to get an idea of the average sale price of your target vehicle. Then, compare it to the listings on Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace, which can tell you the car’s availability in your area and whether there are significant price differences between the average and your locale.
Section 3: Last Checks
Got a make, model, and year in mind? It can’t hurt to do a five-minute Google search to see if the car in question has any recurrent issues or regular bits of stand-out maintenance. When doing your search, know that recalls aren’t necessarily bad. Manufacturers are required to fix recall issues for free, so all a recall will take is time and the cost of gas to get to the shop.
On the other hand, some cars need certain big jobs at specific kilometre benchmarks. If a car is approaching that point, then you may find yourself paying for routine maintenance on top of the actual car. You can use this to further adjust your search vis-à-vis your budget. Finally, you may learn that the car has a quirk that’s a deal-breaker for you.
Section 4: Finding a Seller
You know which car you want. You know the years, mileages, and quirks. You’ve got everything you need to keep your search focused and efficient. Now it’s time to start looking.
To start, I’ll say that I strongly recommend avoiding used car dealerships unless they’re run by someone you explicitly trust. More likely than not, dealerships will jack up the price, hide problems, and treat you like a customer they want to shove out the door and never see again. It’s much better to find private sellers.
Where should you look for private sellers? There are two great websites for this: Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace. Both allow you to search by make, model, year, price, mileage, and area. They often have options to limit your search to private sellers, too! Don’t be afraid of Kijiji or the Marketplace: as long as you aren’t completely gullible, they’re safer than a dealership. Keep an eye out, though; unscrupulous car dealers often post their own vehicles onto these sites to mimic private postings.
While you search, be patient and diligent. You should check every day while understanding that it can take a while to find a suitable car.
Throughout the process, remember that cars need to be driven. If you see anyone advertise that the car has barely been used or has sat in the driveway for a long time, avoid it. It’s bad for the engine, all sorts of critters could have chewed up the works, and worse. It’s counterintuitive for some people with the “drive off the lot” mentality, but it’s a fact: a car that isn’t driven is not in great shape.
Section 5: Vetting the Seller and the Car
Oh, look at that! After two weeks of checking Facebook Marketplace, you finally found a good-looking ride. You sent the seller a message. What should you keep an eye out for?
Pay attention to how they talk to you. Are they respectful? Do they communicate well? Are they pushy and trying for the hard sell? Have a list of questions to ask them based on your research: what’s the mileage, why are they selling it, do they have the maintenance records, et cetera. If they refuse to answer any of your questions or, worse, become hostile, that’s a huge red flag, and you should bail out.
But if the seller seems fine, you should ask to take the car on a test drive, preferably with the seller in the passenger seat, if they’re comfortable with it. Pay attention to how the car runs, smells, and sounds. If anything seems off, ask. If the seller won’t answer questions or refuses a test drive, that’s not a good sign.
The next part is a somewhat harder sell. If you’re really into the car, it might be worthwhile to ask to bring it to a mechanic for a check-up. Offer to pay if you have to. This can help make sure there aren’t any unexpected problems lurking that even the seller may not know about.
Section 6: The Purchase and the Future
Wow! The seller was polite and had a lovely talk with you as you went on the test drive. The car ran smoothly, and the seller was comfortable with your bringing it to a mechanic for a check-up. You were impressed and bought the car.
But your job isn’t over yet. Keep records of all your communications and transactions with the seller. Even if they’re on the up and up, it could be helpful if something happens and you have to resell the car in a hurry. Also, familiarize yourself with any laws about private car sale returns in your region. You never know when they’ll be needed, and it’s best to have them on hand.
After that, keep an eye on the car. Pay attention to how it feels, and don’t be afraid to contact the seller if it has any problems. They may be willing (or legally obligated) to help pay if there are any problems they didn’t know or tell you about.
But assuming all is well… the next step is enjoying your new ride and taking good care of it! Keep to the maintenance schedule, and find yourself a good mechanic. Enjoy the ride!