I Asked An Expert How To Buy A Used Car

You've narrowed your search down and know exactly what kind of car you want, but when it comes time to buy, how can you be sure you’re not getting ripped off?

Recently we caught up with Steven Lang, who co-runs a site called Trade-In Quality Index, a database of information compiled by mechanics over the course of nearly 600,000 vehicle inspections. Indeed, Mr. Lang knows a thing or two about the buying process, since he’s usually the guy on the other end of the deal.

1. Do your homework.

If you want to see the broad scope of what cars won’t give you issues (old BMWs) or what most likely will (Land Rover!), Lang's list is an excellent starting point.

2. Once you find the specific vehicle you want, get its history.

There are two main ways to do this. The first is Carfax, which list the car's historical maintenance data. The second is an Autocheck history, which keeps track of registration. Steven told us what you really want to see from this is how the car was maintained.

3. Hold a conversation with the seller.

Asking someone the standard checklist questions (e.g. “How’s the transmission, engine, and tires?”) won’t give you critical information. Asking them, “What’s your favorite part of owning this car,” and having them tell you the recent maintenance they've done will not only get you details on the ownership experience, but will net you more than just one piece of info.

4. Don’t drool over the car.

Never say aloud you want the car. “You don’t have to be a Vulcan,” Steven says, “But don’t swoon. You don’t need a poker face, but don’t make it obvious, either. If you tell the seller ‘I’m considering this’, you show interest without showing overt pavlovian interest.”

Ultimately, negotiations will come down to the seller’s ability to read you as much as it will their actual monetary limit.

5. Watch the dealer’s body language.

If the seller is anxious, pay extra attention to why. If they’re talking really fast or being deceptive, that’s a red flag. As Steven puts it, “you’re investing in the owner," so find out if you want to do business with this person.

6. Be “sweet, sour, and sweet".

”Patience and kindness work better than bludgeoning. Don’t just list out what’s wrong with the car, tell the seller your budget, what work you'll have to do on the vehicle, and go on your way. Leave your number and ask the seller to call you if they can't find a buyer."

7. If you can’t take the car to a mechanic, run.

This one's simple, and should be obvious. If the seller won't let you take the car to a mechanic. Steven doesn't budge on this, “Don’t buy the car at all. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”

8. Be insanely thorough.

“Mentally, go into slow motion. Look at the panel gaps. You won’t be an expert, but find what’s obvious. Do a walk through from the hood to the trunk and back. Press every button. Test the air conditioning. See how quickly the coolant warms up. Crack the windows so you can hear if there’s noise coming from the engine. Make sure it shifts smoothly.”

9. Get a feel for the previous owner.

Look at how they treated the car’s interior. Look at the paint to see if it’s faded or if it was garaged. Steven insists, “You want someone who’s treated the car like an asset."

10. Don’t rev the engine to 5,000 rpms.

You’re not getting anything relevant from this. Drive it like you would normally drive a car. 

click to play video

11. Don’t buy the warranty.

Unless the car’s seriously unreliable (here's his website again), it’s never gonna pay off. Instead, the best deal is usually on cars that are eight to 10 years old. Most of the depreciation has already occurred, but there’s still a ton of life left in the car.

Aaron Miller is the Rides editor for Supercompressor, and can be found on Twitter. He probably hates negotiating more than you.