Below are three things to help you avoid making a mistake. By taking a few simple precautions you can increase the chance of getting a good vehicle that will serve you well for years to come.
1. Vehicle history - Who owned the vehicle, and what did they use it for? Carfax will help with this, if you are buying from a private party make sure you run a Carfax before you go and see the car. A dealership should provide this free. This will give you vital information, was the car in an accident, was there flood damage, odometer issues. If there are any issue with a car on a Carfax, I would avoid the car. The only exception would be an accident report, that you have checked out by an authorized technician. If the vehicle was in a minor accident the vehicle may be fine. Otherwise steer clear of vehicles with lemon law buyback, flood damage, salvage titles, airbag deployment, or frame damage. Also consider the number of owners, this is not a necessarily a huge issue. It is nice if you find a vehicle 1 to 3 owners. When talking with the person selling the vehicle find out why they are selling the vehicle. Warning! if the story doesn't match what you found on the Carfax be careful.
2. Condition: Inquire about any issues the vehicle may have, often people will be surprisingly candid when it comes to their vehicle. When buying from a new car franchised dealer, cars will often cost a little more because of the inspection and reconditioning cost. For example, our dealership does a 115 point inspection on all used cars. We spend on average over 800 dollars reconditioning on used cars, that verses a private party or an independent lot, which will spend very little for reconditioning, usually a basic smog and safety. Look over the vehicle carefully look for any signs of rust or previous body damage. Check the tires, check all the lights and blinkers. When driving the vehicle check the brakes out, is there a shudder when you brake? Is there an audible screeching sound when you hit the brakes? Does the transmission shift smoothly, or is there a noticeable lag or hard shift. Does the engine make any unusual noises. Listen to the road noise, is the vehicle quiet or is there any kind of unusual sounds. If you have any concerns with the vehicle after you drive it, have a technician look at the vehicle. If you are at a new car dealership talk with the service department they are separate from the sales department and in most cases will give you an impartial.
If you are buying from an independent lot or private party take the vehicle in to get it looked at by a certified auto repair facility, what is best is if they specialize in the vehicle you are looking at. Example looking at a BMW take it to a European specialist.
3. Negotiation - Check on-line to see what comparable vehicles are selling for. Use this to give you an idea of value. If there is one or 2 vehicles that are priced considerably less than the rest throw those out. If the price is too good to be true it almost always is. Ask what is the best price they will sell the vehicle for. When you feel they have given you there best numbers, trust your instinct. If you feel good about the purchase go ahead. If you have a concern let the seller know, see if it is something they can address. Keep in mind it is hard to find nice used vehicles and they don't last long. If you like the vehicle and the price is right go ahead. Good luck with shopping.