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Buying Car Guide: 7 Great Free Tips From an Expert

Before you Buy... read Rick's 7 School of Hard Knocks Buying Car Guide Tips


Buying Car Guide:
Seven Tips to Buying a Car from a Private Party

by Richard Hill, Ph.D.

This buying car guide is for people who know from common sense or bitter experience that used car lots are not for the wise. Still, you need transportation---not a junker, but something reasonably dependable in the $1500-$4000 range.

Welcome to the club. I went to a used car lot once and have since been buying low-end cars from private parties for 30 years. In that time, I’ve learned what to look for and what to avoid. Ready to auto-optimize your buying? Car Guide Tips listed below provide the answers you need.

Buying Car Guide Tip # 1: Forget the Mechanic

First, forget the boilerplate buying car guide that tells you to take the car to a mechanic for a complete check up, or to run a DMV title check on it. Those services cost money and too much time---save them for when you buy a $15,000 car in the sweet bye-and-bye. Even if those services were free, people selling cars in the low-end range are more willing to negotiate a lower price with people who will hand over the cash and take the car now. You don’t need a mechanic or the DMV; at this range, a clear title, observation, and receipts will suffice (see Buying Car Guide Tips # 4 and #6)

Buying Car Guide Tip # 2: Know Your Target Price

Check the current LOW private party price for both “poor” and “good” conditions in the Kelly Blue Book buying car guide for prices on Somewhere between the poor and good condition price is your target amount for a car in excellent mechanical condition. Armed with your target price, you can move on to Buying Car Guide Tip # 3.

Buying Car Guide Tip # 3: Find Desperate Sellers

Check the ads in the daily paper rather than the “free ad” paper. People who advertise low-end cars in the dailies are ready to sell---they don’t want to buy another expensive ad. They’ve probably already advertised in the “free ad” papers at a higher, what-have-I-got-to-lose price, and now they’re getting desperate.

Buying Car Guide Tip #4: Look for Used Cars with New Parts

Look for cars in your range that list lots of new parts in the ad, preferably a new or rebuilt engine and transmission. Some people will pour a lot of money into a car---often several times what the car is worth---before they finally reach the last straw and sell the car cheap rather than put another dime into it. My current van’s previous owner had shelled out around $10,000 for a new engine, new transmission, new front end, water pump, generator, and more in the past year. It only needed front brakes and a power window switch, but he had had enough. So I got a virtually new, dependable-as-any-$25000-van for $4,000, and I haven’t had any real trouble with it for four years.

Buying Car Guide Tip # 4b: IT IS CRUCIAL THAT YOU SEE RECEIPTS for all claimed repairs. If the owner doesn’t have the receipt, assume the work wasn’t really done. Check the mileage on the receipts---a “new” water pump or transmission bought four years ago is actually an old water pump.

Buying Car Guide Tip #5: Plan to Avoid the DMV

Never consider a car that doesn’t have current registration, title, and smog certificate. The whole point of buying a low end car is to save money and time, but if you get caught in the web of the DMV or the State Smog Enforcers, you will pay and pay and perhaps never get an all-clear to register your car. Also avoid out of state cars that haven’t already been re-registered in your state. My son learned all this the hard way---he’s been trying (and paying!) to get his paperwork straight for 6 months, with no end in sight.

Buying Car Guide Tip #6: Do the Test Drive

Examine and drive the car after you examine the receipts. You don’t have to be a mechanic to notice that tires are worn, that brakes feel spongy, that an engine is misfiring or a transmission doesn’t shift smoothly. Unless you ARE a mechanic, avoid cars that need more than minor repairs---because even minor repairs are very expensive nowadays.

Buying Car Guide Tip # 7: Bring Cash and Negotiate Nicely

Bring cash and negotiate the price. Most buyers need to sell more than you need to buy, and virtually all buyers will come down some. But avoid the question, “What’s the lowest you’ll take for it?” This gambit usually causes resentment and resistance. Instead, try something like, “Your price is reasonable, but I’m on a strict family budget. Will you take $[your low-end target price] if I give you the cash right now?” Smile. Be human. Be willing to come up a little from your lowest offer---if you need crucial information about the car later, it helps to have made friends with your seller.

You’ll learn more as you go, but if you follow the Basic 7 Buying Car guide tips, you’ll optimize your chances of finding a great car at a low price, thereby once again avoiding a fleecing at the used car lot. Happy hunting!

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All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.

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Buying Car Guide