How to Find a Great Used Car

By Matt Keegan
Last Updated 07/21/2015

Shopping for a great used car takes a lot of work. Unlike new car inventory that features a large number of never before driven vehicles, the much larger used car inventory is composed of everything from demo models to jalopies. As a result, finding the best quality vehicle means sorting through a far greater reserve of available cars. Here's how to find a great used car among a sea of offerings.

Determine What You Want and Need

First things first when buying a used car: How much can you afford to pay? Who will be driving the vehicle? What technology and safety features are important to you? Where will you be driving it? Answering these questions and being specific about the type of car you want will narrow your search parameters accordingly. For instance, you might be thinking, "I can pay up to $25,000 for a late model Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro or a Dodge Challenger equipped with a V8 engine, GPS and outfitted with leather seats. I will use this car as my daily driver." At this point you have targeted your inventory to focus on only large, sport coupes.

Analyze and Review

With your choices sufficiently narrowed, it is time to evaluate what is left in a bid to shrink your search parameters further. There are some additional questions you need to ask yourself, including: What trim packages do I require? Am I looking for a V6 or a V8 engine? Is fuel efficiency important to me? You should also find car reviews and read what the reviewers have to say about each vehicle.

Do you want a car with good crash test ratings? Head over to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) website to see how the vehicles you're considering perform in crash tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also provides crash test scores and recall information. The more you know about a vehicle going in, the better for your ownership experience. Use this information to help you narrow your search to just one make and model.

Obtain Pricing Information

Used car prices can vary widely. Even so, there are guidelines set by the industry. Several sources can be considered to determine pricing, including Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds and NADA Guides. Kelley Blue Book, for example, offers new and used car pricing values. You can price your next car by supplying certain information about the car, including whether it is new or used. The more information you provide, the better for determining your price.

It is at this point you will be supplied with pricing options. Specifically, the suggested price of the car will vary depending on whether you are buying from a private seller or a dealer. You will also see specific pricing for models sold be dealers as a certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicle. Review all three options; the lowest cost usually involves purchasing the car from a private party, and the price differences can sometimes be measured in the thousands of dollars.

Search for Specific Vehicles

There are a number of ways for you to search for a great used car. For starters, CARFAX Used Car Listings tap into dealer inventories across the country. You might also go directly to the dealer's website for that information. If you are interested in buying from a private party, Craigslist provides the largest online list of used cars. You can make your search parameters as broad or as narrow as you want.

Review the Car

Once you find a vehicle that interests you, arrange for an appointment to review the car in person. It is best to see a car during daylight hours to accurately gauge the body's condition, including the finish, trim and accessories. You need to ensure that the body panels match and fit. Raise the hood, check hoses, belts and the condition of the battery. Verify that the coolant is clean and that the engine oil and transmission fluid are clear. Look inside the car and check the condition of the seats, the dashboard and trim. Test every electronic feature for workability, including the seats, steering wheel, GPS, the audio system, power accessories and other features. Look for trouble signs under the hood, inside the car and in the trunk. Problems like possible water damage could be present if you notice odd smells such mildew.

Go for a Drive

Get behind the wheel of the car and take it for a drive. You should drive the car exactly as you plan to use it. Test the lights, adjust the audio system, switch on the cruise control and adjust the suspension settings, if available. Take note of how the car steers and handles, as well as its acceleration and braking, ride comfort, sight lines and other driving factors. Avoid settling for the owner or dealer's drive loop if it does not match your driving requirements. It is important for you to uncover as much information about the car as you can through real world driving since a lot of money could be riding on your experience.

Learn the Vehicle's History

One definition of a "great used car" is one with a detailed vehicle history. The seller should provide maintenance and repair information, including copies of invoices. Beyond that, obtaining a CARFAX Vehicle History Report will provide additional details, including ownership history, odometer readings, service records and accident information. You should keep in mind that only information supplied to CARFAX is listed. If you are buying privately or are looking at a non-CPO vehicle form a dealer, taking the car to your mechanic is advisable, especially if the car is out of warranty. Your mechanic will review the vehicle and point out problems or potential issues you may face.

Make an Offer

If you are satisfied with a particular vehicle, then make an offer. That offer should be within your budget and based on the previously gathered pricing information. You can begin your negotiation by offering a competitive price, keeping in mind the absolute highest price you would pay for the car. Your initial offer may be accepted or rejected. If rejected, you might receive a counter offer. Even if a seller's price is "firm" there may be some room to negotiate, especially if you have cash on hand or if your financing has already been arranged. Only when both parties are satisfied with the final price should the deal be concluded. Have the title and registration transferred to you and call your insurance company to add the car to your policy before you take to the road.

Great Used Car Considerations

There are a few more matters to keep in mind when purchasing a late model used car. If you are buying a CPO car, you should understand what its warranty offers. Many used cars come with a basic dealer warranty, but you should be aware of what it provides. Your dealer may offer extended warranties or service contracts that will increase your final price, but may provide the protection you want.

If you need financing, your bank or credit union can provide this for you. Dealers can also arrange financing through their own sources. Complete the paperwork process by obtaining your license and updated registration from your state's Department of Motor Vehicles.