A Complete Guide To Buying From A Used Car Dealership

used car dealerships

It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of purchasing a vehicle from a used car dealership was considered a last resort, dictated only by a limited budget and personal credit risk. But times have changed. It’s been estimated that nearly a third of Americans have a credit score below 600, which is more than 50 points below the reported average credit score of applicants who are successfully approved for a used car loan. According to a recent report from vehicle research analyst, Edmunds, 40.2 million vehicles were purchased from used car dealerships in the US in 2018, with predictions indicating that this number could reach 41 million by the end of 2019.

There’s no doubt that purchasing a used car can be less of a strain on your wallet than purchasing a new vehicle. However, have you thought of the strain on your time and patience?  How can you make certain that you’re getting the best deal? Are used cars comparable in performance to new vehicles? And, how do you avoid being sold a lemon?

Purchasing a car will never be the easiest experience in the world. But, if you’re considering purchasing from a used car dealership, here are a few things that you should know first.

Do Your Research

Like most potential owners, you’re probably going to want to consult a value guide such as Kelley Blue Book prior to your car purchase. We agree that it’s a great starting point but it shouldn’t be your sole deciding factor when shopping for a used car. Both your budget as well as the car’s history should be just as crucial to your selection as its value.

Carefully review only the models with a full service history (FSH). An FSH will indicate the car’s maintenance history as well as help to verify its mileage. This can be easily obtained with the vehicle identification number (VIN), although sometimes all you’ll need is a license plate number. Avoid vehicles that have a mileage of more than 60,000 miles. You should know that the cost of car part replacements can sometimes be as much as the purchase of a second vehicle. Frequently, you’ll find those “too good to be true” deals that aren’t necessarily untrue. In fact, they’re true for a reason—they refer to cars that are actually on their very last leg. 

If you can’t find any history about the dealership that you’re looking at, stay away. “Fly by night” used car dealerships are notorious for offering what seem like great deals (including financing) at first, only to disappear with your down payment after selling you a lemon. Do yourself a favor and buy only from dealers with a proven history and a solid reputation.

Don’t Go Outside Your Budget

No matter how tempting, stay within your financial plan. Think of the total cost of your used car when calculating your budget. Include interest rates, license and registration fees, insurance fees, and even maintenance. You may be tempted to spend a few hundred dollars extra a month for the car of your dreams, but you can also find yourself spending far outside your means if you’re not careful. Use an auto loan calculator to help calculate the best option for you. 

A good rule of thumb– if you put down approximately 10 percent and finance a used car for 36 months, your total monthly auto expenses should ultimately be no more than 20 percent of your take home pay; and if you’re smart, it will be significantly less.

Keep Your Options Open

You might find that there’s not only a perfectly efficient alternative to the car of your dreams, but it may actually perform better and come with a cleaner FSH as well.

If you’re buying a car less than 5 years old, look for a certified pre-owned warranty. These are long-term warranties guaranteed by the manufacturer, and not just a used car dealership. If you’re buying from a franchised dealership that sells the make and model brand new, they’ll likely be able to offer a CPO of the same car used.

View The Car In Person

If a used car dealership has placed photos of their offerings online, don’t automatically assume they’ll be accurate. In fact, it’s a common ploy to place stock photos online in lieu of the actual car. In fact, some dealers have begun to offer online sales in hopes that buyers will make a purchase sight unseen. Do not make this mistake. Inspect the car in person, including:

  • The body. Look for dents, rust spots, and discoloration. A few scratches and dings may be one thing, but a beaten down exterior is another.
  • The tires. Are they even? If not, ask when they were last rotated. If it’s been within the past six months, there’s a good chance that the suspension is worn or that there’s damage to the steering—both of which can run you several thousand dollars to repair.
  • The engine. If the engine bay appears to have been welded, the car may have been involved in a previous collision. Ensure that youreview the car’s full service history.
  • Controls. Ensure that the windows, switches, heating, a/c, and dashboard lights are all working correctly. Ask if there are any issues with the electrical wiring. You don’t want to find out about faulty components at the wrong time!
  • Fluid levels. Low levels of coolant, oil, and power steering could be a sign that the previous owner wasn’t maintaining it as well as they should have.

In addition, you may want to ask about the last time that the timing belt was changed as this can be an expensive repair in used cars (particularly if they have non-interference engines).

Take It For A Test Drive

Don’t let a dealer insist on taking it around the block to warm it up first. See for yourself. Start the car from neutral and listen for any rattles. Make sure you drive it at a normal speed as you’re not going to be able to gauge the performance of any car, used or new, at a high speed. Any lag in the steering could prove to be a costly repair. If you have any doubts whatsoever about the performance of the car, do not purchase it. There’s more than just your money that’s on the line.


For many people, this can be one of the hardest parts about the process of buying a car. Used car dealers have earned a reputation for taking advantage of buyers for a good reason. This isn’t meant to imply that every dealer will be misleading or manipulative. But, it is important to know what to watch out for.

There’s a good chance that your dealer may be asking for more than the market value. Don’t be fooled by this trick. Insist on matching the listed value of the vehicle. If the dealer is offering extra add-ons, ask how necessary they are. Chances are you won’t be missing out on much.

Don’t be afraid to haggle the price and don’t be afraid to say no. Buying a used car is still a major purchase; one that should be able to last for years to come. You don’t want to be persuaded by strong-arm tactics. And, you certainly don’t want to return to a dealer nine months down the road. Be forewarned. Be shrewd. Be stubborn, if need be.

But above all? Be smart.

Are you looking to purchase your next car from a used dealership that’s dependable, flexible, and honest? Visit Carfect or call (224) 836-4767 today!



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