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Adding a vehicle to your household? Use these insider tips for buying a used car.

12 Car Buying Tips | CarMax

So you’re ready to hunt for a new, used car. How’s your search going? Not sure how or where to start? We’ve got some car buying tips that can help.

Buying a used car doesn’t need to be an ordeal — not when you’ve got solid pointers for searching, shopping, buying, and financing a vehicle. Here are a dozen tips for buying a used car.  The advice below comes directly from CarMax store associates. These are pointers they share with their friends and family members, as well as CarMax customers.

1. Plan your budget. Want to know how to buy a used car? First and foremost, be sure you’ve got your budget range figured out. Doing this will help you narrow your choices. There are steps you can take to clearly define your budget. Remember to include enough wiggle room in your budget for taxes and license fees—doing this will help keep you from overshooting your target price.

Not making a budget ahead of time is one of the biggest mistakes a car can make, says one of our CarMax senior purchasers. This is because, he says, you’re otherwise walking into a situation where you can quickly get in over your head. “Without a spending limit, there’s that risk that you might buy more car than you can comfortably handle,” says our purchaser, who has been with CarMax for the last 12 years. “The last thing you want is to put yourself in a payment situation where you can’t afford the car you drive off the lot.”

2. Understand your needs. It’s easier to choose the best type of vehicle for your needs once you’ve identified your overall lifestyle considerations. Ask yourself: what features and benefits are most important to you? If you have a large family and love to go camping, for example, you may benefit most from choosing a rugged SUV or minivan. If you like to go on long road trips alone, a vehicle with great gas mileage like a Honda Civic may give you your best driving experience over the years. The most popular used cars for families differ greatly from the best vehicles for solo road trips, after all.

"I always ask customers to ask themselves, is now the right time to buy that Honda Civic, if you know you’ll be starting a family in a few years?"

- CarMax Senior Purchaser

“I always ask customers what they plan to use the car for,” says our veteran purchaser. “I know that I have a wife and two kids in my family, and I need to have at least one larger vehicle in the household. I always ask customers to ask themselves, is now the right time to buy that Honda Civic, if you know you’ll be starting a family in a few years?

“Understanding your needs also means planning for your future.”

So be sure to consider your family size, including pets, favorite activities, and vehicle feature preferences, to pinpoint the best car, truck, van, or SUV configuration for you. Think about the trips you’ve taken in the past few years, and your upcoming plans with family and friends to ensure your selected vehicle will accommodate your needs. Reflect on your shopping habits to determine whether you need a vehicle with extra cargo room.

As you work through these tips for buying a used car, you can streamline your choices by comparison shopping online. You can select and compare multiple vehicles to see how their performance, handling, comfort, and entertainment amenities stack up. If you come across more than one vehicle that seems to meet your specifications, look at all of their features to determine how well each one would support your lifestyle. If you’re looking for a capable sedan, for example, you can compare the Chevrolet Sonic, Nissan Sentra, and Hyundai Elantra to determine the best fit.

3. Shop around.  Read reviews. Ask friends. Go online and visit lots in person. Consider all your options and evaluate each car against your unique needs. Use your research to create a list of the cars and trucks to check out in person.

Also, remember to look into the trim levels for your favorite vehicle makes and models. Different trim levels for each model may change the vehicle’s appearance, performance capabilities, and comfort features. The Ford Edge, for example, comes with a 2.7L V6 engine at the sport trim level, while other trim levels come equipped with a 2.0L, twin-turbo four-cylinder engine.

When you’re shopping for used cars, it’s possible for you to pick up a vehicle that’s equipped with the highest quality features and amenities at a favorable price. If you’re in the market for a new SUV with basic features and amenities, you can likely afford a used model that’s loaded with top-of the line, luxury features and options. To best capitalize on this opportunity, look for vehicles equipped with optional packages that best reflect your interests.

Lots of vehicle makes and models have optional equipment that’s geared toward performance, entertainment, or tech enthusiasts. Consider how important surround sound or performance upgrades are to you to determine whether you want to search for vehicles with optional features. A vehicle’s size may help you decide whether optional performance or entertainment features are a good buy. A relatively large vehicle like the GMC Acadia, for example, may benefit from an extra boost of power, while a smaller vehicle with a base engine option could give you all the performance you need.

4. Test drive your top used car choices.  Once you’ve created your list of ideal used vehicles for sale, take a few test drives. You should test drive each vehicle on your list to see which ones best suit your driving style and preferences.

12 Car Buying Tips | CarMax
Test drive multiple cars, especially if you’re considering a model you haven’t owned before. Drive it as if it’s already yours, in order to get a feel for how it handles in the event does become yours. Go for a solo test drive, if you can (CarMax allows this). Drive on a variety of road surfaces, at varying speeds, to determine whether the performance and handling characteristics of each vehicle lives up to your expectations.

Our specialist says to pay attention to the way cars handle during your drives. “If the vehicle pulls in one direction when you release your grip on the wheel,” he says, “it’s probably an indication of an alignment issue.”

If you have a small child, bring a car seat with you, so you can see how it fits and secures in the back. Check out the trunk space; is it enough for your needs? Ask lots of questions!

After each test drive, get out of the car and jot down a few notes to help you with future comparisons you’ll make before determining which one to purchase. Remember to use an MPG calculator to assess the vehicle’s fuel rating so you can save that information in your notes as well. Consider snapping a picture of the vehicle to look at while you reflect on your drive and decide between your used car options.

5. Bring a friend. Two sets of eyes and ears are better than one; bring along a friend or family member who can watch and listen during the course of your in-person car shopping. This person can also help you make sure the car you’re considering sticks to the goals you set previously!

6. Get pre-qualified. Apply for financing early — before you go shopping, if possible. This can help you understand which cars and trucks will fit your budget, and which ones won’t. When you get pre-qualified, you’ll also get a better idea of how much down payment you might need.

7. Consider ownership costs. A reality of car ownership is that vehicles need regular attention beyond weekly fill-ups at the gas station. Fluids will need replacing. Tires will require rotation. Brake pads must be replaced. And typically, the more expensive the car you choose, the more you could pay in maintenance costs. RepairPal® has a great tool to help you compare maintenance costs of many different makes and models, including average annual repair costs for vehicles. Also, don’t forget to budget for fuel expenditures, insurance, annual property tax, and, potentially, an extended service plan.

You might be tempted to look at new cars when it comes time to replace or upgrade your aging vehicle. It makes sense, and should be part of your research. But buying new isn’t always your best choice. New cars, trucks, and SUVs are subject to immediate depreciation, which means they can lose 15 percent or more of their original value when you drive them off the lot. Furthermore, despite having fresh components and systems, new cars still have the potential to develop problems soon after you make your purchase.

CarMax used vehicles, on the other hand, including top family cars, retain their purchase values and undergo thorough inspections and repairs to eliminate problems before they go out on the sales lot. When you elect to buy a used car, you can make the most of your budget while acquiring a solid, feature-packed vehicle that fits your lifestyle.

8. Research the histories of the cars on your list. Try to get a vehicle history report for the cars and trucks you’ve shortlisted; once you’ve narrowed down your choices, go ahead and pull a vehicle history report to check for any reported accidents in the past, or any title issues. At CarMax, you can rely on the clear history documentation provided by an AutoCheck® report to help learn the history of a vehicle you’re considering for purchase. Every vehicle CarMax sells comes with a free AutoCheck Vehicle History Report. Armed with this data, you can make a more informed purchase decision.

An AutoCheck Vehicle History Report typically includes:

  • Odometer readings
  • Title status
  • Known collision and theft history
  • Flood damage

To learn more about how to read a Vehicle History Report, click here.

9. Check the tires. It might seem like a no-brainer, but worn tires tell you more than just how much tread is left on them. Look for uneven wear that could indicate an alignment problems or suspension issues.

10. Understand warranties and return policies. Ask questions early on about warranties and returns in order to understand how your vehicle, and you, are protected. CarMax customers have five days to return a vehicle they’ve bought at our stores, for example — no questions asked. We also offer 30-day limited warranties on every vehicle we sell (more in some states).

11. Check out all the electronics. Get familiar with the dials, switches, knobs, and screens. Spend time pushing the buttons on the dash to activate and test the various vehicle functions, including the entertainment system, temperature controls, and even the map and reading lights. Test out the air conditioning. Adjust the seat and mirrors to optimize your comfort and assess the seats’ ability to support you on short and long drives. Despite their similarities, the seats in a Nissan Altima may not make you feel as comfortable as the ones in a Honda Accord, or vice versa, so make sure to give each option a chance to win you over.

Cars and trucks are chock full of electronic gear these days, and there are lots of online resources available to walk you through a car’s systems. Here’s where prior research can really help.

12. Take your time. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into making a decision like buying a car when you’re not ready, or when the situation doesn’t feel right. Ask a lot of questions. If the seller isn’t willing to answer your questions, consider it a red flag. Make sure you’re comfortable with the car, the seller, and the financing terms, if any. Review all the paperwork. Double-check the financing. Make sure that the vehicle you’re eyeing fits both your lifestyle and your budget. In the end, you should feel in control during every step of the buying process.

Still, if you buy from CarMax, there’s the five-day money-back guarantee to fall back on if you find your choice wasn’t the right fit for you.

“Don’t feel rushed,” our specialist says. “Buying a car can be an emotional experience, and your decision, when you’re purchasing a vehicle that’s meant to transport you and your family for the next handful of years, should be made carefully.” 

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Using your tips for buying a used car

When you take the time to find and buy your next used car, it’ll be easier for you to enjoy your drives with fewer worries about value losses and mechanical issues. Thanks to your due diligence, you’ll feel better about your newly acquired vehicle living up to your expectations. Plus, you’ll impress your friends and family with your knowledge — share it with them so they’ll also know how to buy a used car!