The biggest secrets of successful used-car buying aren't really secrets — they're just not very well-known to those who don't buy used cars regularly. Here are the five big ones that people inside the business learn from experience. Once you know them — and apply them — your odds of being ripped off or getting a bad deal fall to almost nil.
Each used car is an individual
Other than color and options/equipment, one new car is as good as any other.
But with used cars, two vehicles of the same make, model and year will be different in terms of condition, mileage, service history and so on. You've also got less choice when it comes to colors and options/equipment.
That means you have to worry about the car as much as you do the price.
• Take action: Know how condition and mileage affect price, and use the car's color, the presence or absence of options, and other details to your advantage.
Value guides such as Kelley Blue Book (http://www.kbb.com">http://www.kbb.com) and the National Auto Dealers Association (http://www.nada.com">http://www.nada.com) provide reasonable price ranges for any late-model used vehicle. However, if the car doesn't have a feature you want — or it's not your first-choice color — you can use that as a haggling point. The seller wants to sell the car — and unlike a new-car salesman, who can show you another car in the color you prefer with the options you want, the used-car seller has to work with the car he has.
Don't spend more than you planned
Whether it's getting sucked in by "low monthly payments" (and taking your eye off the total purchase price) or paying a higher interest rate on a loan than you should, it's easy to end up knee-deep in debt.
• Take action: Keep to a strict budget. Know exactly what your limit is before you begin negotiating the price — and shop for the loan before shopping for the car.
It is especially important to shop money first, as interest rates on used car loans tend to be higher than interest rates on new car loans — and used-car loans can be harder to get, with fewer choices available. The worst deals are usually those offered on-site by a dealership. Your bank or credit union is almost always going to be a better bet, but the point is, shop around. Don't wait until you are signing papers at a dealership to think about how you'll finance your purchase.
And never, ever buy a car with a credit card.
Know what you are buying
The less you know about the model you're looking at, the easier it is for the seller to mislead you, overprice the vehicle or outright rip you off.
• Take action: Learn as much as you can about the car you're interested in, as well as similar models, before you shop. This goes for new as well as used cars, but with used cars, it is even more important to learn about weak points — some makes and/or models are known for not-so-reliable transmissions, for example — because the used car will have less (or maybe no) warranty coverage. You also want to know what options/equipment were standard vs. optional, not just because that affects the specific car's price, but also because you don't want to be conned by a seller who claims the base model car he's selling is "loaded."
Every used car is something of a pig in a poke — it's hard to know how it was treated by its previous owner or what might be on the verge of falling apart. A vehicle with a manual transmission, for example, may be close to needing a new clutch, which would cost, on average, $800. Many imports and a number of domestic cars require a timing belt replacement after a certain mileage.
• Take action: Get an independent inspection by a shop you trust. Ask the seller if he would have a problem with you taking the car to a shop for a once-over (at your expense, of course). If he does, walk away. Quickly! The seller is almost certainly trying to hide something. On the other hand, if the seller doesn't mind, it's likely he's an honest person, someone with whom you can do business. If your shop finds any problems or work that ought to be done, the two of you should be able to hash out a mutually agreeable compromise on the car's selling price that reflects the cost of the repairs.
Do not get emotionally involved
Use your brain, not your heart. It can be helpful to have a supportive friend or family member come along, especially if you have asked him beforehand to keep you on an even keel. The bottom line is, a car (used or new) is just a car. There are probably thousands out there just like it (or close enough); there is no reason to get emotionally invested, especially if the deal appears to be too good to be true.
It almost always is.
Eric Peters is an automotive columnist who has covered the auto industry since 1992.