How to Buy a Used Car Without Frying Your Brain

I knew it was time for a new (gently used) car when I drove by East High School and saw that my car, a seasoned Volvo wagon, was older and shabbier than all of the vehicles in the student parking lot.

The first step was finding out how much my car was worth as a trade-in. Although you can get a better price if you don't mind the hassle of selling your car on Ebay or Craigslist,  I wanted to trade mine in, so I went to the Kelley Blue Book and the NADA Used Car Pricing websites.  In addition to offering a detailed account of the worth of your car for trade-in, you can also find wholesale and private-party prices.  Both also have additional information, such as the 10 Coolest Cars under $18,000 or check a VIN for free.   

Having confirmed my suspicion that the Volvo had depreciated dramatically, I set about looking for a replacement.  Edmund's suggests using the Affordability Calculator to see what you can afford, and then narrowing your choices to 3 vehicles in the same category.  

I wanted a small SUV, so I began researching the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, and the Subaru Forester.  For decades, Consumer Reports has devoted their April issue to car buying, including the invaluable reliability history, Best and Worst Used Cars and safety ratings.  The April issue is available at all of the DPL branches and can also be accessed online with a DPL card.  

U.S. News and World Report's Used Cars & Trucks page is available to everyone and has reviews, photos and buying advice, along with tips on avoiding scams, such as "lemon laundering."  The comprehensive Edmund's Automobile Buyer's Guide for used cars rates reliability, safety, MPG and has customer reviews.    

Next, test drive a few of the models that you're interested in to narrow your choice to one.  To find out what's available, check out, AutoTrader.comEbay Motors or dealer websites. If you're not sure what to look for during a test drive, try  U.S. News and World Report's How to Test Drive a Used Car,'s 18-Tip Checklist, or's Basics of Test Driving a Used Vehicle.  And don't forget this basic advice from Jamie Seger of Centennial Leasing and Sales, "If the vehicle makes noise while driving, or pulls to one side or if there are any warning lights on the dash, those all could be red flags to a customer."  

Now comes the fun part - negotiating a deal.  A post in The Art of Manliness offers lots of advice, as does ABC's Haggling 101:  How to Set the Opening Offer for a Used Car.

For a peek into the dark side of the automobile industry, check out Edmund's Confession series, which includes Confessions of a Car Salesman and Confessions of a Car Thief.

Written by Lisa on December 19, 2013


Anonymous on December 23, 2013


Wow - lots of great library resources to help make an informed decision. Thanks, Lisa!

Elaine C. on December 23, 2013


Lisa, thank you! This is just the information I needed!

Josh A. on June 11, 2014


Just for reference, Carfax now offers another great resource for finding used cars for sale.

Kevin Hamilton on April 1, 2015


Buying an used car is little bit risky but you won't be worried if you will careful for few things. Before buying it just request for a pre-purchase inquiry, consult a skilled mechanic and told him to check the car's condition. If possible then take the vehicle to a reputed servicing center

Nathan James on April 1, 2015


I completely agree with Mr. Hamilton that buying a used car is risky and a pre-purchase inquiry is essential. The most important thing to do is to take the car to a good servicing center and check the condition of it before making the deal.

Brooke Walter on March 30, 2017


Especially as a young woman, I get nervous that dealerships or people in general will try to pull one over on me with car prices. I use autolist to appraise a car i'm considering buying, and that way i go into every buying situation confident.

Nicholas Donato on October 12, 2017


Just a heads up, Autolist now has a specific pricing tool created to help you find how much your car is worth as a trade in. Super helpful.

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