Mechanic’s Guide to Buying a Car
A car is a big purchase. Whether you’re in the market for a brand new vehicle or you’re thinking of buying a used one, you want to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting.
If You’re Buying a New Car…
Choose a Make and Model
When it comes to picking the right new car, it’s important to do your research before you head to the dealership. Check Consumer Reports, look at customer surveys, and Google any model you’re considering.
Lexus, Toyota, and Audi have all performed exceptionally well in recent surveys, and Subaru, Kia, and Mazda aren’t far behind.* But the right car for you depends on what you’re looking for.
Reliability, safety, and price are three important factors to consider, but there may be other features that are important to you, such as:
- Fuel economy
- Gas vs. electric vs. hybrid
- Style and appearance
- Comfort and enjoyment when driving
*Source: Consumer Reports
Navigate the Dealership
Once you get into the dealership, don’t feel rushed to make a decision. You may even tell the dealer that you’re only there for a test drive, not to make a purchase. If you can, bring a close friend or family member with you.
Perform this quick 8-step inspection of the car:
- Examine the bodywork in daylight, making sure there are no dents or scratches
- Check seams between the body panels and doors
- Open and close all the doors, hood, and trunk
- Examine the entire interior, including upholstery, wheel, and seat belts
- Turn all the controls inside the car on and off (turn signals, lights, etc.)
- Crank the engine and listen for any worrying sounds
- Make sure there is a spare tire and a jack
- Check air pressure before and after your test drive
If you’re pretty well versed in cars, it can’t hurt to perform a check under the hood too.
Take it for a test drive, paying attention to:
- Overall comfort
- Steering and handling
Tip: Make sure any new car you buy comes with a warranty, ideally for at least three years or 36,000 miles.
If You’re Buying a Used Car…
Certified Pre-Owned vs. Used
Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicles have undergone an inspection, refurbishment, and certification process. CPOs will typically provide some kind of extended warranty on the vehicle. In general, they also tend to be a bit newer and a lot of the time are either coming off of a lease or they were used as dealer cars.
These perks mean that a CPO purchase is often more expensive than a regular used car purchase. If you feel confident taking the necessary steps to get your used car checked out, pre-owned certification may not be necessary.
If you decide against a CPO vehicle, you can still buy a used car from a dealership or through a private sale.
If you know and trust the person you’re buying the car from, a private sale can be the safest and most economical option. In fact, when it comes to non-CPO vehicles, used cars in dealerships may have underlying issues the dealer isn’t even aware of. In a private sale, the owner should know the car’s history and be able to provide records.
Make Sure it’s in Good Condition
- Check the mileage.
- Look in the wheel well to see if it’s been repainted after an accident.
- Open the oil cap to see if it’s clean or sludgy. (Sludge may mean the oil hasn’t been replaced often enough.)
- Check the tires to make sure they aren’t worn.
- Request all maintenance records and repair history.
- Ask for a test drive.
- Get an inspection from an independent mechanic if it’s a private sale.
Questions to Ask
If you’re buying your used car from a dealership, ask:
- How is it equipped? (Ask about air bags, heating and A/C, locks, etc.)
- What is the car’s condition? (Keep it general and gauge the response.)
- Has it ever been in an accident?
- Has it been recalled?
If you’re entering into a private sale, you may also want to ask:
- Was this car new when you bought it? (The fewer owners the car has had the better.)
- Are you the person who has driven this car the most?
- Why are you choosing to sell it?
- Is there anything quirky or unique about this car that I should know?
Sleep on It
Whether you’re buying a new or used car, it’s always a good idea to spend at least a day thinking it over. Take this time to make sure you’re certain about the purchase, think of any questions you missed, and do any additional research you need to do. It also gives you time to prepare for negotiating the price.
While you’re waiting, take advantage of these great resources!