How to Buy Used Cars Cheap (Good Information to Know)!

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Buy Used Cars Cheap

How to Buy Used Cars Cheap (Good Information you NEED to Know)!

I have some really good information on how to buy used cars cheap.  I recently went through this very daunting task myself and I realized there are things I know that I could be sharing with you.

For a short time in my life I used to work for a friend who ran a used car dealership.  It was a “second chance” buying lot.  He would purchase vehicles from individuals or the auction, finance them and put them on the street.  During this time I learned so much about a used car lot.  I learned more than I wanted to know.   I’ve done everything including writing up contracts, putting cars on a lift to give it an oil change, purchasing vehicles at auction, selling vehicles and yes, I’ve even done a repo or two!  Boy could I tell you some stories!

Needless to say, I know a lot when it comes to used vehicles.  I’ve learned there are “shady” car lots and “ethical” car lots.  Unfortunately I know more shady ones than the other.

If you are looking to purchase a vehicle with in the $500 to $4,000 range, I highly suggest you try and find a deal yourself by looking on Craigslist or ask friends and family members.  You will be amazed at how many people respond or know of someone selling a vehicle and maybe don’t know how to market it.  When searching on Craigslist I try to only search the “owners” ads but you will also get those “shady” car lots that will try and pass their vehicles off as owner in this category too.

Here are some tips and things to look out for when purchasing a used vehicle.

When you are calling a phone number and you have to leave a message be sure to leave your name and phone number and ask for a call back regarding your vehicle for sale.  Don’t give the specifics about the vehicle.  If they call you back and ask which one, most likely you have a dealer.

I always ask if I can match the vehicle title to the person selling it.  If the drivers license of the seller doesn’t match the vehicle title beware.  This person is probably flipping vehicles for a profit without a license.  This should raise a red flag for you but this doesn’t mean that everyone in this situation is shady.  For example, you may have someone trying to sell grandpas vehicle if he to sick to tell it himself.

Always ask if there are any known problems with the vehicle.

Ask if it’s got a clear title (not a salvaged title).  I can’t tell you how many ads I’ve answered because the price was good only to find out it had a salvaged title!  I personally would never purchased a used vehicle with a salvaged title.  It was salvaged for a reason.

Test drive the vehicle.  Never purchase a vehicle without driving it first.  During your rest drive make sure you check the A/C, Heater, Power windows, locks, trunk, hood etc…   When you pop the hood be sure to look at the roof under the hood.  If you see splattered residue be careful, this most likely is signs of a previous overheated engine!  (I used to inspect the vehicles we were going to bid on for this)  I personally wouldn’t get a vehicle with signs of an overheated engine under the top of the hood.  Another thing to do during your test drive is to make sure the windows are down so you can hear any type of weird noises.  You never want to hear an engine knocking or the air compressor knock.  Those could be costly repairs in the future.  Don’t be afraid to get down on your hands and knees and look under the vehicle for leaking fluids. Let the vehicle run for a while while in idle to help in your look and listen inspection. Lastly, be sure to inspect the tire tread.  (Look for a future post on buying used tires because there’s a lot to look out for!  It’s not just about the tread amount.)

Ask if it has a CarFax report with it.  If not, consider purchasing a CarFax report.  This will cost about $30. Most reputable car dealerships will have a subscription with CarFax to pull unlimited reports and they will happily provide those to you.

Find a reasonable mechanic in your area who would be willing to check out a vehicle you find to make sure it’s in good working order.  That’s only if you don’t already have those skills yourself.  If you don’t have a trusted mechanic, search for a Lemon Buster service in your area.  It would be worth paying to have it looked over if you are forking over $4000 cash for a vehicle you expect to work.

Always look at Kelley Blue Book to see the trade in value, private party value and retail values.  Know the prices for your area.  Knowledge is negotiating power for you.  The trade in value will always be the lowest value.  Most reputable dealerships have a current NADA buying guide in their office.  Don’t be afraid to ask to see it.

When purchasing a vehicle from someone you are going to want to make sure it will pass an inspection.  Look for current inspection tags.  Another way to protect yourself from unseen problems is to invest in a OBD reader.  This is a small device that can be purchased at an auto parts store for about $25 to $75 (for the small one).  This reader plugs in to an outlet just under the steering wheel of the vehicle.  Anyone can do this.  Just plug the OBD reader in and wait to see if you get an error codes.  If you do get an error code, be sure to google the code to see what it means.  If you do get an error code you are most likely not going to pass an inspection.  Sometimes this can be a simple gasket that needs to be replaced for only $10 to something more troublesome.

Head over to Amazon to see what a OBD Reader looks like here.

Here are a list of a few vehicles I would recommend or stay away from:

Acura – recommend, they hold their value

Honda – recommend, they hold their value

BMW – known for electrical issues and we used to stay away from buying the older used ones

Cadillac – We also stayed away from these because of the aluminum engines and constant overheating issues.  These are considered high maintenance vehicles by our mechanics

Chrysler Mini Vans – Known for having issues and we always steered clear of these.

Trucks – 1994 and up only recommended for resale.  NAFTA restricts 1993 and prior vehicles from going over the border so they are less sought after making them hard to resell later.

Small 2 and 4 door cars are always in higher demand with teenage drivers.  (recommend)


That’s it. That’s about all I know about buying a used vehicle. I hope someone finds this information as useful as it is to me.

Oh… One last tip.. If you ever find yourself with an overheated engine while driving a long distance (Yes, this happened to me during a repo) you can kick on the heater and the water released will help cool your engine until you get to a safe place to stop. I live in Texas and the summer heat can be killer. I would never want to be stuck out on the freeway with an overheated vehicle in Texas heat.

Enjoy and Happy Hunting for a used cheap vehicle!

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  1. I always ask if I can match the vehicle title to the person selling it. If the drivers license of the seller doesn’t match the vehicle title beware.

    For estate planning reasons, all our vehicles are in an trust. They never match our driver’s license. The trustee signs to sell or buy our vehicles.

  2. Wow, great tips. We are just getting ready to pay off our current family mini-van. We are totally on the fence about getting another vehicle…we know we need a second, but keep going back and forth between new and used. We will probably end up with a used, though a new would be so nice! We want the second to be a commuter vehicle, but I don’t want a car so we will probably look at small crossovers/suvs/trucks that get decent gas mileage but still sit higher. I will drive a car as needed, but I feel safer higher up…probably not true, but I feel like I can see and drive better.

    1. Thanks Sarah. I don’t know that I could ever buy a brand new vehicle again. I certainly understand what you mean about sitting higher and feeling safer. I feel the same way. Good luck with your next vehicle and hopefully these tips will help you when the time comes.

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