What To Know Before Buying A Used Car

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A car salesman works the telephone while searching through inventory at the certified used car lot at Brandon Ford in Brandon, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
A car salesman works the telephone while searching through inventory at the certified used car lot at Brandon Ford in Brandon, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

The market for new cars in the U.S. is sputtering, with major automakers from Ford to Nissan reporting falling sales last month. The dip comes after an estimated 39 million used cars were sold in the U.S. last year.

One auto analyst tells NPR that President Trump's tariff strategy will likely mean higher costs for prospective car buyers over time. But the price tag for a new car has already been rising, says Jonathan Linkov, deputy auto editor for Consumer Reports.

"A couple of years ago, it was $27,500, then $29,500, now almost $30,000 is the average new car [price]," he says. "It's a tough thing for people, and that's the average car — you're talking a Honda Accord, a Toyota Camry. We're not talking about the people who are buying BMW 3 Series, the Audi A5s, et cetera."

Trouble is, when people decide to look past that shiny new car on the dealership lot in favor of a used one, most find themselves in over their heads.

"A lot of times, people go in to buy a used car out of a desperation or a need," Linkov tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. "They go in and they buy almost what they find — they go to kick the tires maybe, and they drive out with a vehicle."

Starting a search of your own? Here's some used car buying advice:

5 Things To Do When Looking At A Used Car

  • The sniff test: "Go in and if it smells musty, smells oily, smells like there's an engine problem or a water problem, something like that," Linkov says, then it's best to walk away.
  • Fire up the engine: "Puffs of blue smoke or white smoke out of the exhaust, [that would] be a no-no, because you're having water issues, you're having oil mixing with the fuel, coolant leaks," he says.
  • Get the vehicle identification number, or VIN: "It's on a plate in front of the driver's side window, or you can get it on the registration," Linkov says. "If you're looking at a private sale, particularly, but even out at a dealer, ask them to run the VIN in their service records and see what the history of that car is. How often has the car come in and out of service? Did it bounce around? ... You just begin to get a history of the life."
  • Check if the lights are fogged: "If you see that the lights are kind of fogged, it means that there was probably a water issue, maybe a flood," he says. "So if there's a moisture condensation that looks like it's inside the lights, avoid that car."
  • Keep an eye out for rust: "You want to look for rust on things like screws," Linkov says. "Look on the seats. If the seat bolts don't look like they're painted, and they look new and the rest of the car looks like its age, [the] seats were replaced. Why were the seats replaced? Why does the carpet seem a little different on one side? Why is there rust underneath the inside of the lips of the engine bay? Stuff like that."

When It Comes To Mileage, How High Is Too High?

"It depends on the reliability of the vehicle," Linkov says. "You can get plenty of vehicles that go out 200,000 miles. We see, from Ford Ranger pickup trucks — which, unfortunately, a lot of them have a Takata airbag issue going on right now — but they can be reliable. You can have a Toyota Camry that goes 200,000 miles. At the same time, you can have a car that has a lot of electronics, and it's 75,000 to 100,000 miles, you don't want to be getting into repairs with that.

"Brand is a start, but look at the specific model. You have to start digging down. You have to use information, like at Consumer Reports, but on other sites as well, to look at reliability information."

What Does 'Certified' Mean?

"Certified is a term to say that it's been very well inspected. The dealership has taken a risk on the car, and they're going to say, 'Well you know, it's pretty clean. There don't seem to be any problems with it. We're happy to sell it, because we're not going to take it back,' likely, in a lot of warranty repairs. It's just an added bonus," Linkov says. "It's like an extended warranty. So figure the regular warranty last three years, 36,000 [miles], four years, 50,000 miles. This will extend the warranty.

"For the most part, you're going to say, these are probably pretty good vehicles, but it's good to get a certification from the manufacturer, not a third party. So if the Toyota dealership is selling a certified Camry, make sure it's certified right through Toyota and the dealership, not through a third party."

Haggling: Yes Or No?

"You absolutely should haggle as much as you can," Linkov says. "Do your research. Look at, again, Consumer Reports has prices, ranges, for cars. You can look on Auto Trader, you can look on all the different sites out there and see kind of what cars in that general mileage, price range, condition are going for.

"Make your offer. If you walk out and they say, 'No no no, wait,' you know there's room. The best thing about used cars is that there are so many of them out there."

This segment aired on August 7, 2018.


Headshot of Jack Mitchell

Jack Mitchell Associate Producer
Jack Mitchell was an associate producer in WBUR's newsroom. He works across a wide spectrum of departments and shows — from the newscast unit, to, to Radio Boston.


Headshot of Jeremy Hobson

Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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