Buying a Used Car — Part 1

Vehicle DNA - Now testing in the North Atlanta Metro Area - consumerSo you’ve decided you are in the market for a used car. Like all things in life, you can reap the rewards of putting in some extra effort as you go through this process. While you *can* make a quick decision and assess the condition of a vehicle yourself via visual inspection and test drive, you are gambling your future time and money. It’s much better to go through a reasoned process to make sure you get what you want out of the deal.

In this series we’ll go through the process of buying a used car from start to finish. Here’s a quick breakdown:

1. Research Phase: Make sure you know what you want, what you can afford, and which candidate models to pursue.
2. Vehicle Selection: How to find cars worth considering and how to put the real prospects through their paces.
3. Completing the Transaction: Negotiating price and navigating the purchase.
4. Maintaining your Vehicle: How to take care of your new ride so it lasts a long time.

Part 1 – Research Phase

In the research phase you’ll be focused on narrowing down the field of potential options to a small number of specific models. You’ll have to consider what you really need and want from the vehicle and what sort of budget you have to work with. You’ll learn some about the recent generations of these models and what sorts of problems tend to pop up.

1. Take note of your needs and desires
It’s much easier to assess and compare a variety of vehicle models if you’ve taken the time to note your needs and desires. Here are some things you ought to think about.

Capacity & Comfort: Will it hold all the people you want it to hold? Do you want a 2 door or 4 door vehicle? Does it have adequate cargo capacity for the items you’ll tend to want to haul around? Is the seating comfortable and could you take it for a long road trip if that’s something you’ll need from the vehicle?

Interior Amenities: How’s the stereo? Will you have Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming?
What about mp3-player/satellite/HD radio? Do you want leather seats? Navigation?

Driving Dynamics: Is this something that is important to you? Do you want a soft, comfortable ride or a sport tuned suspension? How much power would you like, and what trade offs vs fuel efficiency do you want to make?

Do you want a manual transmission or an automatic that allows you to manually shift gears when you want?

Maintenance: How important is ease/cost of maintenance? Will you do maintenance yourself or take it to a shop?

2. Identify your budget
Once you’ve identified your needs and desires you’ll have to identify what you are willing/able to spend. You may find that your budget will force you to make compromises in your needs and desires. That’s pretty normal and to be expected. While it is natural to think of the size of your monthly payment as the primary driver, you’ll want to think about the total price of the vehicle first and foremost. If you want to get a sense of the size of your monthly payments you can make a rough guess using a calculator like the one provided by bankrate.com

Also you must remember that your new used car will likely need a bigger maintenance investment than a new car would, so make sure you have some left over to deal with that.

3. Narrowing down the field
You probably had something in mind before we started all this. Let’s start with that vehicle. If you didn’t have anything in mind at all, then you’ll need to do some general looking until you find something that seems like a good fit. Here are the things you’ll want to educate yourself about.

a. What generations of the model do you want to consider? Generations are specific iterations of a model. For instance, Honda Accord recent generations are 2003-2007 (Gen7), 2008-2012 (Gen8), and 2013-2017 (Gen9). Each generation will have a different appearance and different available options. Of course each generation will have its own quirks, problems, and common issues as well. You’ll also want to do some casual searching of online listings to get a general sense of which generations you would be able to afford. Since all years of a generation will be nearly identical, it’s often useful to look at older vehicles in that generation if you are trying to save on cost. Of course these vehicles will likely have higher mileage and more wear and tear. We’ll reference a few listing sites to get you started at the end of this article.

b. Learn about any generations you would consider buying (based on age/appearance/other criteria) One of the best places to learn is to find an owner’s forum and do some reading. I’d also recommend some general searches such as ‘honda accord reliability’ or ‘honda accord problems’. Wikipedia is another decent source, just keep in mind that forums and wikipedia are anecdotal data, not truth. Don’t forget to check on safety ratings. The NHTSA provides information on safety ratings (safercar.gov).

c. Look to alternatives and learn some more. Now you might be saying “I really don’t have the time or inclination for all of this” and that is OK. If you at least educate yourself about your target vehicle then you know what you are getting yourself into. If you are comfortable with that, then I am too. Ideally, though you consider some other makes/models and really give them a fair shot to get your attention. You may be surprised!

At this point you should have a short list (maybe even just 1) of specific models and generations that you’re after. You know what compromises you might be making and you know that these vehicles fit your budget. Next time we’ll discuss how to go about finding a specific vehicle that is worth purchasing.