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Looking for used car buying tips & car selection advice

Wonderful Pork

Golden Member
Jul 24, 2005
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My fiancee is moving in with me in a month or so and needs to buy a vehicle so she can get to work. She previously was able to take public transportation, but that's not available where I live. So, we're looking to buy a used car for her.

She has already been pre-approved for $15k @1.99%(which is the max budget). We can put money down if needed, but I don't particularly want to unless absolutely required. I certainly don't mind spending less money, however I am not a car guy, I don't have a garage or tools, etc to do most maintenance myself so newer models years are what we're looking at.

Any tips for buying a used car? I'm not considering private sales (due to the loan terms) - does it matter if we go Certified Pre-Owned or "regular" used? I'm assuming the prices are negotiable as well, and was considering offering between 15-20% less that online price to start negotiations. No car to trade in either. I'm not afraid of walking out of a dealer, she isn't moving in until the end of August, so we have about 2 months.

We've been searching on AutoTrader (any other good sites?) and looking up CarFax and VINs to put together a list of cars we want to see.

As for car selection, I'm thinking 2009+ Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla sedans, automatic transmission, <30k miles. She'll be driving 50 miles RT per day in traffic so city gas mileage is a huge consideration, as is vehicle reliability and maintainability. She's not so concerned with high tech stuff (Nav, Satellite Radio), luxury (leather, moonroof, etc) or being a sporty drive. The goal is to keep the car for at least 5 years, hopefully longer.

Any suggestions are appreciated, we're going to start heading to dealerships this weekend and hopefully make a purchase in the next 3 weeks.

If you need any further information please let me know. Thanks!

TL;DR
  • pre-approved for $15k, no down payment required by lender
  • no garage or tools to do maintenance at home
  • daily driver, 50 miles RT in heavy traffic on highway.

Requirements:
  • good city gas mileage
  • 4 door sedan
  • automatic transmission
  • <30k miles
  • no private sales due to loan terms
  • 5+ years before getting another car

Questions
  • Other choices than 2009+ Civic & Corolla?
  • does "Certified Pre Owned" really buy me anything?
  • Can I offer 15-20% less than asking to start negotiating (without being laughed out of the place)?
  • Where can I find accurate vehicle value for free? Is KBB.com accurate?
  • what are good sites to search for used cars from dealer?
  • what questions should I ask while at the dealer? What should I look out for?

UPDATE:
Did plenty of research and found 5 comparable Civics (trim, mileage, year, color, etc) from local dealers. Went and test drove a couple and ended up buying the third one. Got a CPO Civic with 30k miles for $13.6k, less than $15k including TTL, so no money down for us, so I'm pleased.

Since I had trade-in prices (average and clean) + Edmunds TMV & Black Book retail prices I got some aggressive pricing. First offer was 4k below off window, then we basically met in the middle. I don't know what they bought it for, so they likely turned a decent profit, but I didn't pay any more than I wanted to and got a car I wanted (CPO to boot!), which leaves me happy.

Thanks for the help & suggestions.
 
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kitatech

Senior member
Jan 7, 2013
484
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81
Edmunds, KBB, MSN cars, Car Trader websites all have answers to your questions....

The one bit of advice you need, precisely because you asked all this, is to take your proposed buy to an indie mechanic for an appraisal....
 

vi edit

Elite Member
Super Moderator
Oct 28, 1999
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For around $16,000 you can get into a brand new Focus SE w/ auto transmission. Since it's new you'll get better financing rates and your payments will probably be close to the same. In the 5 year range I'd be fine with that new tech dry clutch auto, long term beyond that I'd maybe have some reservations. But it's a very nice driving car, and will be well equipped with a full warranty.

Something to think about.
 

Wonderful Pork

Golden Member
Jul 24, 2005
1,531
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Edmunds, KBB, MSN cars, Car Trader websites all have answers to your questions....

The one bit of advice you need, precisely because you asked all this, is to take your proposed buy to an indie mechanic for an appraisal....
Thanks. I've been visiting those sites (they all say similar things) but was especially curious on price negotiation and determining "market value" for a car.

Also, with regards to indie mechanics, what are the logistics of that? Take it to them during the test drive? Bring them to the dealer with you? I don't think it makes sense to buy the car and then take it to them - what recourse do I have at that point?

For around $16,000 you can get into a brand new Focus SE w/ auto transmission. Since it's new you'll get better financing rates and your payments will probably be close to the same. In the 5 year range I'd be fine with that new tech dry clutch auto, long term beyond that I'd maybe have some reservations. But it's a very nice driving car, and will be well equipped with a full warranty.

Something to think about.
If we were going with a new car, I'd want 8-10 years out of it, 5-6 year old used I'd keep till its at 8-10 total years.

Ultimately when we choose to start a family, we'll get a new SUV/van and I'll take over her current car. My car is about 10 years old now and paid off, so I'd like to avoid 2 payments for as long as possible.
 

desy

Diamond Member
Jan 13, 2000
5,348
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Well a Prius is going to be your best city gas mileage and very reliable and because they have been out for a while should be something in your price range.
 

Mermaidman

Diamond Member
Sep 4, 2003
7,899
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Questions
  • Other choices than 2009+ Civic & Corolla?
  • does "Certified Pre Owned" really buy me anything? Only if the manufacturer certifies the car. e.g. Certified by Honda, not by the dealer.
  • Can I offer 15-20% less than asking to start negotiating (without being laughed out of the place)? Do your research online and start your offer at slightly below the low end of the value.
  • Where can I find accurate vehicle value for free? Is KBB.com accurate? KBB favors dealers because it usually has high appraisals. Use Edmunds.com to balance it out.
  • what are good sites to search for used cars from dealer?
  • what questions should I ask while at the dealer? Whatever you ask, don't take the dealer's answer as gospel. Verify the answers if possible. For example, you can ask the dealer if it can show you the maintenance record for the car, and a Carfax, FWIW.
If the car is no longer under factory warranty, then I highly recommend having the car inspected by an independent mechanic. Some "mobile" mechanics will go to the car, but if the dealer allows you to drive the car to a garage, then you can get a more thorough inspection.

The Corolla is coming out with a whole new design next year. This should cause the existing Corolla to drop in value.
 
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kitatech

Senior member
Jan 7, 2013
484
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Before I bought them, before I put any money down, both of the dealers from whom I bought my last 2 used cars let me take the car to an indie shop, during which I took the car on the highway to see how it rode there (and not just on city streets)...
Expect to pay $50 - $100 for an inspection.

When buying a used car from a dealer...
Always counter-offer the window price...and the lowest internet price you can find for it (at cars.com/cartrader.com etc) where the dealer might have it listed...WITH THE LOWEST trade in value you find for that car on the net...
Why?
...because there's a good chance the dealer offered LESS to the previous owner, and the difference is the minimum profit they expect to make...you might get lucky and on that day they may be happy with the minimum...
 
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EagleKeeper

Discussion Club Moderator<br>Elite Member
Staff member
Oct 30, 2000
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If any dealer balks at letting you take it to an independent shop, walk away. You will spend $60- $100 for a good quality inspection.

With there being entry market cars at that price range, consider them. You get the warranty/peace of mind.
 

kitatech

Senior member
Jan 7, 2013
484
3
81
Eaglekeeper is right...$15k is not the best price point for used cars that sell new for $20k or so...it's more cost effective for $20k cars to go new @ 0% interest if you can find that,

or...
@ $15K you might look for a car that sold new for $30K...

or...
look at a once new $20k car for closer to $10k
 
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Wonderful Pork

Golden Member
Jul 24, 2005
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Why can't you buy a new car for 15k? Why used?
This will be her first daily driver. I don't want to get something nice for the inevitable fender benders, however I don't want a "beater" either.

$15k is the max we have been pre-authorized for, I'd be thrilled to spend less than that for a quality, reliable vehicle that will be good for 5+ years @ 15k miles/year.

Eaglekeeper is right...$15k is not the best price point for used cars that sell new for $20k or so...it's more cost effective for $20k cars to go new @ 0% interest if you can find that,

or...
@ $15K you might look for a car that sold new for $30K...

or...
look at a once new $20k car for closer to $10k
I guess thats why I'm looking for some help on car selection. I just refer to Honda & Toyota because they are reliable (my Mazda 6 is coming up on 10 years and running great) but I don't know much about long term reliability of any vehicle as I've just had the one myself.
 

Wonderful Pork

Golden Member
Jul 24, 2005
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When buying a used car from a dealer...
Always counter-offer the window price...and the lowest internet price you can find for it (at cars.com/cartrader.com etc) where the dealer might have it listed...WITH THE LOWEST trade in value you find for that car on the net...
Can you please expand on this?

For example, if I find this car listed for $13,987.

Then I check KBB and NADA for that car & trim, I'm supposed to pick the LOWEST price (meaning for Rough or Average Trade-In Value)?

Based on NADA, that would be between $9750 and $13925 (Rough through Clean Retail)

So I go in at $9750? (This is a pure hypothetical, that particular car isn't a sedan - however that IS a dealer I'm looking at)
 

kitatech

Senior member
Jan 7, 2013
484
3
81
Negotiating price is very personal...some people are hesitant, others not at all...
As I said...first look for any other possible listings for the car on the internet, including EBAY...that gives you an idea if the dealer is flexible, marketing the car with different prices....

I found 3 prices for my Camry...from $7500 to $9300, (the window was $8500) and I countered with $6000 and got it for $6500, $500 over trade-in value/good condition...

I counter the asking price with the trade-in/rough condition valuation....why?
...because you don't know what the dealer offered/gave to the previous owner for that car in trade...if your offer is low, too low, then the dealer has the opportunity to respond with its "best" price...

And if they don't come down you have to be willing to walk...

...and I always say that my offer is contingent on the mechanic's confirmation of the condition, and that no other "problems" are discovered...my previous car (99 Altima bought in 03) a $17k MSRP car, then a 4-yr old car offered for $14k (similar situation as you and your Civic) and I offered $10k OUT THE DOOR...the mechanic found a leak in the power steering rack, a $600 repair...and the dealer fixed it and I still got it for $10k OTT....a good deal in part perhaps because the dealer was motivated to sell that manual tranny car, like the Toyo dealer that sold the MT Camry to me this past Oct.
 
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JCH13

Diamond Member
Sep 14, 2010
4,981
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For bangin' out hard commuter miles I would point you towards this list:

http://www.motortrend.com/new_cars/29/under_15/

Plenty of new cars to be had for under 15k, not all of which are gutless appliances if your fiance like driving a sporty-ish car (I know mine does).

I wouldn't worry about fender-benders so much, personally. A new car for $15k still isn't "nice" persay, and a new bumper for a $15k car will likely be cheaper than a new bumper for a car that cost 20-30k new. A new car will come with a warranty and likely have the option for an extended warranty and/or maintenance plan. A used car will not.

Also consider fuel economy. I bet a new $15k car will be better than most used cars in that price range.
 

Wonderful Pork

Golden Member
Jul 24, 2005
1,531
1
81
Negotiating price is very personal...some people are hesitant, others not at all...
As I said...first look for any other possible listings for the car on the internet, including EBAY...that gives you an idea if the dealer is flexible, marketing the car with different prices....

I found 3 prices for my Camry...from $7500 to $9300, (the window was $8500) and I countered with $6000 and got it for $6500, $500 over trade-in value/good condition...

I counter the asking price with the trade-in/rough condition valuation....why?
...because you don't know what the dealer offered/gave to the previous owner for that car in trade...if your offer is low, too low, then the dealer has the opportunity to respond with its "best" price...

And if they don't come down you have to be willing to walk...

...and I always say that my offer is contingent on the mechanic's confirmation of the condition, and that no other "problems" are discovered...
OK, I'm with you now. I google the VIN and a bunch of sites pop up for pricing (which does vary).

I'll find the NADA pricing and counter with the low end of that. I'm not afraid of negotiating at all, and certainly will walk out if they make me wait or try and jerk me around.
 

kitatech

Senior member
Jan 7, 2013
484
3
81
OK, I'm with you now. I google the VIN and a bunch of sites pop up for pricing (which does vary).
Great
I'll find the NADA pricing and counter with the low end of that. I'm not afraid of negotiating at all, and certainly will walk out if they make me wait or try and jerk me around.

...okay, but be nice about that...so they'll be willing to deal with you...;)
 

Wonderful Pork

Golden Member
Jul 24, 2005
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Mermaidman

Diamond Member
Sep 4, 2003
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I'll find the NADA pricing and counter with the low end of that. I'm not afraid of negotiating at all, and certainly will walk out if they make me wait or try and jerk me around.
That's good, but I'll try to take the emotion out of the negotiation process. Personally, I would not pass on a good used car over a small difference of a couple hundred dollars. Your tolerance may vary :p
 

AustinInDallas

Golden Member
Jun 5, 2012
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www.amitelerad.com
used TDI. Besides regular scheduled maintenance, the only think I have had to do was replace a radiator fan at 100k. I didnt even know it was out until I got my timing belt changed.

edit: I still get over 50 MPG on the highway
 

Wonderful Pork

Golden Member
Jul 24, 2005
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That's good, but I'll try to take the emotion out of the negotiation process. Personally, I would not pass on a good used car over a small difference of a couple hundred dollars. Your tolerance may vary :p
I'm not worried about a few hundred dollars (considering this will be $10,000+) however if they try the "sleezy" tactics of making me wait for hours, talking to a manager, have to get dealer financing, etc then I'm going to thank them for their time and leave. Really, I'd like to test drive and then negotiate via e-mail.

I've been using the Edmunds Appraisal tool for pricing cars since it takes location into account as well as trim, mileage, etc. I'll start off with the Edmunds Trade-In values (likely about what they paid for the car) and negotiate up from there. Most of their stickers are higher than the "dealer retail" price Edmunds lists. At least I know when I'll be laughed out of the showroom.

used TDI. Besides regular scheduled maintenance, the only think I have had to do was replace a radiator fan at 100k. I didnt even know it was out until I got my timing belt changed.

edit: I still get over 50 MPG on the highway
Never considered a diesel, will investigate. thanks.
 
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kitatech

Senior member
Jan 7, 2013
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Ask for the service record and the work order for what they did to prep the car for sale.
 

7window

Golden Member
Nov 12, 2009
1,533
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I would look at ads in the Saturday, Sunday paper . Usually have good deals on new and used cars. I found a good deal 2 years ago when I was looking for a car. If you live in the big city its much better selection. I found my corolla doing it this way. Like you I was looking for a car with not a lot of problems. dealers usually have one or two cars they sell as a loss leader.
 
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TridenT

Lifer
Sep 4, 2006
16,818
45
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Well a Prius is going to be your best city gas mileage and very reliable and because they have been out for a while should be something in your price range.
This. Seriously, OP. Consider a used Prius. They have very high satisfaction rates out of any vehicle. Also, they have great fuel economy and emissions. Perfect for city driving too.

If I was going to shell out up to $15k for a car, needed something with good gas mileage, and was doing significant city driving: Prius the whole way. But, I wouldn't buy from a dealer. :/

I'd stay away from the diesels. They have worse smog emissions.
 
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