Buying a used car has a lot of advantages—it saves you from the dreaded new car depreciation that hits most cars as soon as you drive off the lot. It also makes the car you want a lot more affordable than buying it new. The only downside is that a used car may not have much or any warranty remaining, so you’ll need to look carefully for potential problems.
Being out of warranty isn’t that big of a deal, most of the time. What matters most is choosing a car that’s known for good reliability and low maintenance costs.
Usually cars that cost more when they’re new also cost more to maintain and repair. More complex engines, electronics, and other components mean there are more things that can go wrong. And when they do, the replacement parts cost more, and often the maintenance does, too.
A simpler car, in contrast, is easier to fix. You might even be able to repair some problems yourself, and parts are often relatively inexpensive.
Be careful of expensive cars that are really cheap to buy used
You’ll want to watch out for the cool cars—the ones that are especially tempting because they’re just really desirable. Maybe they’re super expensive when they’re new, but surprisingly affordable on the used market. Be especially wary of that; often, the reason for that affordability is that they’re extremely expensive to maintain and repair.
For example, an 8-year-old Range Rover that went for $85k new can often be found for sale in the $20k range. That’s because it doesn’t have a strong track record in terms of reliability, and repairs are extremely expensive. If something goes wrong, a car like that could quickly cost you more than it’s worth.
It’s a good idea to know everything you’re getting into as far as potential costs with a used car—whether it’s a hybrid, a luxury car, or an O.J.-era Bronco. You can research reliability and repair costs for various models on sites like RepairPal.
Here are the rules for buying a used car the right way:
Do your research
Know what the upcoming major service intervals are for the car you’re buying, and what they’re likely to cost. Also check out the reliability ratings and average repair costs for any cars you’re considering.
Know the car’s history
If you find ‘the one’, and it’s out of warranty, be sure to get a Carfax report and ask the owner for its complete service history. It’s important to confirm that it’s been properly maintained—that’s the best predictor of how many trouble-free miles you’ll get out of it.
Get a pre-purchase inspection
If a car is out of warranty, an inspection is a great idea to minimize the risk of unpleasant and expensive surprises.
The bottom line
Buying a used car is generally a smart move—but you have to do your diligence. If you make sure you’re getting a well-maintained car that runs well, you’ll likely have a lot of happy and trouble-free years with it.