The Determined Dollar
buy a reliable used car

5 Steps to Buy a Reliable Used Car

If you could get rid of your car payment, would you? I think it’s safe to say most of us would, under one condition: if you buy a  used car, it has to be RELIABLE. In this post, I’ll show you how to buy a reliable used car in five easy steps.

I plan to always drive used cars, simply because I want as little of my net worth as possible to be tied up in things that go down in value. So I’ve made it a point to learn the art of used car buying. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that although it takes patience, it’s not difficult, even if you don’t know anything about cars.

I get that you don’t want a car that constantly breaks down or needs thousands of dollars of maintenance work. That would be downright foolish to buy cheap, only to spend MORE on maintenance than a car payment costs.

That’s the reason most people have for hanging on to their car payments. And truth be told, it’s really unfortunate because the notion that reliability = car payment is FALSE.

There’s an abundance of reliable, used cars that won’t constantly be in the shop.

The thing is, you have to know how to find one. Even though the process is simple, there are criteria the car has to meet. This strategy is all about maximizing the mileage you get and minimizing the odds for needing costly repairs.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Look to buy from a private seller.

Don’t buy from a dealership. The price is so marked up and you’ll pay a bunch in fees even if you’re a great negotiator. However, you want a legit sale (of course!), so find your car on Skip Craigslist and other such websites. Even though you can find a deal there, you’ll have to sift through the sketchy listings, too.

I also like because you can enter filters with your budget, make and model of car and other requirements you have for the type of car you want to buy. It makes the search a lot easier!

And one last tip: since let’s you search nationwide, consider buying from a state with great weather, like California or Arizona, where the car is less likely to have rust damage from salted roads. Even if you have to fly out to buy it and drive it back, consider it as part of the cost of the car. At the very least, widening your search area will increase your options.

  1. Research car models on

Edmunds is a fantastic resource where you can read all about various makes and models by year, so you know what the common problems are. Does the car have a history of engines going bad after 100,000 miles? Or do consumer reviews repeatedly rave about the car’s longevity? Edmunds can help you identify the type of used car that will fit your needs and is the most likely to remain reliable. Read the Edmunds official review and also look for trends in consumer reviews.

  1. Know the KBB Value.

Kelly Blue Book is essential when knowing how much to pay for a car (notice that the private party sale price is less than the dealership price).

Take note of the criteria for the vehicle’s condition. Also know that the car’s market value could be a little above or below the KBB value depending on location: supply and demand will affect the price.

When you’re armed with this information, you can set your bottom line– how much you are willing to pay– so you never have to feel pressured to buy or uncertain if you’re getting a good deal.

  1. Get the Carfax report.

This will cost you money, but it’s worth it to purchase the Carfax report for serious contenders. The Carfax will tell you how many owners the vehicle has had and if the title is clean. You definitely want a clean title (which means it has not been in any accidents) and it’s preferable to buy a car that has only had one owner.

The owner should have also kept the car’s maintenance records so you can see that it has been properly taken care of. If the Carfax shows an accident, more than two owners, and maintenance records are unavailable, I would definitely pass on that car.

The best-case scenario is a car with one owner, a clean title, and a complete documentation with all the maintenance records. Also, know that older cars with fewer miles are preferable to newer cars with more miles. Lower mileage means less wear and tear, which means it’s in better condition, and older cars are cheaper regardless of the mileage.

  1. Test drive and take it to a mechanic.

Arrange to meet the seller in a public place and test drive the car. Turn the radio off; drive in silence and listen for odd sounds. Pay attention to how it feels, how it brakes, and how well it accelerates and turns. If it checks out, take it to an independent mechanic (not the seller’s mechanic). Let the seller know ahead of time that you’d like to do this (it’s very normal and they shouldn’t have a problem with it).

You will have to pay the mechanic, but if you think this is “the one,” a mechanic’s approval is invaluable. The mechanic can also let you know of any upcoming needed maintenance that may factor into the cost of the car.

And that’s it! You will need to pay either with cash or a cashier’s check, so be prepared to obtain that as soon as you have a verbal purchase price agreement.

Last complete the appropriate paperwork and you’ll be all set with your new-to-you reliable used car.

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buy a reliable used car