The used-car buying process isn’t always fun. Follow these simple steps to protect yourself.

Buying a car is a big decision. Whether choosing a new or used vehicle, stepping onto a car lot or into a dealership and being confronted by a more-than-enthusiastic salesperson who you know works on commission can create a mixture of anxiety and frustration. It’s a tough job that usually gets little respect from consumers and serves as a stereotype – often unfairly – for anyone who’s willing to shake your hand while simultaneously reaching into your pocket.

The used car business is changing, though. Shoppers no longer have to drive to a dealership today to find out what models are available, how much they cost and what financing options are available. Now, it can all be done on the internet or on an app. In some cases, you don’t even have to leave your couch to buy a car, truck, SUV or crossover because some companies will actually bring the vehicle directly to you at home.

While all of that convenience and information is right at your fingertips, there are still a few things to remember when it comes to shopping for a used car:

Know how much car you can afford and stick to it
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is getting talked into a car that’s beyond your price limit. Experts suggest keeping your monthly car payment below 20 percent of your take-home pay. If you’re on a tight budget, that should be even lower. Don’t just think in terms of a monthly car payment, either. There are other costs associated with a used vehicle, including insurance and maintenance. The older a car is, the higher maintenance expenses are likely to be.
Develop a list of cars you’ll consider
Before you even start the process of shopping for a used car, think about what type of vehicle you want. If you have children or pets and need to tote them around comfortably, you might rule out two-door cars in favor of a sedan, SUV or hatchback. If you drive a ton of miles from home to work and want a hybrid or electric car so you can save gas and help the earth while you’re commuting, that will reduce the number of vehicles you consider. Check reviews of the cars you’re thinking about to see how they are rated for comfort, drivability and reliability. Safety features are an important factor and you should also check if the vehicle has been recalled for any major issues. Always make sure the dealership has taken care of any recalls before you purchase. That can help you narrow down your list pretty quickly.

Also, think about how far you’re willing to drive to a car lot or dealership to pick up the used car of your dreams. Dealership websites, phone apps and other tools make it easy to search used cars from the comfort of home.

Determine the car’s value
Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, consult a site such as Kelley Blue Book to determine a car’s true value. You’ll need information such as the car’s year, make and model as well as options, mileage and overall condition. Dealers often build a cushion in their pricing to account for negotiations. Knowing what similar cars are selling for in your area will help in negotiating the best price.
Run a vehicle history report
Before agreeing to a purchase, run a vehicle history report from a site such as CarFax or AutoCheck to determine if it has a clean title, if it’s been in an accident or flood and if it was determined to be totaled by an insurance company. The report can also aid in determining if the car’s odometer has been tampered with.
Have it checked by an independent mechanic
Watch any daytime court TV program and you’ll likely see a case where someone bought a used car and found out days later that it had serious mechanical issues. In nearly all of these cases, the buyer failed to have the car inspected before signing on the dotted line. Hiring an independent or trusted mechanic to do a pre-purchase inspection can save you thousands of dollars in the long run. If a dealer won’t allow you to have the car inspected before buying it, walk away.
Consider purchasing a certified pre-owned vehicle
Buying a certified pre-owned car can offer you peace of mind and some additional perks. Typically, these vehicles have low mileage, are thoroughly inspected before being showcased on a lot and offer a manufacturer’s warranty (sometimes extended) to cover any repair costs. Car dealerships that sell these cars may also entice you with special rates on financing plus packages that may include roadside assistance, free Sirius XM radio for a limited time and even complimentary oil changes. Certified pre-owned vehicles likely will cost more, though, even for the same make and model as you’d see at an independent dealer, mom-and-pop lot or private seller, according to Consumer Reports.
The bottom line

A car is one of the biggest purchases you’ll make in life, and purchasing a used vehicle can be a great way to get the most for your dollar. Don’t hastily jump into a deal before searching around and doing your homework on what a car is truly worth.

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