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HomeAutomotiveAuto insight: Smart guidelines for buying a used car
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Auto insight: Smart guidelines for buying a used car

Mar 16, 2019 - 16:51

Buying a used car can be a great decision. Oftentimes, that's where you'll find a deal. On the other hand, you've got to make sure there won't be any surprises.

Before you hit the car lot, take some time to prepare for the purchase. These guidelines will help you make a wise decision on a used vehicle that works for you.

Set a budget — and stick to it!

Think about what you're willing to pay for a car. Have a budget and stick to it. If you plan to finance it through your bank or credit union, figure out what you would be comfortable paying every month.

“When it comes to the cost of owning a vehicle, in addition to the car payment, think about other related monthly expenses, such as gas, maintenance and insurance,” says Joe Pendergast, vice president of consumer lending at Navy Federal Credit Union.

Get pre-approved for a loan.

By getting pre-approved for a loan, you can be confident in your budget and set your financing limits from the start.

“Getting pre-approved may even increase your purchasing power. Oftentimes, the dealer may be more willing to bargain on the car price if the amount you’re willing to pay has already been set,” says Pendergast.

Financial institutions, such as Navy Federal for example, offer auto loans nationwide at low fixed rates, discounts on insurance and asset protection, as well as a calculator to help determine how much financing your car will cost.

Create a must-have list.

It's important to separate the must-haves from the nice-to-haves when looking at vehicle features. If you have kids, a four-door vehicle might be essential, and you’ll want to ensure there’s enough seating for your entire family. You might want leather, but cloth seats will do. Know your needs versus your wants and make a list of non-negotiables.

You probably also have a few types of vehicles in mind. Do some research and read reviews so you can narrow your focus when you're shopping. This helps save time when searching online or navigating the car lots.

Understand the history.

At least one person owned the vehicle before you, so it's important to know the car’s history. When you get approved for a used car loan through Navy Federal, you get free access to a CARFAX(R) Vehicle History Report, which helps you identify cars with potential problems and purchase safe, reliable ones.

Pay attention to mileage.

For used cars, the lower the mileage, the better. Fewer miles often means there's less wear and tear — a higher value for you. A good average to target for cars is about 15,000 miles a year.

Check the tires.

One important thing to consider when buying a used car is the condition of the tires. If the tires don't have enough tread, you'll need to invest in new ones.

Test drive.

Never consider buying a vehicle before taking it for a test drive. By getting behind the wheel, you can ensure it feels good to you, find out if anything seems off, such as strange noises or smells, and see how it handles.

“Don’t rush the process. If you’re not satisfied after a test drive, keep searching, there’s plenty of inventory out there,” says Pendergast.

Get an inspection.

It will cost you, but if you want peace of mind, consider investing in an inspection by a certified mechanic. You'll have to request borrowing the car for the inspection, which may not always be possible, but it’s worth exploring if you’re having second thoughts.


If you're shopping for a used car that is five years old or less, you may want to explore certified used vehicles. Some dealerships offer certifications for the used cars they are reselling under their brand. This could include valuable bonuses, such as vehicle inspections and warranties, not to mention peace of mind.

Shopping for a used car can be an enjoyable experience with these guidelines in hand.

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