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Shopping for a used car is "just like buying a new car. (It) starts with the research," says Jeff Bartlett, deputy editor of autos at Consumer Reports.
From that, create a target list of cars (make, model and year), that suit your needs, he says.
That means looking at gas mileage (check the U.S. Department of Energy's FuelEconomy.gov) and safety and handling tests (2 good checks: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at SaferCar.gov and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at IIHS.org).
The big difference with newer cars: Instead of looking at 1 or 2 model years, you have a larger pool to choose from, Bartlett says.
If you're buying a used car, check out the car loan rates at Bankrate.com before shopping.
"What you'll often find is a car may have had problems 1 year that have been addressed" in subsequent years, he says.
Also, you should make certain you're comparing the same features on the car models that you're interested in, Bartlett says. If you like the safety ratings on a particular model, make sure the car you're considering has all of the same safety equipment.
With some older models, safety features that are now standard like side air bags may have been optional when the car was made, Bartlett says. That can make a big difference in safety and crash performance.
Opt for newer, rather than older
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Once you've targeted specific makes and models, check general prices against your budget and opt for the newest versions of cars that you can afford, says Jack Nerad, executive market analyst at KBB.com and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car."
With used cars, "you're better off with a newer model rather than an older model," he says. "The very simple reason is that cars get better every year."
Typically, the newer models "will have the most recent equipment all the way around," Nerad says.
Research any car model recalls
You will want to review any recalls of models that you're targeting before you start.
Cars can be on a recall list for major or minor defects, says Jack Gillis, author of "The Car Book" and spokesman for the Consumer Federation of America.
Once you locate individual cars that you're considering, you can go to SaferCar.gov, put in the VIN (vehicle identification number) and see what recalls have been issued on that specific model, Gillis says.
There are 2 things worth knowing. First, if a manufacturer has issued a recall, their dealerships will fix the problem for free – whether you bought it new or used, says Bartlett.
Second, with most recalls there are sufficient parts and labor to fix recall problems, Gillis says. But with some larger recalls, there may be a waiting list.
That's also true of some of the newer recalls that involve problems like ignition switches or air bags, he says. And the prospect of buying a recalled car and not being able to get it fixed before you drive it is a good reason to opt for a different model instead.
Buy from friends or family
A used car is not the type of thing you want to buy from a total unknown – no matter how good that deal.
Gillis recommends 2 sources: people you know or dealerships.
"The key to finding a good used car is to know as much about its history as possible," he says. Since that can be tough, he recommends buying from someone you know, if you're not going through a dealer.
No matter the car's price, you'll want the best car loan for the money, and you'll find that at Bankrate.com.
If your dad or father-in-law is getting ready to trade a car, and you know and like its history, that might be the used car for you.
So let close friends and family know that you're looking for a good used car. "It's amazing how many people will get back to you and say, 'Yeah, we're going to sell our car.' And, they're in the best possible position to tell you their experience with the vehicle," Gillis says.
Unlike a total stranger, you're going to be bumping into them regularly, so there's a good chance that they'll be honest with you, he says. Plus, if you know them, you already should have a general idea of their history with the car.
Check out the auto dealership lots
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The other outlet for a good car: a car dealership.
"Dealers tend to keep the good cars they get from trades and get rid of the ones they think are problematic," the Consumer Federation's Gillis says. So, the cars on dealers' lots can be solid options.
"One tip is that it's always good to buy a used car of the same brand that the dealer sells, because they have access to any needed repairs less expensively than if the car was from another brand," Gillis says.
On the other hand, if you buy one brand from another brand's dealership, "often they will give you a very good price for it because it's not a vehicle they're familiar with," he says.
Get a warranty and take a lengthy test drive
Dealers also can offer you something your best friend can't -- a warranty.
Depending on the used car and its age, you'll either get the remainder of the manufacturer's warranty or a 30-, 60- or 90-day warranty from the dealership, Gillis says.
And often the powertrain – everything from the transmission to the engine to the components that make the wheels turn – can be warrantied for "as long as 2 years," he says.
Whether you're buying a truck or a car, check out the auto loan rates at Bankrate.com before shopping.
Want to buy yourself a little bit of insurance? Skip those "as-is" deals, Gillis says.
Many automakers also have certified pre-owned car programs. That means "someone has gone through the vehicle, and there's a good chance that a vehicle that makes it through this process will be free of problems," he says.
While, by itself ,"it's not a guarantee; it's not a perfect system." But, it is 1 more step toward getting a good deal on a good car, Gillis says.
KBB.com's Nerad suggests that you also take a lengthy test drive or two.
Unlike a new car, each used car was "owned by somebody different than the one next to it," he says. "It has had different maintenance done to it. It's essentially become a one-off."
"That test drive's important," Nerad says.
Get a car history report
Car history reports can be helpful for used car buyers, Consumer Reports' Bartlett says.
If you're buying from an individual, you or the seller can buy an auto history report for less than $50. And more and more dealers are offering them for free, says Gillis.
Bartlett says you also can get a free theft check through the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
But auto history reports are not perfect and may not include everything about a car's past, Gillis says.
If that vehicle has never been reported as a flood car, or a car that's been totaled or a stolen car, that won't be listed on the car's history, he says. So, while car history reports can be very helpful, you want to use them in conjunction with an independent inspection, Gillis says.
Get an independent inspection
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Whether you're buying the car from a friend, family member or dealer, you still want to get an independent inspection.
You want someone totally neutral. So don't use the dealership's mechanic or 1 connected to or recommended by the seller, Gillis says.
Instead, take the car to someone you know and trust. The mechanic will put it up on the rack and check it out from top to bottom, he says. That will take about an hour and cost around $100, Bartlett says.
It's a lot like getting a home inspection, he says. You'll find out what's working and what potential problems you could encounter, he says.
If the mechanic finds mud or rust, you may learn that it's a flood car. Or, you might find evidence in the bodywork that signals it's been in a wreck.
Bottom line: you'll likely have 1 of 3 outcomes. Either it's the cream puff that the seller promised or it has a few flaws you can tolerate or have repaired in exchange for a price cut. Or, it's a problem you can't live with. In that case, the $100 you paid for an inspection was well spent.