How to choose and buy a used car or vehicle
Buying a Used Car?
Before You Go Shopping
- Look at your budget and decide how much you can afford up-front and over time. Don’t forget about insurance, parking, gas, tolls, and repairs. For help budgeting, you can book a free appointment with a financial counselor
- Check your credit report and correct any errors.
- Get preapproved for a loan. Knowing the rates will help you comparison shop across financial institutions. Using your own bank or credit union gives added protection if something goes wrong.
- Research the car’s value. Check the National Automobile Dealers Association’s (NADA) Guides, Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book to find out the average price of the car you plan to buy and trade in.
- Check the dealership’s license status and complaint history. All used car dealerships must be licensed by DCWP. You can search for a licensee online. learn more about a business’ license status or to check a business’s complaint history.
At the Dealership
- Beware of “bait and switch” advertising. Ads that promise savings, rates that are too good to be true, or cars that aren’t actually available when you get there are illegal. If you feel pressured, walk away.
- Examine the car carefully. Get a vehicle history report at vehiclehistory.com take a test drive, and have an independent mechanic check the car. If the dealer won’t let you, walk away. Be sure to check the condition of the engine, tire wear and any sign of an accident. Compare the odometer reading to the bill of sale and check the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Buyer’s Guide and NYC Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) inspection sticker which must be posted on the car.
- Beware of fake certified pre-owned automobiles. When shopping for a certified pre-owned automobile, make sure you know the specific criteria for certification, obtain proof that the car you are interested in purchasing meets the criteria, and receive documentation of any promised warranties.
- Say no to “add-ons” and options. Paint and fabric protection, rust-proofing, extra security systems, extended warranties, etc. are cheaper when bought separately. Ask for your monthly payments with and without the extra options. Before you sign a contract or pay any money, make sure no extra fees have been added and don’t buy anything you don’t want.
- Don’t negotiate based on a monthly payment. Negotiate the best price for the car at the lowest interest rate and for the fewest number of payments. Don’t believe dealers who say you must finance through them.
- Review the contract carefully.
- Never sign a blank, partially blank, or unclear contract. Cross out any empty spaces so they can’t be filled in after you sign.
- Never sign a contract if you don’t understand the terms.
- Don’t give a dealer any money before you sign the contract, not even a “deposit.”
- Get the mileage in writing.
- Never buy a car “as is.”
- If a car sale is negotiated in Spanish and will be paid in installments, the contract must also be written in Spanish.
- Ask whether the interest rate includes a dealer markup. If so, ask for the interest rate offered by the lender. Although no law prevents the dealer from marking up the interest rate, you may be able to negotiate the amount.
What kind of Vehicle
- One of the first steps in the car buying process is determining what vehicle you should actually buy. This may sound like a simple task at first, but once you begin thinking about it, you will realize just how complicated it can be. We recommend to start your selection process by figuring out your vehicle type. If you have already done so, you can jump to the next recommended step, which is vehicle research. If you are not sure which vehicle type would suit you best, here is what you need to take into account to make a concrete decision.
Common Vehicle Types
The first step toward choosing the right vehicle type is knowing which vehicle types actually exist and what their characteristics are. Below are some of the most common vehicle types in North America.
NOTE: Motorcycles and commercial vehicles like vans, limousines and hearses are excluded from this list.
A sedan is a passenger vehicle with four passenger doors and five seating spaces across two rows. The rear seats are usually spacious enough to accommodate at least two adults or three small children. The cargo compartment, known as the trunk, is normally disconnected from the cabin and features a windowless lid. Sedans are the most common vehicle type on the market, which makes them the standard by which all vehicles are judged. These vehicles are best suited for single individuals, childless couples and regular-sized families.
A hatchback is a passenger vehicle with a rear door, called a hatch, which lifts up to allow access to a cargo compartment. Most hatchbacks offer five seating spaces across two rows and can have either two or four passenger doors, though some variants may have only one row. The cargo area is usually connected to the cabin, which allows the user to fold down the second seating row and create more cargo space in the process. The back row (if present) is usually spacious enough to accommodate at least two adults or three small children. As a result, these vehicles are perfectly suited for singles, couples and regular-sized families.
A coupe is a two-door passenger vehicle with a fixed roof. It is shorter than a sedan or hatchback and features either two or five seating spaces across one or two rows. Rear seats in coupes are usually not spacious enough for adults, which means that they are often reserved for light items. The cargo compartment is disconnected from the cabin and features a windowless lid – though some coupes offer a hatchback as an alternative. Coupes are perfectly suited for individuals and couples, but due to their small size, they are unfit for families.
A convertible is a passenger vehicle that comes with a retractable roof that allows the user to alternate between open-air and enclosed modes. In the past, retractable roofs used to consist of an articulated frame covered in a folding textile-based fabric. Today, many convertibles feature retractable hardtops that withdraw and stow themselves in the trunk. These vehicles usually come with two seats and emphasize sporting appearance. Like coupes, they are best suited for singles and couples since they are much shorter than sedans and hatchbacks.
5. Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs)
A sport utility vehicle, or SUV, is an automobile that puts a special emphasis on cabin space and cargo capacity. Depending on its size and configuration, an SUV can have four to eight seats across two or three rows. As is the case with hatchbacks, the cargo area is connected to the cabin and features a rear door that lifts up. Many SUVs can also handle rugged terrains thanks to all-wheel drive and have the towing capacity of a pickup truck. What separates these vehicles from hatchbacks and minivans is their bulky, truck-like appearance and high ground clearance.
It is worth noting that crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs, are often referred to as SUVs – and vice versa. This is because they look remarkably similar. However, instead of utilising the chassis of a truck, crossovers sit on a car’s platform, meaning that their body and frame are a single piece. As a result, SUVs are believed to be better at handling rough terrains and towing heavy loads, but since this is not always true, we lumped crossovers and SUVs into a single category.
Thanks to their size and capabilities, these vehicles are best suited for families or people who enjoy off-road trips.
A minivan is a small van that exists primarily for personal use. They often feature three seating rows, which means that they can house six to eight passengers, depending on the configuration. Access to the rear seating space usually involves one or two sliding doors, though out-swing variants exist as well. The cargo area is usually connected to the cabin and comes with a rear door that lifts up. Minivans ride higher than hatchbacks and station wagons, but lower than SUVs. These vehicles tend to be associated with comfort and size, which makes them perfect for families.
7. Station Wagons
A station wagon is a sedan with its roof extended rearward over the cabin and cargo area. This roof style allows the vehicle to fit in more cargo in the back. Just like hatchbacks, station wagons have a rear door for accessing the cargo compartment and two seating rows, with five seats in total. The second seating row can fold down, which allows owners to expand the existing cargo space when necessary. The back row is usually spacious enough to accommodate at least two adults or three small children. As a result, these vehicles are perfectly suited for singles, couples and regular-sized families.
8. Pickup Trucks
A pickup truck is a light vehicle that features an open-top rear cargo area, known as a bed, with low sides and a tailgate. The general purpose of a pickup is to transport goods, not people. As a result, regular cab pickups feature a single row of seats and two doors. However, most pickup trucks feature a front bench instead of chairs, which allows three people to sit at the front. Extended and crew cab pickups have two seating rows, though only crew cab versions have four doors. Bed sizes include standard, short and long. In general, pickups have a very limited appeal since they are best suited for people who need to transport and tow heavy materials on a regular basis.
Keep in mind that vehicle types do not indicate specific dimensions. Sedans, hatchbacks, SUVs and pickup trucks are particularly varied. Sedans usually retain the same amount of seats and doors regardless of their dimensions, while hatchbacks, SUVs and pickup trucks do not.
Typical vehicle sizes are subcompact, compact, midsize and full-size, but the terminology varies from one vehicle type to another, so it is almost impossible to nail them all down. When researching sizes, the best strategy is to count the amount of seats and then rely on vehicle reviews for more information. We provide more tips on how to research a vehicle here.
Your Personal Preferences and Needs
Now that you know a little about vehicle types and dimensions, you should be able to determine which ones would benefit your life the most. Here are the parameters you can use to make your choice:
1. Potential Passengers and Cargo
One of the most important parameters to consider when choosing a vehicle type is size.
First, you need to determine the amount of passengers you intend to transport. The best way to do so is by counting the number of seats. For instance, if you have a family of three, then you need a vehicle that has at least four seats, which may be a sedan, hatchback, SUV, station wagon or minivan.
The next step is determining how much cargo space you would need. This would likely depend on the size of your family. The more mouths you have to feed, the more space you need for groceries, toys and other items. Minivans, station wagons and SUVs are ideal because they strike a good balance between passenger space and cargo capacity. Hatchbacks and sedans are great too, but they tend to be a bit smaller as far as dimensions are concerned. Pickup trucks are in a realm of their own, because their main purpose is to transport cargo. Four-seat variants can theoretically function as family vehicles, but they cannot surpass dedicated family automobiles like minivans or SUVs, when it comes to overall comfort.
Once you know how much space you need, it is time to take a look at your lifestyle and how a car would fit into it. This means understanding where you live and where you plan to drive.
For instance, if you need a family vehicle, but you live in a heavily-populated urban area where you plan to drive the most, then a hatchback or sedan would probably serve you best. These vehicles are attractive and roomy, while being relatively easy to maneuver in congested streets and park in tight spaces. On the other hand, if you and your family occupy a sparsely-populated suburb, then a station wagon or a compact SUV might serve you better – because your location can handle their slightly bigger size. Alternatively, if you and your family live in the middle of a city, but you do most of your driving alone on highways, then something sturdy, like an SUV or a pickup truck, might do better.
3. Driving Style
Driving style matters almost as much as lifestyle. If you are looking strictly for a driver-focused experience, then a coupe or a convertible are likely to satisfy you the most as they tend to prioritize performance, handling and speed. If you are looking for something that caters to drivers, but can also fit a family, then you should consider a sedan or a hatchback. Larger vehicles are usually more difficult to control, so unless you really need a full-size SUV with three seating rows, you should probably stick to a compact or midsize vehicle.
4. Aesthetic Preferences
Aesthetic preferences matter too, because they can easily sway your opinion one way or the other. For instance, sedans and hatchbacks often tend to be similar in length and cabin dimensions, but you may determine that sedans are more attractive and thus pick a sedan.
How to Make the Actual Choice
The final step is to connect all the dots. Write down your size preferences, location and driving style and then list all the vehicle types that fit your criteria. If you have more than one type listed, then use your aesthetic preferences to make the final choice.
What to Do Next
Once you pick your vehicle type, the next step is to begin your vehicle research.