Let’s say that a used car at your local dealership caught your eye as you were driving by…and let’s say that the deal on this car is just too good to pass up. The price, the features, the color, etc. is exactly what you’ve always wanted. The car seems perfect.
Or is it? Here’s a step-by-step guide that will explain how to research any used car you find using your web-enabled smartphone.
Step 1 – Look up the car on CarComplaints.com. An incredible and completely free resource, CarComplaints.com will give you some ideas about a vehicle’s problems. Take a minute to check the specific year of the car you’re looking at as well as the year before and the year after, (i.e., if you’re looking at a 2009, check the records for a 2008 and a 2010).
While the data you find on CarComplaints isn’t exhaustive, it’s a good place to find out about major problems a used car might have now as well as give you some ideas about potential issues you might face down the road.
Step 2 – Check the vehicle’s price on KBB.com. KBB.com is one of the better online tools for determining the value of a used car. Be careful to specify features as best you can, and make sure you understand what “retail” condition really means when you find out the car’s retail value.
Next, compare the retail price against the price of the car on the lot. If you find that the asking price is 10% higher than the value on KBB, you’ll probably need a discount before you buy anything. On the other hand, if the asking price is 10% lower than the value on KBB, you need to be very suspicious. Any price that is “too good to be true” often is too good to be true.
Step 3 – Find a similar vehicle on AutoTrader.com. Now that you know what KBB.com says the car is worth, you can determine if perhaps KBB.com is too high or too low by checking similar vehicles on AutoTrader.com. Search for the same year, make, and model, and expand your search to include vehicles a few hundred miles away (you’re looking for comparable vehicles, not cars you’d actually want to buy). The goal is to find a few similar cars with the same basic features and mileage, and then to see if the asking price on these cars jives with the asking price and the value given by KBB.com.
Step 4 – Visit AutoCheck.com and punch in the vehicle’s VIN number. AutoCheck is very similar to CarFax, but in my opinion it’s more accurate than CarFax as well as a better value.
When you’re reviewing your AutoCheck report (and you’re probably going to want to pay for that report), look for records that indicate the vehicle was a lemon (aka manufacturer buy-back), has been in an accident, or – most importantly – has a salvage title. This is the second-to-last step on the list, as there’s no reason to buy an AutoCheck report until you’ve made sure the car is priced fairly and doesn’t have any well-known problems.
Step 5 – Use Yelp.com to find a quality independent repair shop to inspect the car. Unless you’re looking at a late-model used car that is a) still under the manufacturer’s bumper-to-bumper warranty and b) also offered with a certified used warranty, I would strongly recommend you get any used car you’re considering inspected. Most shops will be happy to look over a car for you for $75-$150 and give you a list of any work the car may need.
This used car inspection can help you keep from buying a lemon while also giving you some information you can use to negotiate the price with the selling dealer. Personally, I like to use Yelp.com to find reputable local businesses, but obviously there are other local review websites available.
Presuming you’re fast with a smartphone, you’ll be able to complete all five steps listed in about 5 minutes. If the vehicle you’re looking at “fails” any of the steps – i.e. the autocheck report comes back very negative, or the asking price is sky-high compared to the stated value on KBB, than you can feel good about walking away from the deal.
Otherwise, negotiate as hard as you can and good luck!
Guest author Chris Riley is the founder of GearHeads.org, an automotive blog focused on industry news and car rumors. Follow GearHeads.org on Twitter – @GearHeadNews