After I wrote about the benefits of buying a used car last week, several readers wrote to me, all asking essentially the same question: How does one find the best used cars? The good news is that finding and buying a nice used car is much easier than it used to be, thanks to the Internet and the prevalence of leasing. The bad news ... Well, there isn't any bad news, really, except to say that shady sellers and lemons have always been part of the used car market, and while it's easier than ever to avoid them, they're still out there. As with any big-ticket transaction, keep your eyes open and don't let your excitement lure you into doing something you'll regret.
OK, now that I've made the obligatory disclaimer, here are some suggestions for your next used-car hunt. For purposes of this article, I'm presuming that you're looking for something fairly new, maybe three years old at most, and that you plan to keep it for several years. Your approach will vary somewhat, depending on how specific your needs are (are you looking for "a small dependable car for commuting" or "a red Toyota Prius with a nav system," for instance?), but the steps will be similar.
Create a list of candidates
If you don't already know exactly what you want, it's time to get familiar with the options. Think about your needs. Hauling kids? Long commute? Nice interior to impress clients? Need to manage a steep snowy driveway? Then start to put together a shopping list. My favorite way to do this is to spend some time with Consumer Reports' most recent Annual Auto Issue (your library will have it). Narrow down your needs to one or two categories of vehicle (like "Small SUVs" or "Large sedans") and look at CR's favorites. Take their advice into consideration, but don't consider it Holy Writ. Like any other organization, they have a viewpoint, some favorites, and specific priorities, and their opinions might not completely line up with yours.
For what it's worth, I personally feel that CR overpenalizes cars that aren't in the top reliability categories, given that all but the very worst cars made today are still more reliable than the best performers from 10 or 15 years ago, but your mileage may vary. But do take at least a few minutes to look beyond the usual high-rated favorites from Toyota
Once you've got three or four promising, affordable candidates, it's time for the next step.
Try some on for size
Next, find some examples of each model for sale in the area by looking through your local newspaper and the listings on Cars.com and AutoTrader.com. At this stage, color and features and mileage don't matter as much -- you're not looking for your ideal car yet; you're just trying on some samples for general fit. Do try to find cars of approximately the right age, though, and with the major options (engine, transmission, etc.) you've targeted. Cars are redesigned every three to five years, on average, and while a car a year or two older or newer than the one on your list might be essentially identical, it might also be very different. The goal here is to see which of the cars on your list will work well for you in real life.
Pay attention as you sit in it. Can you get comfortable? Can you see out of it easily, in all directions? Does the layout of the car's controls work for you? Did you enjoy driving it? Did anything about the car annoy you? If your spouse or partner will be driving the car regularly -- or spending lots of time in the passenger seat -- bring them along and ask them to make the same judgments. But remember, you're not buying today. You're just trying on for fit.
By now, you should have one or two, maybe three at most, models on your list. In Part 2, we'll look at finding the best cars for your money, warranty considerations, and closing the deal.
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