10 Tips on how to scoop a good deal on a used car.

With the economic downturn of the past few years, more and more people are looking to purchase a used car. This can be wonderful, and save you a boat load of cash if you follow a few key tips. Otherwise, you could end up paying more in repair bills than a monthly car payment. I have personally turned this into a little game where I take $1,000 or less, and try and find the most interesting/best European car I can find from internet sale ads. These tips can be applied to any sort of used car, but they are especially helpful when buying a low-priced used car. Now sit back, relax, and check out my tips on how to score an ultra-sweet used car that can impress your friends. It may even work to get you a chance with ladies out of your league! (if you play your cards right) Eastwood and I do not assume any liability for you failing to pull hotter chicks with your recent $500 clunker purchase!

The first thing to look at is how the ad for the car is written. There can be good and bad things that will “red flag” an ad for me. I’ve had luck with 2 types of ads. The first ad is the “mysterious used car”. This ad is going to be extremely short, with very little information, and normally no pictures.. as if the person was too uninterested, or too busy to write up a full story about the car. These types of cars are great, but they require a bit of trial and error. Luckily, many of your lazy buyers won’t even take the time to call. I’ve scored some of my best deals from ads that were written as such “Audi for sale. silver. runs good. $500 call Bob 456-787-3***”. If you are lucky the seller views their car as a hassle and doesn’t even want to spend the time to go into detail about it, or better yet; is someone who isn’t computer savvy, and they just want people to call and talk, rather than emailing. Also, IT’S ALWAYS BETTER TO CALL. Someone that calls and makes a connection with the seller will normally beat out the anonymous “buyer” that emailed, and asked a bunch of  questions. The bad side of this sort of ad, is that someone is purposely leaving no information so that you have to come look at the car, and they are hoping you will miss the flaws that is forcing them to sell it cheap. Again, calling is always better. If you ask a number of specific questions about the car (pretend you are Columbo), you can often get hints that they are purposely leaving things out in the ad… “Oh well yea, I mean it shifts fine normally.. but this one time when my wife was driving it she said the transmission felt funny and it wouldnt go up a hill.. but it always shifted good for me”.

The next sort of ad is the lengthy over-detailed ad with tons of pictures. These ads can be great and save you a bunch of time on the phone with a seller. I’ve found often times these sorts of cars were well loved, and the owner has an attachment to the car. They want to tell you every little scratch, dent, or bit of maintenance the car has had for them… even on a $500 car! This also gives you an idea of what the car needs, and if it is even worth the money to get the car. I usually make a list of the faults with the vehicle, then tally up what it would cost for me to fix the problems before I could put the vehicle to use. This can quickly rule out the great price, save me a phone call, and time. These types of ads also can point to a meticulous owner. If the grammar, spelling, and punctuation are all fairly decent, and they mention something about their current/new car being something quite nice,  you may be looking at a wealthy professional. One that just wants a “newer, nicer” car to keep up with the “Jones”, or just doesn’t believe in owning a car older than 5 years. The negatives to these ads are that sometimes sellers can “hide” major defects about the car in their lengthy ad. They do this hoping (as most people do), that the buyer will skim the ad, and miss the “oh btw it needs an engine” statement hidden within all of the great points about the car. This way they can just refer to the ad anytime you ask a question. “Any issues are covered in the ad.” They may hope you will overlook these issues when purchasing the vehicle. As mentioned earlier, use your Columbo tactics!

So you’ve found a car that seems to be just what you are looking for, and you go to look at it. Here are 10 tips on what to do (or what not to) when you go to view the vehicle.

1. Unless you absolutely have to, or you feel very confident about the vehicle NEVER go look at a cheap/used car in the dark! I’ve been burned this way. I got overly excited and bought it on the spot at night. Then the next morning I walked out, and their was some sort of major issue that I happened to miss when looking at it in the alley, in the city, at 11PM. You will almost always overlook something when viewing a car this way.

2. Check out the owner as you first meet them. No matter what your grade school teacher told you, sometimes looks ARE everything. Are they well groomed, or do they look like they are in shambles? Are the other cars in their driveway nice/well maintained? How does their house look? Lots of “junk” laying around, or is it a nice well-maintained house? The guy with the Armani dress shoes and living in a fancy development probably isn’t hurting for money, and is usually willing to negotiate the asking price of their old unwanted car. I mean.. if he spent hundreds on his dress shoes and a large amount on their house, what’s a few hundred off of his old “outdated” car? Not only that, but the person that is well put-together, and has a long meticulous sale ad,  is selling a car that is the same. They wouldn’t drive a clunker around that would embarrass them when pulling into the office would they? On the other hand, a person that looks like they are a “mess”, normally wouldn’t have the spare cash to maintain their car regularly. Sometimes with “fixer-uppers” this can be great, they might not be able to afford a part that is an easy-fix, but necessary to drive the vehicle. So you can buy the car, repair the car “on the cheap”, and have a decent car for little money (This isn’t always true, but my experiences have normally been this way). The same goes in this tip, for the car itself. I always figure that the car is cleaner when for sale, than on a daily basis. So if the car has junk inside of it, and they didn’t even take the time to give it a quick wash.. they probably wouldn’t have done regular mechanical maintenance, or cared for it on a “normal day”. On the flip side… tread lightly when looking at an over-detailed “cheap” car. If it has an engine bay that is all shiny like they sprayed tire dressing all over it.. run far-far away. Oldest trick in the book!

3. The next few tips are more of  “why shouldn’t I buy”.  When inside the vehicle, check for any sort of wet carpets, signs of mold or dampness, fogging INSIDE the windows from condensation, or a musty smell. This means this car probably leaks water. Water leads to mold, corrosion, and rust. So unless this is a rare or special car that you want to restore, run away. Speaking of rust, be sure to check all suspension mounting points, and the floors of the car for any signs of rust. Visible rust is just the TIP of the iceberg. Use that as a rule of thumb when deciding on a car with any sort of visible rust!

4. Not only drive the car, but let it sit and run at idle for a nice LONG period of time, checking the coolant temperature gauge periodically. Does the seller seem to be anxious to shut it off? Do the radiator fans cycle on and off? Are there any signs of coolant residue or coolant spray around the coolant fill cap? This means the car got hot, and possibly was overheating or over-pressurizing the cooling system. This could be a simple fix, but often times with these cheap cars, it means there is a head gasket issue (expensive fix!). Also look for any signs of silver/grey “chunks” floating around in the coolant when you pull the coolant cap. If there is, start questioning if they ever used any of the radiator-fix or headgasket-fix products. This stuff does more harm than help, and leads to clogged cooling system parts, requiring replacement of everything that has coolant flowing through it.

5. When driving the car, does it smoke at all after it has warmed up? Depending on the car (and the price/your standards), some smoke can be expected. With me, I purchase mostly 15-30 year old European cars with higher miles. These cars are notorious for some sort of oil burnage, so I try to find a middle ground with whats acceptable. White sweet smelling exhaust after the vehicle has warmed up often means the car is burning coolant and needs a headgasket. If there is blue smoke that is noticeable when idling, decelerating, or under heavy load, this means the car is burning excessive motor oil. Again, with higher mileage cars, you may see a little bit of this… but if you are smoking-out the guy behind you on the test drive or a cloud is forming behind the car when it is idling… the engine may need an overhaul. Large oil consumption is the result of this, as well as damage to the catalytic converter and emissions related parts from the excessive oil being pushed through the system. This will make the car fail most emission tests. Does it puff black/dark gray smoke? It could be running a bit “rich” or using excessive fuel. This is something to really keep an eye out for on older cars that may be equipped with a carburetor that needs a rebuild, or is tuned improperly. If the car is equipped with a more modern fuel injection system, this could be a bad coolant temperature sensor, O2 sensor, or bad MAF. These could cause rough running, but can be cheap/easy fixes for the mechanically inclined. I’ve scooped a few cheap cars that I bought a $25 coolant temperature sensor, replaced it and was on my way. It definitely helps to know that particular type of car to diagnose the common causes of the above issues. I often do a search about the type of car I am going to look at on the internet before I go to see it. See what people are complaining about, or common things that go wrong with that car/engine. This can point you in the right direction if you see an issue once there. Basically, do your homework!

6. Has the car been modified? If so, was the work questionable? Any car that has been modified, I tend to shy away from if it is on the cheap side. These cars usually have been fiddled with by inexperienced owners, and have far too many “Mickey Mouse” repairs that can lead to headaches. The first signs of a car like this is aftermarket wheels, exhaust, a subwoofer/amp/after market upgraded sound system.  These cars most commonly have wiring issues, and show that the owner is at least confident enough to attempt their own repairs.. so if they are selling the car for cheap.. there must be an issue that is more than your average Joe-Schmo mechanic can handle. Or worse, they tried to fix it, and failed horribly, or made it worse. These types of cars you want to look for the “quick fixes” like the radiator or head gasket fix residue, twisted together wiring for stereo, headlights, etc. So unless this is a hard to find car or something special that you don’t mind undoing modifications.. I’d look elsewhere.

7. Look for signs of paint over spray on any plastic trim parts, under hood, or on any suspension bits. If the car has been repainted, make sure you take notice if the car tracks straight when driving down the road. Does it shake or vibrate when driving? If so, this car may have been in an accident. Make sure this isn’t something that can be an issue  for you down the line. Keep in mind that badly repainted cars, regardless if they were in an accident, reduce the value of a car. Also check under the hood, and in the door jams to see if there are any paint lines, different shades of paint, or peeling of paint. Most all cheap paint jobs are exterior resprays only, and the original finish is easy to tell apart from the lack-luster paint job.

8. Make sure you ask if the title for the vehicle is clear, AND in the seller’s name. Often times inconsiderate sellers will leave that detail out of their ad, and unless you ask, or they are forced to mention it, they won’t bring it up. So once again, unless the car is a collectors car, or a rarity, run far away from cars with salvage titles, or any title issues at all. Also before actually paying for the car, or transferring the title, walk out to the car and hold the title next to the VIN plates on the car. Does the VIN on the car match all of the visible VIN’s on the car itself? If not, run away! That situation really can’t turn out well for anyone involved, so I highly suggest stepping away. If it’s in the budget, always try and do a CarFax on the history of the car. Sometimes the seller doesn’t even know the full story on their own car.

9. Is the car in the city, a suburb, or country type setting? 100% of the time a car that is owned by a city resident will be in much worse shape than other locations. Aside from the obvious body issues that occur from city driving and parking, these cars often get overlooked for maintenance. Many city drivers just want to get to work and home to get their parking space for the night. I usually expect to negotiate hard on the price of a used “city” car. I’ve had great luck with getting deals on “city cars”. Cities are generally not too forgiving of cars sitting on the streets that are out of inspection or registration. So if someone has a car that is about to run out of inspection or registration, and they can’t afford the repairs, or have a new car, they may be willing to negotiate heavily on the price. There is a fine line with buying cars that are out of inspection (or about to run out), as the repairs that the car needs could outweigh the initial purchase price of the car.

10. ALWAYS bring cash, negotiating the price of a used car can be facilitated by the ability to wave cash in the seller’s face. Most sellers rarely take a personal check for a vehicle, and they want it gone ASAP. Bringing a check, or promising to come get it at a later date isn’t going to make them excited to drop the price of the vehicle very much. I like to make a decision on a price I’d like to pay just based off of the ad for the vehicle. Then when looking at the car, I drop that price as I find any items that weren’t mentioned in the ad. I also vary my offer depending on the  service history supplied. You then offer a price that is slightly under your target price, and begin negotiations there. Remember to mention that you have “cold hard” cash in your pocket. Don’t forget to get a bill of sale signed by the seller once you commit to purchase. You can use the bill of sale for reference if there are any issues in the future, or when you want to determine a resale value for the car at a later time.

I hope some of these tips can help when purchasing a used car in the future. These tips can all be stretched a little bit depending on the car, your mechanical ability/willingness to repair things, and the price range of the car. I wouldn’t touch a $5,000 car that burned  oil vs. a $300 car that I was buying to restore. Keep your eyes peeled on the net, and you might score a little gem for a nice price!


  1. Thanks for the post. I agree, I believe that people are buying used cars. You provide some great tip to help buyers make a good decision. Thanks for posting! 🙂

  2. What is the best source for locating a good used car (used car lot, newspaper, email, friends)?

  3. Great reminder. I’ll keep a copy of this article in my folder of blank bills of sale. I’ll refer to it each time go to look at another car. I have been driving cars for over 55 years and I learned all this but having a reminder list handy will help me. I can’t thank you enough.

  4. A bent frame is hard to detect unless taken to an alignment shop. A quick easy test. Spray a stretch about 10′ long and a lane wide with a hose. Then drive the car straight through the water and stop a few feet past the water. Then go look at the tire tracks. If the fronts and backs aren’t in the same track, most likely the frame is bent.

  5. Take a refrigerator magnet with you to check for bondo. Place one end of the magnet on the body surface and pull across suspected problem areas.The magnet will have a slight drag over metal, but will move freely over body filler, letting you see through the paint to find rust repair or filler below.

  6. Great article! I love buying and selling vehicles and have had very good luck and use all or 95% of your tips. There are so many things to look at and ways to negotiate the deal. I will only add one thing and Im certain you do this as well .. but for those starting or those that “didn’t even think of that” When taking your hard earned cash to strengthen your buying power on the spot, its nice to do so in a safe neutral place and even then a friend with you never hurts. Im a fireman, so a good spot that everyone seems to be good with is a firehouse. Of course it takes away the ability to see where the vehicle sits all or most of the time and see if it looks to be leaking or is parked inside or out and if the place is trashed. I get the address and do a drive by sometimes .. if it looks good I’ll do the deal there if not, Im probably not to interested. Anyway, thought I would just say thanks and ad a little along the way.

  7. All of the above! Word of mouth has always worked well for me. Casual conversation with friends, neighbors, and co-workers has turned up many cars for me!

  8. An add-on to the refrigerator magnet test: use one of those thin plastic magnets that businesses often send you in the mail as advertisements. Often they are weak, so if the Bondo is very thick the magnet won’t stick.

  9. Article worked again. Bought a 97 Mustang in great shape with plenty of new parts. The guy was fixing it up for his wife and she found a Dodge R/T she wanted instead. They had an extra car so they put it up for sale just trying to get the investment in new parts out of the car. It had a starter problem but it turned out to be the bolt that held the ground cable to the block came loose and the wire was arcing to the bolt. 50 ft-lbs solved that problem. They wanted it gone ASAP and I almost didn’t get it on the trailer when I shut it off and had to restart it. Good thing it was warm.
    The Mustang was rebuilt by her father before marriage. He spared no money buying the interior. Even had a carpet dash cover to protect the dash and the seller took it off to show the dash wasn’t cracked; Great sellers. Lovely Couple. New tires, Rims, calipers, and shoes. That guy really loved that wife. Tried the refrigerator magnet trick and there was no bondo even in the pockets behind the front wheels.

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