How to avoid buying the wrong used car

Buying a used car has a lot of advantages—it saves you from the dreaded new car depreciation that hits most cars as soon as you drive off the lot, and it generally makes the car you want a lot more affordable than if you bought it new. It also means that the car you’re buying may not have much or any of the manufacturer’s warranty remaining.

Being out of warranty isn’t that big of a deal, in many cases. As we mentioned in our recent article about the most reliable used cars, there are some that aren’t likely to ever cost you more than regular maintenance. But there are others whose reputations are far more checkered. 

More expensive cars often have more expensive problems

It’s not always the case, but usually (as you’d imagine) cars that cost more to start with tend to cost more to maintain and repair.

More complex engines, electronics, and other components can mean more things to go wrong. And when they do, the replacement parts cost more, and often the maintenance does, too. Whereas a simpler car is easier to fix (you might be able to repair some problems yourself), and parts are often relatively inexpensive. 

Be careful of expensive cars that are surprisingly inexpensive to buy used

Sometimes they’re the cool cars—the ones that are especially tempting because they’re really desirable. Maybe they’re really expensive when they’re new, but quite affordable on the used market. Be especially wary of that; often, the reason for that surprising affordability is that they’re extremely expensive to maintain (especially once they’re out of warranty).

For example, a 4-year-old Range Rover that went for $100k new can often be found for sale in the low $40k range. That’s because it’s out of warranty, and the marque’s reliability history suggest it’s more likely than many other cars to require costly repairs. 

It’s a Ferrari, and it’s a steal! Or is it…?

Sometimes the least practical cars are the most tempting 

Of course, just because a car is pricey to maintain or could have catastrophically expensive problems doesn’t mean that no one should ever buy it. Some of the coolest exotic cars—like a Ferrari 348—were unobtanium-expensive when they were new. But now, 25 years later, you can pick up a nice example of a 348 for as low as the mid $40k range. Which sounds like a pretty good entry point into a car that still turns heads every time, and has that iconic Ferrari style and sound.

But… major services on these requires taking the engine out. So they typically start at $8k-10k. Parts can be hard to find, and if something major goes wrong—which isn’t uncommon in any 25+ year-old car—you could be looking at tens of thousands of dollars to repair it. So if you’re prepared for the potential risks of high repair costs, and can afford it, maybe a 348 is the car for you. Just be sure to know everything you’re getting into as far as potential costs—whether it’s an older Ferrari, a Range Rover, or an O.J.-era Bronco.

Here are the rules for buying a used car the right way:

  1. Do your research.

Know what the upcoming major service intervals are for the car you’re buying, and what they entail.

  1. Know the car’s history. 

If you find ‘the one’, and it’s out of warranty, be sure to get a Carfax and complete service history.

  1. Get a pre-purchase inspection. 

If a car is out of warranty, this is the best way to minimize the risk of unpleasant and expensive surprises.

One of the best ways to protect yourself is with a pre-purchase inspection.
  1. Consider an extended warranty.

With some cars, you may have the option to buy an extended warranty. It can be a great way to get peace of mind, knowing you’ll be protected from unexpected repair costs.

Buying a used car is a very smart move—but you have to do your diligence. As long as you get all the information you need to be sure you’re getting a well-maintained car with no damage or repeated mechanical problems in its history, you’ll likely have a lot of happy and uneventful years with your car.

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