Know your limit.
I'm talking financially and, in a way, logically. What I mean is "I have $5000 to buy this compact sedan so I save money, drive my small family and can park in the city much...oooooo look a mustang!" isn't logical and beyond what you need (no matter what your inner child says).
The most important thing I do and I've bought/sold a total of 20 used cars in as many years without ever having bought a lemon is:
- Research the model to death (sometimes to a fault) to understand what model I want, known weak points, typical repair and cost intervals and price points. I use fan/blogs for that model vehicle when possible.P
If buying person to person instead of through a dealership, check enthusiast forums before Craigslist. First when dealing with an individual your more likely to be able to get a better deal depending on the persons situation but with a little chat and some friendly conversation the bartering process is more likely to come out better than if dealing with a used car salesman and on top of that forum users are more apt to give deals to other users. Plus if you go through a forum like Naxja or AlfaBB (you can tell what cars I'm looking for) you can get a lot of feedback from guys posting about the car that might know more than you, or if it is long distance forum users are often open to checking out a car for you and you'll be getting an honest opinion back. Also you can look back to the users history to see potential issues, build threads or you can more honestly see if the car has been raced or beaten on. Finally in a forum environment all the info that you might need about the car is only a few clicks away.
You likely won't be able to do a pre-vehicle inspection with your mechanic, but you will have a good opportunity to save a lot of money. You may have some gremlins to deal with, but overall you'll probably come out on top.
My Dad has done this on his last 3 Volvo's and despite the mechanical issues he ran into with 2 out of 3 of them, he was thousands ahead of the curve compared to what e-bay or dealerships wanted for the same make, model, and year.
Just because a car is "certified" it honestly doesn't mean all that much. Do you realize that all a certification is for most dealerships is a cheap $350-$450 powertrain warranty that's backed by the factory?
There's only a couple of companies out there that have a VERY extensive certification process that means something. That's Honda, Merc, and Toyota.
Most dealerships use the same checklist for their used vehicles whether they certify them or not. Those 3 go completely OCD on the process and typically by the time you're done on the Honda and Toyota you've gone and made a new vehicle out of a used car after spending $2k-$3k. Don't get me started with Merc.
Don't fall into the Certified Program Car Bullshit trap.
Program Car - is just another fancy name for "off lease" or 90% of the time "previous rental" - That's where almost every single one of these cars comes from. Which sounds more attractive to you? "Program Car" or "Previous Rental Car"? Think about your last rental... Think about how you treated it. Keep in mind that you're one of hundreds of asses that sat in that seat and flogged the hell out of that turd. The argument you'll get from the dealer is usually that "these cars are well maintained because they have to be on the road being rented to make revenue for the company" In actuality it's bullshit. These cars go thousands of miles over on services, mainly oil and filter etc because they are being re-rented as fast as then come in.
Something to look for is a car that was purchased at the dealership where it was originally sold. This means a few things.
1. The customer had a good experience the first time they purchased, good enough that they would come back and do it again.
2. The service records may be available on the vehicle. Contrary to popular belief dealerships do not share service records with each other. The customer might keep them and if they did, that's typically the only way you'll know if the vehicle was taken care of. If the customer returned to the dealer they usually also use them for service.
3. The dealership knows the customer and can answer more detailed questions about the vehicle and how it was used.
Don't buy on an impulse. Buying on an impulse leads you to decide that you're going to buy the vehicle before you've looked at it, and that makes you do things like inspect the vehicle in the dark and/or in the rain, where you're not going to look at or see certain things. Two of my more recent used car purchases were made when I was in that mindset (I really want this car) and in these conditions (raining, at night).
My Rabbit pickup and Volvo 240 wagon purchases ended in tears because of major rust issues I missed because the conditions weren't favorable for a thorough inspection and that my impulse to buy overcame my common sense.
I don't know how other dealerships do it, but we put the Carfax and the shop receipts in the car so the customer can see them as soon as they get in to look at it. Not only does it give the customer peace of mind, but it also lets them know what we've put into the car as far as repairs, maintenance, detail, and reconditioning goes. We also often allow extended test drives and have no problem with customers taking the car to their own mechanic during a test drive.
We'd rather lose an hour of a day and have a happy customer than save an hour and spend the next year fielding complaints.
If you're buying privately, inspect the owner.
Not in a creepy way though.
Is the owner trustworthy? Would they sell you a car without telling you about all the bad stuff or telling you straight when you ask about something bad?
Is the owner one to neglect maintenance?
Is the owner eager to sell the car or not willing to sell it at all?
Sometimes learning about the owner can tell you a lot about the car. I've gotten several fun projects for very cheap simply because the owner didn't know what they had or they didn't fix the small things. (I bought a V8 MN12 Thunderbird for $650 and sold it for $1500 after doing some repairs.)
Never finance unless it's at 0%. Seriously, this one should be a no brainer. Don't spend more money on financing. Your bank or lending center will likely have a better rate.
Be willing to walk away. Prepare ahead of time and don't let your emotions get you in over your head.