Generally speaking, there are three ways to buy a used car. But before we get to them, what is common with all methods is, you want to know as much about the car as you can before the purchase, because in California there is no legal ‘cooling off period’. Once you buy it, it’s your’s, and there is no turning back no matter how bad the deal might later turn out to be!

Your first defense is a Carfax report. Since you are shopping for a car you might need more than one report, I would recommend getting the ‘unlimited’ 30 day package for $50, verses one car for $35.

Then, always also have it checked by an independent mechanic since accidents and other damages are not always reported to Carfax and it’s the only way to verify if it’s truly been pampered or not.

If the seller won’t either let you take it to a shop for inspection (or take it to your chosen shop themselves) don’t buy it!

Brand Named New Car Dealers

Dealerships are probably the lowest value for your used car dollar. They are of course selling cars that have been traded in. They have a very important reputation to uphold so they will check their trade-ins extremely thoroughly and sell only the very, very best of the selection. The rest get sent to wholesale distributors, typically auction sites. The upside is they are usually very good cars, often with limited warranties. The down side is they are usually cost far more than what you would pay for the exact same car being sold by a private-party.

Non Branded Used Car Dealers

You have to be very careful here as they are typically selling the cars that were sent to auction from the new car dealers. In other words, they were already pre-screened and rejected by someone as not worth the risk of resale. We find we typically reject 80-85% of these cars before even completing our inspections. Add to that they are also significantly higher than the private party pricing. Their advantage is they usually offer in-house financing options and often even have options for those with bad or no credit histories. It all comes at a price of course.

The one exception to this seems to be Carmax. I haven’t figured out how they do it yet, but they somehow get the best of the best of all the used car market. I’ve inspected many of their cars and have yet to find any flaws that were serious enough to be a deal breaker. Plus, you can go to their website and if they have a car you’d like somewhere else in SoCal, they will ship it down to San Diego so you can see and test drive it for free! Carmax is also one of the few companies that can offer an option to return the car within a few days if you find you don’t like it after all.

Private party

Private party purchases are generally always the best deal financially. It takes more leg work on your part, but it’s usually worth it. Following are some tips to help you though the process.

  • When you first call, get the License Plate Number and the Vehicle Identification Number so you can run a Carfax report before driving to see it.
  • Ask the seller about service history records. The best car owners have files they’ve kept with every receipt for every service that was ever done. This is the kind of owner you wish to buy from, they are meticulous in their personal lives, so they are meticulous about their car care too.
  • When you go to see the car, pay attention to the details of their house, their clothes and their yard. Again, well maintained examples here are an excellent guide for the historic care of the car.
  • Look the car over, again with an eye for overall meticulous care. No broken radio knobs, floor mats clean, not worn though, no torn upholstery, no general filth on the steering wheel/dash, armrests etc., we all know the type. I have customers with cars with 250k miles on them that look like new. They are always clean, if something breaks, it drives the owner crazy until they fix it. They change their oil every 3k miles religiously. You want to buy a car from this person!
  • We all also know the person who never notices their ashtray never closes, or the shift knob is held on with duct tape, the right rear window doesn’t work, or the antenna was broken years ago and now has a coat-hanger in it. It’s not that any of these items is a real deal breaker, but it’s a huge indicator if they changed the oil regularly, tuned it when needed, or maybe always did repairs with the very cheapest options they could find. They were not careful with the care of their car, you don’t want this car!
  • The Internet is the best way to search for the cars. Craigslist is good, but difficult to navigate as every new car that gets listed pushes all the others further down the list. Plus, it’s free for people to list their cars so I think there is some slight tilt here towards people that might be excessively ‘thrifty’, not necessarily an ideal trait for someone you wish to buy a car from…
  • I think is the best source. You have much more defined search options, more pictures, and generally better information is provided. I also recommend you spread your search area out to a 100-150 miles. This way you encompass Temecula, Riverside, El Centro etc., all areas that have lower prices generally due to lower costs of living. Here it becomes more important of course that you pre-screen, to find that meticulous owner, so you don’t waste a trip. But the rewards of buying at a distance can be high for the right car!
  • If you do locate a private party sale out of the area that you feel good about, take a friend with you, buy them lunch and enjoy an hour or two in the car together! If the car checks out to you, take it to a local shop for that all-important pre purchase inspection. They should need to spend at least an hour with it, maybe more, and the cost could be anywhere from $70 to $150 depending on their thoroughness and labor rates. Do a local Yelp search to find a shop, or call the local NAPA Auto Parts and ask them for a local referral, they will know who can be trusted.

Good luck!

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