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Advice for Buying a Used Car in California

Thinking about buying a used car? With so many things to consider, it can be confusing to know what to look for or where to start. We’ve put together our best advice for buying a used car in California, so that you’re getting the best deal and a car that you’ll actually love. (Don’t worry new car buyers, we take care of you, too!)

Check for important documents

Always plan to get a vehicle history report. This is great as a first step – it immediately lets you know whether or not you’re chasing a dead end. Carfax is a go-to resource for checking a VHR – all you need is the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN). In some cases, just the license plate will do.

Driving a car
Driving a car

Test drive the car

This is one of the most important steps in buying a used car. Look for any lights that come on, check your visibility, and be aware of any weird smells. Some other things to evaluate:

  • Tires: How old are they? Are they even? What does the tread look like? Check the condition of the spare tire, too.
  • Brakes: Are they making any weird noises? Do they feel smooth?
  • Is there anything leaking or steaming? 
  • Does the AC actually work? 
  • Do your lights all work? 
  • Do the doors, windows and lids open and close properly? 
  • How does the engine sound when turned on?

As you’re driving, be sensitive to what you feel, smell and hear. Drive over rough roads, and be on alert for odd noises or vibrations. Stop and start the car at varying speeds. Turn the car at varying speeds.  

Know which scams to look out for

Car scams are easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. Here’s a list of 10 common used car scams to be aware of. 

Get the car inspected by a mechanic

If possible, get someone to inspect the car before you buy it. Preferably, make sure it’s a mechanic that you trust. If you’re buying from a dealership and they won’t let you take the car to a tech, you can find a mobile diagnostic service that will come to you for the inspection. CPO cars should already have an inspection and warranty in place.

Know your pricing options

Prices will vary depending on where you shop. Private-seller cars will usually cost the least, while Certified Pre-Owned vehicles (CPO) will cost the most. This is because CPO vehicles have long-term warranties that are backed by the carmakers, not just the dealership. If you decide to buy a CPO vehicle, you will only be able to do so at a franchised dealership. 

Private or dealership?

There are pros and cons of buying from a private party or going with a dealership. If you choose to buy from a private party, you may get a better bargain. However, there won’t be any warranties, and it may be harder to get a refund. 

If you decide to buy from a dealership, you may be shelling out more. However, dealers are generally required by law to guarantee a car for a short period, which gives you a safety net in case something goes wrong with the car. Additionally, dealers may be able to help with insurance, taxes and registration.

It’s all about what makes most sense for your budget and time. 

Signing a contract
Signing a contract

Tips for buying from a dealer

Before you even step into a dealership, you should know the market price of the car. When bidding, start below market price, and work up. Don’t be fooled by sales or deals that boast a few thousand dollars off from the sticker price. You should also have a maximum price in mind. This allows you to walk away, and may also help in negotiating a lower price from the salesperson, because it shows that you’re not easily swayed.

The LA Times recommends staying away from discussing monthly payments with a dealer. This is because dealers may trick customers into paying more than they’re aware of. Instead, remain focused on the total price of the car. 

A good rule of thumb is to separate your negotiations out instead of talking about everything at once. For example, you may want to structure your conversation first around price, then financing, then extras (like warranties), and finally the value of a trade-in (if applicable). 

Always remember that everything is up for negotiation; by that, we mean that you shouldn’t just be haggling on the price of the car. Loan packages, extended warranties, insurance, and anti-theft devices are all up for consideration. As always, compare the prices you’re quoted with what you’ve researched yourself. 

Under California state law, if the car costs less than $40,000, you have the right to buy an insurance policy that lets you return it within two days.

Tips for buying from a private seller

You should follow all of the above advice when going through a private seller, including asking for a VIN, getting a mechanic to inspect the car, and taking it on a test drive. Unlike buying from a dealership, however, you’ll have to transfer the title and registration, and get license plates. Check out the California DMV’s information on buying a vehicle and changing vehicle ownership here, including the necessary forms needed to complete the transaction. 

Images sourced in order of appearance: UnsplashUnsplash, Unsplash

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