The Beginner’s Guide to Buying Secondhand Cars

9 min. read By Kevin Joshua Ng on

Nothing beats the joy of finally getting to drive out your own car–whether you bought it newly unwrapped out of a dealership or from a previous owner willing to let you take the reins of his pre-loved vehicle.

Although admittedly, buying a secondhand car does have more hard and fast rules compared to buying one new off the lot. However, being able to secure the right one might actually be a bit more fulfilling, even if it’s a secondhand vehicle because you’ve put a lot more thought and effort into it. Aside from of course the obvious savings you’ll get to enjoy in the long run compared to buying cars brand new.

There’s certainly a lot of things to consider when buying a secondhand car. If you’re new to the game and aren’t well-versed when it comes to car maintenance and cars in general, there’s quite a bit of a learning curve to conquer. However, with this beginner’s guide, we’ll make it as simple yet comprehensive for you so you’ll be much more confident the next time you buy a secondhand car.

Before the buy

Before making decisions, it’s highly advisable to device a plan first so you always come up with the right, if not the best resolution. That’s also applicable in buying secondhand cars. First, you need to come up with a quick but concise questionnaire to make sure that you already have a good idea of what you’re looking for before you consider hunting for a secondhand vehicle.

What’s my budget?

Above everything else, your budget is the most important factor to consider when buying a secondhand car. This helps you narrow down the number and kinds of cars you’ll be able to acquire at a certain price point. We suggest you set two ceilings: a high price and a low price. That way you can actually have a budget to work around with and see what’s the best available vehicles there are in the market.

Take note that used cars have parts that need to be replaced, no matter how low the mileage is. You don’t want to spend all your budget on just acquiring a secondhand vehicle without the means to get it to the best running condition.

Determine the car that suits your need best.

Once you have your budget pinned down, you need to know what kind of vehicle you’re actually looking for. Are you looking for an additional car to juggle around number coding restrictions? Perhaps an economical sedan can do the trick. Are you looking for something with a higher seat capacity so you can drive the whole family around? An SUV/AUV or van can take care of that problem. Are you looking for a hauler so you could deliver goods from one point to the other? A pickup truck is best suited for that job.

These are important questions to ask to know why you need to acquire a vehicle because this makes it easier for you to choose a vehicle based on your budget or if you need to shell out a bit more so you can achieve your purpose.

Check the car makes and models available then research.

Now that you’ve determined the cars that are available on the market that matches all your preferences and the budget that you have, it’s now time to research on the particular makes and models.

Doing this will help you understand what owning a specific vehicle entails. Does it have parts that are prone to replacement? Does it need a special kind of oil or fluid for it to run properly?

Every car is built differently. Like humans, they have their own “personalities”. Get to know each properly so you have a correct expectation of each vehicle before you decide to buy. You can do your research by talking to previous owners or getting in touch with a car club for that model and make. You can also read reviews on online forums and websites or watch videos on YouTube.

Make a list of cars you’ve chosen and contact the seller.

At this point, you’re probably down to only a handful of models that you’ll consider buying. The next step would be listing the cars you want to buy from a private seller or a secondhand car dealer, then compare their prices. But before you do that, there are a few things to consider.

Most car ads have descriptions of the vehicle they’re selling. Take note of the history of the vehicle:

  • Mileage – the higher the mileage, the more parts need to be replaced
  • How it’s used (grocery hauler, short distance driving, long-distance driving, family car, coding vehicle, Sunday vehicle, etc.)
  • Vehicle modifications (all-stock, changed accessories, engine swap, etc.) – you want to be as close to stock as possible
  • Maintenance history – a well-maintained vehicle is a good vehicle to have
  • Current condition of the vehicle (updated registration, exterior and interior damages, not working)
  • Location of the vehicle and the seller – you want to be wary of buying cars from flood-prone areas

After you’ve done all of these, you’re pretty much ready to contact the sellers and interview them before you set a schedule for a personal inspection. 

During the buy

Confidence is the key to any negotiation, especially when buying a used vehicle. You don’t want to go in there feet first, not knowing the right questions to ask and armed with the correct knowledge to inspect a vehicle. So while you’re in there, make sure you make the most of your time to get to know the car.

Bring a mechanic or a friend who’s very familiar with the vehicle.

It’s always better to have someone who’s an expert on cars to tag along with you when you personally inspect the vehicle. They can identify other information about the vehicle that’s not indicated on the car ad such as the wear and tear on components, cover -ps on previous damages, if it was flooded, and the level of road-worthiness of the vehicle inspected.

Having another set of prying eyes can also help you ultimately decide if the car is a good value, which is what we’re all after anyway.

Have a checklist ready.

Making a checklist ensures that you’re going to have all bases covered on the inspection. We’ve found a comprehensive one made by ChrisFix, a secondhand car reviewer on YouTube, that will help you figure out if the car you’re buying is up to par.

On that checklist you’ll find everything you need to ask the seller and the parts of the vehicle you need to take a look at. While inspecting the vehicle, try to calculate how much you still need to spend in order to replace everything that needs replacing.

Always take it for a test drive.

Another important thing you must do is to take the car for a spin and get a feel for the vehicle. Unless the damage is egregious, some knocks can’t really be seen by the naked eye, especially when it comes to possible defects in the powertrain. Even damages in the suspension and chassis can be quite hard to pin down, even when seen by the trained eye.

So what we recommend is you perform a bunch of acceleration tests to make sure that the engine and transmission are running smoothly. Try to go over bumps and humps too to test the suspension. Try to hear if there are any unusual sounds there. Step on the brakes to gauge the bite and vibrations if there are any. Of course, always exercise caution and make sure that you’re test driving in a controlled environment.

Ask for the proper paperwork from the seller.

This is probably one of the most important steps a buyer overlooks when it comes to buying a used car. Documents such as:

  • the original official receipt and certificate of registration (OR/CR)
  • original plate numbers
  • notarized deed of sale
  • and even an anti-carnapping clearance from the Highway Patrol Group

are important and necessary to have so there will be a smooth transition of ownership from the seller to you. As a buyer, you have the right to have these documents presented to you by the seller.

For example, if the car you’re buying has been bought with an auto loan, make sure that the marks on the OR/CR don’t have the word encumbered on it. That means the car has been paid for fully without penalties and fees. If possible, ask for the cancellation of encumbrance form from the seller as well, just to be safe.

You don’t want the hassle of an overlooked document that will come back to bite you. These documents will be your proof and legal protection so the authorities will recognize that you are indeed the new owner of the used vehicle and that there are no existing obligations to be fulfilled.

Negotiate a fair price.

Finally, don’t be afraid to haggle for a fair price based on the results of your inspection. If you believe that there is more effort to be made to bring the vehicle back to tip-top condition, make it known to the seller so they could bring the price of the vehicle down. Any savings you can get can be added to your budget to fix the car and perhaps maybe you can pocket a bit of change overall.

Also, if you think you’re getting a good bargain, don’t try to lowball the seller. Make it a fair exchange if it looks like the seller has done a good job maintaining the vehicle he/she is trying to sell.

After the buy

The hard part is over. You finally have a “new” used car that you can drive around and use. But it doesn’t stop here. There are couple more steps that need to get written off to close the deal.

Get your used car insured immediately.

It’s understandable if the used car you just bought don’t have insurance. If it’s not being used, why add an expense to it, right? So what you must do now is to get your car insured before you drive it around regularly.

You can compare and shop for comprehensive car insurance that’s right for your budget at ecomparemo.com. We can help you find car insurance for your used or secondhand car so you can drive around with peace of mind.

Bring your car to the shop for repairs, parts replacement, and detailing.

If you really want your new secondhand car to get the proper treatment it deserves, you have to give it the TLC it needs. Have it repaired and the necessary parts replaced with the remaining budget you set aside. If you still have some money left, take it to an auto detailing shop so it can look nice and slick, inside out. This way you’ll get to experience your new purchase as close as it was brand new.

Final Thoughts

In all honesty, buying a used car, especially for newbies, can be quite a daunting task. But with proper preparation and great advice, you can make sure that whatever you’ll end up buying will offer you the best value for money.

About the author

Kevin Joshua Ng

Kevin Joshua Ng Kevin Joshua Ng is a digital marketing professional and car enthusiast who has written for In The Garage, a trusted resource for car owners in North America.