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Buying a used car with confidence.

Updated on October 24, 2011

Learning how to buy used cars

This is not your usual car buying tips or information.

This is the inside running from someone who buys as many as ten used cars a year for friends and family, with a background as a pro car and motorcycle buyer in my own businesses for over 35 years.

I'm serious about saving thousands buying a used car.

Even if the seller price is under ten thousand dollars to start with, it is common to save 2,000 or more on the purchase, and more importantly. buy a reliable car.

It is easier to save big money if the car is expensive of course, but these methods work on cheaper cars very well too.

Two examples:

I saved $25,000 dollars on a $75,000 asking price for a BMW 7 series.

Using the same methods, I saved over $5,000 on an $11,900 asking price for a Ford Falcon as you will see below.

Bought. Ford Falcon AU One owner.

 Advertised for market value $11,990. Paid $6,000. repairs $200. I replaced all the brake discs. They were just within specs, so I replaced them.
Advertised for market value $11,990. Paid $6,000. repairs $200. I replaced all the brake discs. They were just within specs, so I replaced them.
BMW 7 series interior. that is a lot of car even for $75,000
BMW 7 series interior. that is a lot of car even for $75,000

The art of buying a car.

Buying a car is a real art form.You need to leave your car emotions at home for a bit, and find pleasure in the deal first, not the car.

I still love buying cars although I have been doing it for more than forty years now and my methodology has had to change with the times.

In the past, to buy the right car at a bargain price took special skills, motor engineering knowledge, a good understanding of model design faults, a knowledge of car values along with the skills needed to buy like a professional in a trade where the professionals buyers are well trained and buy hard.

When buying private vehicles you also needed to understand the dozens of odd abbreviations in the used car section in newspapers as they were the main source of used cars for sale.

In the past there was no way for a mom or dad buyer to get a real bargain other than to have all this knowledge. Private buyers just paid too much for their car purchase, or worse still bought a car that is a known lemon to the trade.

Bought. Kia Carnival. One owner.

Kia Carnival 39,000 miles. Market value $22,880 Paid 15,000. 100% financed.  Repairs. None.
Kia Carnival 39,000 miles. Market value $22,880 Paid 15,000. 100% financed. Repairs. None.

That all changes right here.

I will show you how to buy so cheap that you will be able to borrow 100% of the finance based on the price you pay being well under the market value of the car.

Surprisingly it is easier than it has ever been in the past to buy at below market value, but you need to know how and where to locate the best car for you.

If you have kept up with motor sales you will have used one of the many car sales websites to look at cars.

You will also know how to use their search engine to run a refined search for exactly the right car. You need to set your mind on what you want before you start your search.

  • First you need to know exactly what make and model you want to buy, right down to color and extras.Talk to family and decide on color, extras such as climate control, number of air bags etc.
  • Use only the online used car sites that have their own search engines with selectable fields for private seller, all or dealers adds.
  • Select private seller, then make, model, mileage traveled, number of cylinders, age, extras fitted, fuel type, color etc.
  • You need to refine your search so that you do not waste time looking at a lot of motor vehicles that are less than the best for your needs.
  • The idea of this first search is to eliminate all the cars that are not exactly what you want, and establish a buyers starting point!.
  • Fill in the fields with the details, and if there is a maximum mileage field, put a very low mileage maximum in, and "one owner" in the keyword section if they have one.

One of my first successful buys. I got top dollar when I sold this 220SEB. with full history and service records.
One of my first successful buys. I got top dollar when I sold this 220SEB. with full history and service records.

Now ..... Tighten your search till there are no cars left!

To do this, set the mileage and price so low that no cars show in the search.

Lets say for example you put in search for a very low mileage car.You may start at 10,000 miles, If no cars appear in the search, lift it to 15,000 miles. Then if you put in a price of $10,00 lift it to $11,00 then twelve, until you get the lowest mileage, lowest priced car in your town in your favourite colour!

Now go click on the pretty pictures! Look closely for any damage. After you select the car, call the owner to see the car in person. At this point the professional buyer uses the phone call to decide if the seller is honest in his claims and has a real reason for the sale, even if it is that he hates it!

Pictured is my first Mercedes Benz.

This car was my dream car at the time so I tracked down the exact model I wanted in the color of my choice. This took me 6 months at the time.

With the internet the same results can be achieved in a few minutes!


auto equipment. Two post hoist
auto equipment. Two post hoist

Service Records. What they mean to you.

  • Always examine the service records for fraudulent entries, which are often easy to spot.

If you see the same ink twice check thoroughly through each service. If the service has no detail or stamps missing I ignore it as a real document.

I may still buy the car, you should not! Unless you have the skills and knowledge of the make and model that allows you to buy it knowing what is wrong with it and not guessing.

  • Any problem in the service book and I automatically start dropping my "in my head price" like a stone! I suggest you do not even consider buying a car with anything less than a pristine pedigree unless you are an expert and you have done your costing correctly for any repairs needed as a result of missed services, which always have consequences, as do bad services.

If the vehicle does not have a full service history, move on to the next one. NEVER buy a car without full service books and history, it is just asking to get robbed if you do.

Service book tricks to look for :-

  • Incomplete records that are not filled out fully with all the details of the items required to be checked on the service.
  • Any gap in service intervals.
  • Falsified records These are often all filled out at one time, with the same pen! Some are stamped as well. Always ensure that the records have not all been filled out at one time, by checking for the same pen and signature.
  • Check the car registration and VIN against the service records to ensure the service book is not from another vehicle. A common trick is to change the registration and VIN on the service record itself.

Start with the best value car from your chosen model selection.

To get the best value car in the model you are looking to buy, remember there are many reasons why one model vehicle will vary in price from another.

  • Over all condition.
  • Mileage travelled.
  • OEM fittings and extras.
  • Paint colour.
  • Body condition.
  • History

Here is how I proceed, and why I do not vary this formula!

1. I buy only one owner cars, with low mileage.

The reasons for this are manifold. If the car is one owner with low mileage I can know more about the car and it's history. It will also hold it's price longer as it has more unexpired mileage left for the new owner.

(Unexpired mileage is the only way to establish value for money, as this is the number of miles the used car will travel before it becomes more expensive to keep and maintain than the cost of buying another car to replace it.)

2. I only buy cars owned by fussy people who have every service done on time and every squeak or rattle fixed.

These seller's vehicles are out there along with the other average and below average vehicles, and the trick is to find those cars and leave the others for those who don't know what they need to know to get the best car every time.

The car search.

  • decide exactly the car you want to buy first, you can settle for less if you don't find it, but for now, go for exactly what you want.
  • Establish the wholesale market value, usually from the same site.
  • Sites usually has a price guide that will include retail, dealer and wholesale prices. Look for the valuation guide, it will have a heading like "what's your car worth." or go to one of the many price guides on other sites.

Finding the car.

Fill out the search with this criteria.

  1. The lowest mileage you can find for the year, by limiting the mileage in the search to something really low.If no cars at all appear in the search over a week, you can always lift the low mileage by, sat another 10, a time.
  2. Fill out any extra fields like body style that are offered or other items you want that are listed in the search.
  3. In the keyword area put in "one owner"
  4. Now limit the price to a bit above wholesale.

Choose "private seller" from the options if it is there not in the search options you will have to find them when you go to the ads themselves, so I try another car site myself to save some time.

You want to buy from private sellers as it allows you to keep the car yard profit in your hands not theirs!

The price is always negotiable, so as an experienced buyer I know I can beat the price down in several ways.

* Ask about all consumables such as brakes, tyres exhaust and mufflers, discount replacement cost pro-rata if they have not been replaced within the last year or two.

Ask them nicely "What is the absolute bottom price you will take today."

* Ask if it has always been serviced at the same dealership, and if not, why not?

* Ask about any scratches or dents.( you need to know that some paints cannot be patched and will need a complete panel spray to do a proper repair, especially if the paint is metallic paint.)

You see the way you gain value when you buy is directly related to the condition of consumables and how much of the life cycle remains, so consumables will become a part of the price, so try to make the seller pay for at least some of them.

Also remember to discount the registration and insurance or road tax to time remaining of the period, eg 9 months left on the tax/registration is 3/4 registration so deduct the months used.

Talking to the seller, what to say and do on the phone.

This is the bit that can make or break the deal, so read this carefully. A non professional buyer will often come on strong with the seller, I do not. You must open the clam gently so to speak.

If he/she is a talker, listen and encourage them to talk. You may learn what the key is to how much they are expecting to get for their car.... not what they advertised it for.

You may also here about the way the vehicle has been used and a lot of other relevance information that let's you know how the vehicle has been used, the real reason for selling it and more.

Be as agreeable and accepting as you can be with the phone conversation. I always compliment the owner on the condition of the car, before I inquire further about his or her lowest price and any problems you may have about the car.

If you go about it in the right way, you can often open the sellers mind and take a peek!

Lets assume for a moment that you have established a good rapport with the seller on the phone.

The sellers attitude about other things in life will tell you a lot about the likelihood of the car being truly immaculate or just OK.. Often the condition of the car is over stated in order to affect a sale, so you need some tricks of your own

Questions to ask.

The first question (assuming that you already know that the car is one owner, and it's mileage.)

Has the car been in any accidents? If yes, leave it and move on unless it was very minor. In America and some other places you can get a complete history check very easily from sites such as CAR

Professionals know the risks of buying a used car that has been in an accident. Common problems are electronic failures months after the accident sometimes, bare electrical wires touching and constantly blowing light bulbs, engine management system failures and bad re-sets among them.All expensive to find and repair. Lots of other problems keep developing as time causes other accident related problems such as gearbox failure and other expensive problems you do not need and should not pay for. Don't buy other peoples problems!


When you buy from a dealer you will get a warranty. I view warranty a lot differently to an amateur buyer.As an experienced buyer I know that you are more likely to get nothing except robbed by dealer warranty. There are plenty of honest private sellers, and you can buy warranty for any good car separately.

Since the 90's most cars are not economical to repair major faults. No person in their right mind does an engine swap anymore. Unless the car has lost a motor through accident damage caused by a cooling system or oil leak it will not be economical to repair.. The reason is that modern cars do not have problems with the motor until the whole car is worn out If they are regularly serviced.

Car yards often do not honour warranty honestly. They increase the costs by inflating the repair cost and then charging you the same amount you would normally pay for the whole job including parts as your part of the payment. Others will know that the bomb you bought from them is likely to die not long after their often limited warranty expires. Oldest trick in the book!

If you have followed so far, you may recognise that it is easier and cheaper to buy a warranty yourself when the car has done low mileage and has had one owner.

Looking at the car.

I never ever look at a car unless I am fairly sure I will buy it. All the rest is done on the phone, as this way I do not waste time just to find out it is not what I want.

If you have little or no mechanical knowledge you can still establish condition in other ways, using a few basic trade secrets.

Never buy in the dark, or on a wet day. You will not be able to see panel damage under either condition.

In bright sunlight, kneel down and look along the panels to see there are no ripples in the paint, or panel depressions.

Look under the car for any fluid leaks. Any sign of leaks, leave it there, modern cars only leak engine or transmission oil when something expensive needs replacing, like rear main bearing seal, or other bad servicing damage.

Use a fridge magnet and run it along the car panels. If the car has been repaired with filler, the magnet will not stick as well, or if the filler is deep, the magnet may not stick at all in the place where it has been repaired.

Never buy a car that has been repainted.There are many reasons for this, not the least being the paint will not last anywhere near as long as original paint.

You cannot see what what the body is like under the repaint.

Other mechanical or electical/electronic components often get damaged in accidents and problems may develop as a result of body damage, and during respray it is rare for the panel repairer to be knowledgeable enough to even see this damage ot know about it.


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    • davidmurree profile image

      David Murree 

      8 years ago from USA

      Really nice share. These tips are so good and helpful to buy a car and also save money. You can read more about the used cars for sale from here.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      What you you say for a 2009 honda ridgeline at 6,230 miles on it with a price of $26,995? Should I drop the price a little more or should I take the price as is?

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thank you cathylynn, some search engines work with keywords like "one owner" and "full service history" as well.

    • cathylynn99 profile image


      9 years ago from northeastern US

      the search engine advice about low miles and low price is, well, ingenius. thanks.

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      You are very welcome gajanis, sometimes a few tips make a big difference too.

    • gajanis786 profile image


      9 years ago from Pakistan

      Very informative hub.....all very handy,surely it has given me few newer tips which I did not know earlier.Thanks.

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thanks autopart1 I set high standards! How about a rebuilt transmission for an old 95 Nissan Navara auto? Mine is due some work at 285,000 kilometers.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Hi friend i see your hub this is nice. If you want a best used transmission please visit our site...........

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      True up to a point Chris!

      I never buy a car that does not have a roadworthy certificate from an appropriate authority, and most private sellers know that the car should be in roadworthy condition to obtain any decent price

      I can still buy used cars in mint condition and make one to 10 grand on them. I seldom resorting to buying from dealers or auctions!

      I don't see too many honest car traders who put it all right for you. I see dealerships and car yards dodging the big ones till the warranty runs out, or doing repairs that are disgusting and telling lies about it to the average punter.

      It's about time the average buyer was given a clue don't you think?

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      A Private seller is not responsible for making sure everything is fixed on the car and that is has passed inspection. If you buy privately and the car breaks down, there is also no warranty in case you have an issue. What if you need brakes, tires, a few dents and some paint work... what if suddenly an engine light comes on? You will be forced to spend additional money to check it out and get it fixed. This can add up to more than you thought is was worse if things go wrong. A good dealership will ensure the car you buy needs nothing and will back up the sale at no charge usually. How about a car loan? Most times dealers can get you better financing, and what if you have a trade-in with a balance higher than the value of the car? A private seller cannot assist you with any of these issues.

    • profile image

      Lori Catz 

      10 years ago

      Buy used, not new. That's it!

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thank you pylos. I have tried to keep it simple and non technical for the layperson, but I find those who already know a fair bit about cars appreciate this hub too.

      I am quite chuffed that you learnt from it!

    • pylos26 profile image


      10 years ago from America

      Hi Earnest...I thought I knew a lot about buying a I know a lot more...isn't it strange how one can tell good advice when one receives or reads it. good read and well written...thanks, pylos26

    • Greg Cremia profile image

      Greg Cremia 

      11 years ago from Outer Banks

      Great tips. Thanks for the info.

    • JaShinYa profile image

      Josh Musser 

      11 years ago from Harrisburg, PA

      This is a great hub. I'm 21 and I don't have much money so for me, this is huge. Thanks very much!

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thank you TFT.

      Glad to be of help Bail Up.

    • Bail Up ! profile image

      Bail Up ! 

      11 years ago

      I've been thinking about trading in my car. Found this hub just in time. Thanks for sharing these great tips.

    • Truth From Truth profile image

      Truth From Truth 

      11 years ago from Michigan

      Good tips, thanks for the advice.

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      BlondePoet, the streets will never be the same!

    • blondepoet profile image


      11 years ago from australia

      Well Earnest I guess I am going to have to get my learners now :) :)

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      TKarma, you are most welcome. Do check the hub again, as I am constantly updating my mechanical hubs.

    • TKarma profile image


      11 years ago

      Thanks for this great hub Ernest:) It just so happens that I am thinking about buying a new used car. This article is full of useful tips that I will use during my search.


    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      11 years ago from Georgia

      This is great info, Earnest. Thanks for sharing!

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      You're welcome mtsi1098.Don't forget to bargain hard!

    • lindagoffigan profile image


      11 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      earnestshub, great hub.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Great work on this hub...I have been looking for a used car so this hub will be my source of information...thanks

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thank you Charia, I have other car maintenance and knowledge hubs too!

    • Charia Samher profile image

      Charia Samher 

      11 years ago

      Oh I hope you already have this hub even before, well anyways I can still use some of the tips in the future. Bookmarked! Thanks for sharing and will look forward for more. =)

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      more coming.

    • Catherine R profile image

      Catherine R 

      11 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Great practical tips. Especially the magnet one which I have never heard of. Will bookmark this for future buying reference. Thanks.

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      I will email you today (my time) AEvans.

      The 5 series comes in a few engine sizes and has many thousands of dollars in options available.

      The onboard computer retains the car's history.

      The motor and gearbox is near bullet proof!

    • AEvans profile image


      11 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

      We are buying another car in the next several weeks I ran across your sound advice just in time. I never thought to check for different shades of paint etc. Should I question a 5 series BMW with 17,000 miles that has been marked down a the dealership? I am wandering why they haven'tsold it. Could it be because of the mileage? You can e-mail I need some serious advice before we drop money on this vehicle. I am in love with it and it is pre-owned but I am questioning it. :)

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thanks Candie, I promise you will save a heap following the advice. I have basically condensed a lifetime of buying knowledge here. I really spilt the beans!

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 

      11 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Earnest -- this is the best piece I've seen on car buying. Super. And you sure know what you're talking about!

      Only problem we have here in California is you cannot buy a warranty directly from a warranty company. You HAVE to obtain it from a dealer. Isn't that wonderful? NOT!

    • Candie V profile image

      Candie V 

      11 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

      Fantastic advice Earnest! Thank you.. I'll be looking in a couple months, so this is great timing finding this! Thank you!

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Not good for the exhaust valves running with the pipe off so close to the head. Good work to get it fitted without a hoist or transmission jack though. Quite innovate really.

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      OK Greg. I will take a look.

    • Greg Moore profile image

      Greg Moore 

      11 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      You rock my world. I am going to go out and buy a car now. And to hell with cash for clunkers, that's just a communist front! I deal with transmissions at

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thank you praesetio. I hope it helps you to dodge the crooks!

    • prasetio30 profile image


      11 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Nice tips. I'll bookmark this one.

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thank you Ms Chievous, I had hoped it would be useful, and I hope your Mom finds it informative.

    • Ms Chievous profile image


      11 years ago from Wv

      Great hub and timely for me too.. Looks like my mom will be buying a car soon. I will be forwarding this hub to her!

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thanks for the comment! I have another hub where I outline my thoughts on the future of fuel. There are still 600 Million Petroleum vehicles that will need to be changed to other fuel. How to do so is contentious! petroleum vehicles can run on other fuels, but sometimes the solutions are as bad as the problem.

    • sarmack profile image


      11 years ago from Washington State

      This is very good advice and will come in handy. What are your thoughts on petroleum powered vehicles? How much longer will they be operable? When do you think society will be forced to move to other forms of fuel?

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Hi Tom, Spot on comment!

      You saved some good money there. Picking the seller, that is the bottom line in all this. The seller needs to be keen too. It helps the bottom line if you can make a low offer and have it accepted.

    • Tom Whitworth profile image

      Tom Whitworth 

      11 years ago from Moundsville, WV

      Hi earnethub,

      I totally agree with the concept of buying late model, low milage used cars. There are also other assets one can bring to bare on finding car history in the US (CARFAX ect). The last three cars I have owned were in the category described. I did however buy from a dealer to insure the unused warrantee would apply. In 1982 I bought a 1980 Buick with 25,000 miles. I traded this car in 1993 after accumulating 265,000 miles and bought another Buick 1990 model with 29,000 miles. I traded this car in 2008 after accumulating 220,000 miles for 2007 Chevy Malibu with 29,000 miles. My total initial expendure for these three cars was $38,000 (If bought new it would have been $65,000). The only major expense was on the 1980 Buick consisting of a transmission overhaul $600.00(my daughters were in there teens and I allowed them and their friends to drive this car).

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Or several other models of Pontiac and others models and makes that are made of fiberglass or the many plastics. sorry forgot to mention that!

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      11 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Don't try the magnet trick on a Saturn or a Corvette. ;)

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thanks Lady E. it sure makes it easy to get a bargain if they are followed. I would love a trip to the UK to buy a car for you, but I reckon I could show you from here how to do it yourself!

    • Lady_E profile image


      11 years ago from London, UK

      These are excellent Tips, especially for ladies. (not being sexist). I took a friend with me when I bought my first car at an auction. I Think when I upgrade to the next one, I might be sending you a return ticket to the UK, to help me out. :)

    • earnestshub profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Close enough Helen! I got the message!

    • Helen Cater profile image

      Helen Cater 

      11 years ago from UK

      thanks I really appreciate your help.Am i posting in the right place x

    • JYOTI KOTHARI profile image

      Jyoti Kothari 

      11 years ago from Jaipur

      Dear earnest,

      You have provided excellent tips. It is especially useful in this tough time.

      Thanks and thumbs up!!

      Jyoti Kothari


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