Once you have decided what type of car you want, start looking in the local newspaper classifieds and on Craigslist (see Resources 1). You can also check out your local used car dealers, but you are less likely to get the best deal here. EBay (see Resources 2) is another potential source, but be wary of vehicles that you cannot inspect in person.
Check out as many potential cars as possible. The more cars you look at, the better chances you have of getting a great deal on a great car.
Inspect the vehicle thoroughly. Look at the paint from different angles to see what shape it's in. Open the hood and trunk and look for signs of a repaint and accident damage in the fender wells. Look for rust around the windows, rocker panels (the lower portion of the body between the wheels) and on the floorboards.
Inspect the engine bay. A clean engine bay might mean that the car was better cared for. Pull the dipstick for the oil out of the motor and inspect the oil. It should be amber and not black or gray.
Test drive the vehicle. When you drive it, listen for strange noises from the motor (clicks, clunks, etc.) and pay attention to how the suspension feels. If the steering is vague and the car shakes and vibrates or pulls to one side, it may need some suspension work, new tires or even have bent wheels. Make sure it doesn't run hot or overheat. Get out and look for smoke from the tailpipe while the car is running.
Ask if there are any service records. A well-documented vehicle is a safer bet than one that has no maintenance records. Also, ask how many owners the vehicle has had. Cars with one, two or three owners are a better bet than cars that have had multiple owners over the years.
Ask to see the title to ensure that it is clear and not a salvage title from being wrecked, stolen or from water damage. Though salvage title vehicles can often be purchased for much cheaper than a vehicle that has a clear title, it's hard to know what you are getting into.
Get a Carfax on the vehicle to see if it has a documented record. Though vehicle history reports are not foolproof and often will not show everything a car has been through, they can be a valuable tool.
Have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic. A PPI (Pre-Purchase Inspection) is another great piece of insurance when buying used. Have a professional mechanic inspect the car for any defects. This usually costs about $100 to $150.
Ask the seller if he is negotiable on the asking price. Most used cars can be purchased for less than the asking price, so don't be afraid to barter. Start with a low offer and meet the seller at a price that makes both parties happy.Buying pre-owned is a great way to save some money when it comes time to purchasing a car. After all, the moment you drive a new car off the lot, it immediately goes down in value. Of course, there are some risks inherent in buying a used vehicle, since often it is difficult to really know what you are buying. By taking a few precautions, though, buying a used car can be a less stressful and risky undertaking.