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15 Money-Saving Tips for Buying a Used Car from a Dealer

*This post may have affiliate links, which means I may receive commissions if you choose to purchase through links I provide (at no extra cost to you).

I just bought my first car! I knew NOTHING about cars going into this, and I purchased all on my own, as a single woman. Here are the best tips for buying a used car from a dealer. It’s everything I tried myself when I was car shopping!

1. Always ask for the OUT-THE-DOOR price.

The biggest mistake people make when buying a used car on a budget is that they fail to realize that the list price is NOT the same as the “out-the-door price,” which is the price you end up paying after taxes and fees are added.

Dealers tack on ALL sorts of fees. First, you have the obligatory sales tax, which dealers can’t control. There’s also the cost of the title and registration, which again, the dealer cannot control. But then, you have the dealer fee. That can be anywhere from $399-$899 or more. Then, there are other ridiculous charges that, in my opinion, should not be added, like “reconditioning” fees.

At the end of the day, you want to find out the out-the-door price. You can always ask the salesperson to calculate the out-the-door price for you and they can even give you a printed copy. You can also call ahead of time and ask them to email you the out-the-door price, but this might weaken your bargaining power as they haven’t even met you yet and do not know how serious you are about buying.

2. You can shop around for auto loans to find the lowest APR WITHOUT hurting your credit score too much.

As long as the auto loan credit inquiries (which will be classified as “hard pulls”) all happen within two weeks of each other, the credit bureaus will ONLY count it as one auto loan inquiry. So yes, you can (and should) shop around for the best interest rate you can get.

3. Find out the TRUE value of your car on NADA.com

Did you know you can easily find out the true value of the used car you’re going to buy? Just go to NADA.com and enter the info. That’s the exact website that some lenders use when they’re determining the value of the car that they’re lending you money to buy.

By knowing the true value of the car you’re trying to buy, you can beat salespeople at their own game.

4. “No-haggle” dealerships really mean no haggle.

Some dealerships advertise as being “no-haggle.” That means you cannot negotiate with them on price. And yes, they mean it, so don’t waste your time or anyone else’s by trying to haggle.

5. The best time to buy a car is the end of the month.

Yes, it’s true: The best time to buy a car in general is at the end of the month or the end of the year. Car salespeople need to meet a certain quota by month’s end and at year’s end, so there’s more incentive to sell at those times.

6. You can always ask to have the car checked by a third-party mechanic BEFORE buying it.

Even if you’re buying a car from a dealership, you can always ask to get a car inspected by a third-party mechanic if you want extra assurance.

7. Offer to buy a car “as is” from a dealership.

You can knock money off the list price by offering to by the car “as is”—but make sure you know what this means first! It could mean that they will NOT “recondition” the car, which means they won’t detail it, buff out any scuffs/scratches, or anything of the sort. You will get the car exactly as you see it on the lot. It MIGHT also mean they will NOT cover the car with any sort of warranty. Be sure to ask.

8. Don’t forget dealerships all have a “dealer fee.”

Like I said above, a dealer fee is always added to the price of the vehicle. These dealer fees can be almost a grand, so it’s worthing asking how much their dealer fee is.

9. Sales tax on a car is levied depending on where YOU LIVE, not where you buy the car.

For example, lots of Californians try to buy cars in Oregon (a no sales-tax state) to avoid paying exorbitant taxes on the purchase. BUT…the catch is California will levy the sales tax on the car when it’s registered in that state. You can’t register the car in California until you pay the tax. So there really is no avoiding paying sales tax on a car–unless you LIVE in a sales-tax-free state and register the car there.

10. Knock money off the price if it doesn’t include TWO keys.

Any car that’s a 2011 or newer will probably have a remote key, also known as a smart key or key fob. THESE ARE CRAZY EXPENSIVE to replace. New cars come with two keys, but used cars often only come with one because the previous owners lose them. And these key fobs are PRICEY. For example, for a 2015 Prius key fob, I was quoted anywhere from $279 to $595 for ONE key.

So be sure to ask if your used car will come with two keys. If it only comes with one, ask them to knock at least $300 off the price because you will need to pay for a spare key.

11. Buying from a private seller will usually be cheaper, BUT buying from a dealership might give you more assurance.

This is just something to consider: With a private seller, you have no idea about their history. They have no reviews on Google. They don’t have in-house mechanics to inspect and recondition a car. But, private sellers also don’t have overhead and dealer fees, so you’ll get a lower price.

12. The dealership’s reputation MATTERS.

I don’t care how cheap that car is, if that dealership has a TERRIBLE reputation and has tons of reviews about how their cars broke down two weeks after driving them off the lot—do not buy from them! It’s not a “good deal” if you end up with a junk car from them. Check their reviews. Pay attention to their reputation. It matters.

13. You’re not “saving money” if you buy a car with problems.

Again, it is NOT a “good deal” to buy a car with known problems. If you have evidence that the car is in need of major repairs, factor in the cost of those repairs into the overall price of this car. If you can afford it and are prepared to deal with the headache of getting repairs done, then it might be good for you. Otherwise, run the other way.

14. Check the auto insurance rates on the specific car make, model, and year BEFORE picking a car.

Yes, you can do this. Call up an insurance agent and have them run the numbers for you on the car insurance premiums of specific cars you’re looking at. There might be a big enough difference to sway your opinion. For example, I originally was looking at buying a 2014 Prius and got car insurance quotes for it. Then, I found a 2015 Prius and got car insurance quotes on that—and it was cheaper for the 2015!

15. Always walk away.

EVEN if you get the price you want, be prepared to walk away. This is for two reasons:

  1. Buying a car is an emotional process, and you could get caught up in the thrill of negotiating. You should sleep on it to make sure this car is what you really want.
  2. It’s amazing how many salespeople will drop the price even lower when they see you’re walking away.

Now, of course, this comes with a caveat: The car could sell to someone else if you wait too long. Used cars are trickier than new cars in this way: They’re unique. So you have to weigh the risks.

When I was used car shopping a month ago, if I had gone with the first good deal I got, I would’ve ended up with a 2013 Elantra that I didn’t want that badly. Because I was able to walk away and sleep on it, I ended up getting a 2015 Prius that I loved! (And the Elantra didn’t sell for DAYS after I walked away).

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Advice for Millennials shares real-life advice from real-life millennials about all the things they wish they'd known—from finance to health to careers.

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