Before launching your search for a good deal on a used car, spend some time considering many of the same factors that would apply to a new car purchase.
How will you use the vehicle? How long do you plan to keep it? What are the features and the appearance you need or prefer?
Also consider your budget or financing options for the purchase, as well as maintenance, and repair costs.
Buying a used car isn't as risky as it once was. Dramatic improvements in reliability, design and construction have made used cars one of the best automotive values available.
Even models just two or three years old cost 30 percent less than their showroom equivalents, since they've already traveled down the steepest part of the depreciation road.
You should spend some time researching the vehicles you are interested in and compare the pros and cons of each. Ask friends about their experiences and satisfaction with their older cars. Would they buy the same car again?
Also, check auto and consumer books, such as Edmund's Used Cars Prices and Ratings, and magazines for information on the reliability records of various models.
The Consumer Reports Guide to Used Cars, published annually, can be particularly helpful in pointing out potential repair problems and trouble spots.
Check the Kelly Blue Book for the value you may expect to be offered by a dealer when trading in your used vehicle. Many used car dealers sell cars with no warranty, which is not what you want.
So here's your first used car lesson: Never, ever sign an "As Is" paper at a car dealer.
If they don't offer a 30-90 day warranty do not buy the car under any circumstances. The minute they stick an "As Is" paper in front of you, get up and walk out.
Once you have the car in your possession, take a look along both sides of the car.
Misaligned body panels or differences in paint shade indicate the car has been in an accident.
Check for rust using a small magnet. Especially under the doors and around wheel openings. If the magnet doesn't stick, that may mean a cheap repair with putty or Bondo.
With 1997 and later cars, make sure the "check engine" light comes on when you turn on the ignition. If it doesn't, it may have been disconnected to cover up a problem. If it does come on and stays on, there is also a problem.
On a level road, the car should track straight. Pulling could mean either the body has been twisted as a result of a crash or there is an alignment problem.
Accelerate in low gear to 15 miles per hour. Then release the accelerator, let the speed drop to about 4 mph and floor the accelerator. Clouds of blue or white smoke from the tailpipe are a sign of trouble, although a few wisps aren't cause for concern.
Examine the automatic-transmission dipstick. The fluid should be reddish with no burned smell or bubbles on the stick.
If the car passes these tests and the price is right, you should be getting a good buy.