Advice needed about buying a used car from a dealer

I live in Boston and work in the suburbs. I own a 2002 Saturn SL2 w/ over 175K miles. She has two problems that would cost over $2000 to fix (very slow antifreeze leak in cylinder head gasket & new struts may be needed). I’m looking to buy a used car before she breaks down. However, buying a used car from a private party in a responsible manner (e.g. taking a test drive, bringing the car to my mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection) may be difficult to impossible until I can actually get two or three days off work, which won’t happen soon.

I’m hoping to find a reliable hatchback that will handle winter conditions for under $7500; I’ve responded to many ads on a site which I will not name in case this violates the rules, but I’ve gotten relatively few responses. Some models that seem promising are Chevy Aveo, Honda Fit, Ford Focus, Nissan Versa, & Toyota Matrix.

No offense meant to used car dealers but I’ve heard that I will get a bad deal if I try to buy used car from a dealer. However, I may have to try this because I don’t have time to buy from a private party. Any advice on how I can protect myself from a bad deal if I go to a dealer? I’ve read some online tips (e.g. always take a used car to your mechanic for an inspection before you decide to buy it, cars w/ only one previous owner are generally more reliable, esp. if that owner performed regular maintenance and has the records to prove it). Aside from that I am clueless.

Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

Your problem is the same that millions of people go through when buying a used car. Generally you will pay more going through a dealer so a private sale is better. The Ford Focus and the Nissan Versa stand out in my mind as the better vehicles in the bunch. The Aveo, Fit and Matrix have more problems than the other two. The most important thing though is to drive the car you want to buy and make sure it’s gets inspected by a good, independent mechanic. It shouldn’t take more than a day to get this accomplished if you start early in the morning.

Unless the car is certified pre-owned with a warranty longer than 30 days I would also take a dealer’s car to an independent mechanic for inspection.
IMO a 2005-8 Matrix is a much better car than a Nissan Versa.

Whether private sale or dealer, you should still have your mechanic look the car over before you buy it! That is how you protect yourself no matter who sells you the car.

Find cars listed online in you area from local dealers you might want. Surf Consumer Reports and Edmunds and KBB for the reliability ratings of those cars you wish to buy (Say NO to Aveo) and the average price paid for the cars in your area. Compare their listed prices with average paid. The listed prices WILL be higher, you should bargain down towards that price. The internet is your friend here.

Make notes and bring them with you to the dealer. Don’t be pressured into making the deal that day. Test drive the cars you like. If it isn’t right, move on to the next one. If they won’t let you drive, move on. If you like the car, whip out your KBB or Edmunds report and make an offer, LOWER than the average paid, you want room to bargain. Work to a number you like. NEVER work to a monthly payment, EVER.

Be sure and look over the offer. KNOW what the sales tax rate is in your area. A dealer tried to tack on an additional $2000 into “Tax and Title Fees” into an offer on a car I wanted. Shady, very shady.The more research you have walking into the dealer and can review later, the better you will feel about the deal. If he sells it out from under you, so what? There are thousands of other cars out there. Don’t let pressure cause you to make a bad deal.

If you trade the Saturn, the dealer will either give you next to nothing for the car (and they will send it straight to auction) or they will give you too much and inflate the cost of the car you want to buy. Either way sell it privately. Good Luck!

I am a big GM fan, but I would say pass on the Aveo. It is below average in almost all categories compared to the competition. Among the others, find the newest one that meets you price and mileage requirements and is in excellent condition. If you buy from a dealer, it reduces the risk a lot by taking it to an independent (from the seller) garage and paying for a prepurchase inspection. If you look at a webs site like Edmunds, they will give you an average dealer resale price for the car you are interested in. Use that to gauge the sales price. Also reduce the sales price by any issues found or ask the dealer to fix the problems. You will, of course, have to agree to buy it if your requests are met.

Have you told all your relatives and friends that you’re looking? Often the best deal comes from a relative that’s thinking of trading anyway. Let 'em all know.

There is simply no way of knowing if any used car on the planet will be reliable or not. They’re all a coin flip.
You can increase the odds in your favor a bit by having one inspected pre-purchase but even that is no guarantee.

Given all the issues of buying cars from private sellers such as fraud, theft and personal safety, I would much rather just use a dealer. The problem is though that dealers are not going to have many cars around in that price range. They would have just been auctioned off. Like I have said before, the situation has changed some over the past ten years so you may want to consider a much newer car at a higher price or even a new one. You may be much happier in the long run and it might even be as cheap in the long run.

“IMO a 2005-8 Matrix is a much better car than a Nissan Versa.”

The Matrix and the Vibe (Pontiac) are junk because I’ve owned a 2005 model and a 2006 model that I got in arbitration for the 2005 model. I don’t know what you’ve been reading but the Versa is the superior vehicle here…albeit not by much. Look at the front tires of any Vibe or Matrix and you will see what I mean. Better yet…ask your local front end alignment specialist about them and you will probably get an ear full of negativity.

I agree. The Aveo is a looser. The Matrix and Vibes are Toyota products with a solid history. That does not mean they are immune to problems if they have not been taken care of. Even the best of cars are at the mercy of the maintenace and driving habits of the previous owner. The Newer the car in general, the more you can depnd upon ratings for more reliable vehicles for long term ownership. Nissan has been inconsistent in all their models. Still, a newer well cared for Versa could be better buy then an older beat up Vibe or Matrix. Personally, I would include Corollas. There are a gazillion out there and you stand a good chance of getting a well cared for one used. If I wanted a used reliable compact car, Corollas would be my first choice to look for. Corollas have long term reliability records that most other cars can only dream of. Check consumer reports for the cars that have lasted the longest by survey. Toyota and Honda lead the pack for the most models.

In my opinion, the Matrix should be decent, because it uses Corolla mechanicals

From what I’ve heard, the Versa is not a high quality car. There are better choices out there

The Focus is okay. The interior is a little cheap, but it’s got a superior suspension versus the Matrix. More fun to drive, but the ride is a little rough. The same could be said of the others also, due to their size

I wouldn’t give the Aveo a second glance. There are much better choices out there. GM just slapped its name on a Korean import, so that they would have a vehicle in that size.

Don’t know much about the Honda Fit. It’s probably got typical Honda reliability, which is usually very good

All in all, the Focus might be he best all around bet. It doesn’t hold its value quite as well as the Honda and Toyota, so this may work in your favor.

I tried a Vibe out. Drove it about a mile and didn’t like it at all.

“Look at the front tires of any Vibe or Matrix and you will see what I mean.”

The original tires on my Matrix (Continentals) had a strange wear pattern and a short life.
The Yokohamas on it now are behaving much better. About half worn at 27k miles.
Alignment was not the issue.

I’ve had 8 trouble free years with it so far.

I have purchased used cars from new car dealers and from used car dealers. With dealers that handle only used cars shop at a dealer who has been in business for at least 5 years. Insist on taking the car to an independent mechanic for inspection. Don’t mention your trade. When you trade in your car, there are two transactions–you are buying a car from the dealer and he is buying a car from you. Don’t confuse these transactions. Once you have agreed on a price for his car, ask if he wants to buy your car. He may say no. At that point, dispose of the car yourself. Even if you donate the car, you can take the value of the car off your taxes and still be money ahead.

I’ll throw my 2 cents in on the Aveo, pass on that one.

Dealerships are just one of many sources for used cars. There is no harm done to visit some or all the dealerships in town for a look-see. You might find exactly what you are looking for at one of them, and complete a deal in record time, saving you a bundle. Your time is money right? If not, or the dealerships have cars that interest you, but they want too dear a price, or they are just too difficult to work with, the answer at that point is simple: look elsewhere. Some folks here report good results with the rental car company used car lots, and others have said they got good results using an auto broker to find them a used car.

The only used vehicle I’ve purchased, I purchased from a trusted friend. And that one worked out ok. I paid him exactly the price he asked. I didn’t bargain at all. And it was a fair price. So another option, ask all your friends, relatives, co-workers, church-goers if they have a car they are considering to sell.

If you decide to try the private sale from an unknown-to-you person, there’s some common sense things you need to do to maintain your safety and avoid scams. Number one is to visit your local DMV – before making any offers – and find out what they have to say about the best way to accomplish private sales. Best of luck.

The Fit is one of the most reliable cars made today. If you check out the Consumer Reports guide you’ll see that the Fit has been in the highest category every year since it was introduced, with no problems that stand out. That is way better than the Aveo or Versa, which are a mixed bag. The Focus of that era is OK, if unexciting, and the Matrix/Vibe is quite all right. No car is perfect, of course. You should also be considering the very good Mazda3.

Thank you all for your replies! The advice is very helpful. Mustangman, you wrote: “NEVER work to a monthly payment, EVER”. Aside from the fact that one ends up paying more $ in total, are there other reasons to avoid agreeing to a monthly payment? If I understand correctly, if I buy a used car for $11K and put $1K down, I am taking a loan of $10K. Depending upon the terms of the loan, I may end up paying a total of, e.g. $12.5K to pay off the loan.

Paying an extra $2,500 is reason enough to avoid this. However, say I have two choices: 1) Buy a low-mileage used car for $11K that will last eight years and will cost less to own 2) Buy a $4K car because that is the most I can afford to pay for without a loan, but costs more to own and only lasts four years.

Which is a better choice? I don’t mean to put you on the defensive; I am just trying to figure out why you so strongly advise against taking out a loan. As you can tell, I am pretty naïve when it comes to buying a car (and many other things!).

Thanks again, Mustangman and everyone else for your valuable input!

There’s nothing wrong with a car loan. The only time it’s a problem is when the loan is tailored by the dealer to the figure they can squeeze you into. This is where the numbers game starts and the customer ends up paying more than they should due to increased interest rate, rebates kept by the dealer, total price, trade-in allowances, and so on.

A survey done not many years ago of car dealers showed that something like 85% of customers who enter the car are only concerned with the monthly payment. That leaves the customer open to being squeezed by the dealer. That’s also why you see all of the media and prints ads practically screaming “XXX PER MONTH!!!”. That’s the lure to keep you focused on monthly only.

There’s no way of knowing whether or not an 11k dollar car will outlast a 4k dollar car. That’s more a factor of maintenance and driving habits than anything else and the latter could easily be better than the former.

If you have 3-4k to buy a car outright my suggestion would be to approach a local bank or credit union and work out a pre-approval with them on a car loan. With that kind of down there should not be a problem with buying a later model vehicle and it can eliminate a lot of the sales BS you could be subjected to. Buying a car is a minefield even for someone who is familiar with the process. Hope that helps.

If you opt for a loan, just make sure you shop for rates before you go to the dealer. Sometimes the dealer has the best rate, but often a bank or credit union has the best rate plan. Find a lender before you shop seriously and get prequalified for a loan. Then you can compare that loan to the dealers offering. In your case, a loan for a more reliable, long-lived car is justified. Sometimes loans allow buyers to get a car that is more expensive than they should be shopping for. That does not seem like the case here.