Hunting for a new-to-you car is an exciting, yet nerve-racking experience. With many unknown variables surrounding pre-owned vehicles — including car history, maintenance and depreciation —  it can be a challenge to find the right one, especially when it comes to keeping you and your money out of the repair shop.  While not exhaustive (no pun intended), this buying guide from KSL Cars should get you on the right track.

Before You Start Looking

The first thing to consider when buying a used car is your needs and wants. In other words, what are you hiring this car to do?

Research different makes and models before you start inquiring about specific listings. With traditional publications including Car and Driver and Motor Trend, not to mention countless YouTube channels like Utah’s own Everyday Driver and Ben Hardy, finding reviews and recommendations on vehicles that will meet your needs should be a simple and enjoyable undertaking. 

Be realistic about what you can afford. Budget out the cost of the vehicle (including tax, title, license and other registration fees), and stick to your budget. This eliminates a swath of vehicles and allows you to zero in on the best options for your money. Don’t be car-poor, but get the best car your budget allows. 

Shopping for a Car

With over 64,000 cars in its database, KSL Cars is sure to have the make and model you’re looking for. You can also shop for vehicles using the KSL Classifieds app (available from the App Store or Google Play). Enter search parameters — make, model, mileage, year, price, trim level, etc. — and create a Saved Search. You can customize the app home screen to display the results of your Saved Search each time you open the app and/or receive notifications whenever listings are added that meet your criteria. You can also refine your search to a radius as near or as far as you are willing to go to test drive vehicles. 

Savvy auto consumers also check the price of listed vehicles against the values in Kelley Blue Book and the National Automobile Dealers Association. (Banks and credit unions also rely on these companies for lending decisions.) Use this value as a starting point for negotiations.

You’re now ready to reach out to the seller and make an appointment to see the vehicle, whether it’s for sale by owner or a dealership.

Working With Private Sellers

When buying a used car, working with private sellers might yield a higher likelihood of learning its backstory. Dealers rarely know a vehicle’s history or have any record of it beyond a Carfax report and possibly some maintenance records if the car was serviced there. 

Questions to Ask

What’s the story behind the purchase and use of the car? Why sell it now? Observe how the seller speaks of the car and their ownership experience. This is a good indication of how the seller might have cared for the vehicle and how reliable it has been. 

What work has been performed on the car? Have any major components been replaced? How much money has the seller put into the vehicle? Maintenance histories and service records are extremely valuable in the decision-making process. Ask to see any documentation the seller has on hand.

You may also want to ask the seller for a Carfax or AutoHistory report. This is optional but strongly recommended. Reports typically show the status of the title (clean, rebuilt, salvage, etc.) and accident history. In some cases, the maintenance history is also shown. 

man looking inside a car

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Inspecting the Car

Complete a full exterior check, carefully examining every side and angle. How is the body? Are there scratches or  dents? Discoloration or rust? Get on your knees and peer underneath to check for deterioration. Some rust on the undercarriage is expected, especially here in Utah. But if excessive rust is visible, it’s best to get a second opinion from a third-party inspection service (see more below). Don’t forget to check the condition of the tires. Signs of uneven wear, cracks from sun damage or low tread means the tires need to be replaced.

Next, complete an interior check. Look for general cleanliness, stains, unusual or excessive wear on seats and carpet. Your inspection should also include your sense of smell. If the interior of the vehicle has a musty or wet odor, there is cause for concern about potential mold, rust or other issues. If the roof has water stains, it could be a sign of a leaky sunroof or windshield. 

Test the functionality of all controls and switches while inspecting the interior. Insert the key and observe the instrument cluster. Do any lights stay on after you start the car? If so, be sure to inquire if the seller knows the cause for the light being illuminated. If they do not know, proceed with caution. 

Time to pop the hood. The engine check is arguably the most important. Examine the hoses and belts. Are they cracked or worn? Also, look at the coolant in the radiator. What color is it? If it appears gray and milky, that’s usually indicative of a problem with the head gasket. Check the other fluid levels in their containers, including the oil level and color.

Tips for a Good Test Drive

Before you decide to buy a car or not, test drive the vehicle in different circumstances, on both ends of its performance spectrum. 

Upon ignition, take note of how long it takes to start up. If it seems unusually long, be sure to ask about it. Listen for clanging, rattling or any other unusual sounds. 

Notice how the acceleration feels. Does it shake or stutter? Try a variety of speeds. Go on city streets, but be sure to get on the freeway. Does the vehicle drive straight or does it pull to the side? If it pulls, it could require an alignment. 

Be sure to test the brakes. Does the vehicle stop quickly? Does the steering wheel shake or vibrate excessively when doing so? 

If it’s a manual transmission, how does it shift? Does it go into gear easily? If it’s an automatic transmission, does it shift smoothly or does it seem rough/delayed? 

Making an Offer

If you have cause for concern with the car or if it just is not what you’re looking for, be prepared to walk away, no matter how nice the person seems.

On the other hand, if the car is what you’ve hoped for and it feels right, be prepared to make a fair offer and commit to the purchase. Either way, being honest and transparent in your intentions is best.

Working with Dealerships

When working with a dealership, the inspection and test-drive process is much the same as it would be for a private party. Dealerships carry a lot of used inventory, which can make shopping convenient and easy, but know that you may be without when it comes to history, maintenance and price negotiation.

Most dealers have very slim margins on their used cars. While you may be able to negotiate the price significantly on a new car, do not expect the same negotiation room for a used car. The salesperson may be able to adjust a few hundred dollars, but probably not much more than that. There are also additional fees to consider as part of the total purchase price when working with a dealer rather than a private seller. 

It is unlikely a dealership will have any history on the car. The salesperson might provide you with a Carfax or potential service records if the car was maintained at the dealership. Aside from that, the service history might be a bit of a gamble. 

a man giving a woman car keys

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Prepurchase Inspection by a Third Party

If you’re seriously considering the purchase of a vehicle — whether from a private seller or a dealership — it’s a good idea to arrange for a third-party pre-purchase inspection. A PPI usually runs around $100. A third-party mechanic will give you an honest assessment of the vehicle and point out any major areas for concern. 

Even if the car looks and drives well, a PPI can still be well worth the cost to ensure there aren’t any hidden problems lying in wait for its new owner. 

Payment and Paperwork

Finalizing the sale is a fairly straightforward process. If you purchase a vehicle from a private seller, all you’ll need is a copy of the bill of sale and the title to the vehicle. Dealerships may require a few more items of documentation, which they’ll request of you. Expect additional paperwork if you are financing the vehicle through the dealership, a bank or credit union.

If you’re buying the vehicle outright, use a secure means of making the transaction. A cashier’s check in the exact amount of the purchase is often the preferred payment method. If the seller requests another payment method like an app, make sure it is well known and has adequate safety features.

Finally, you will need to register the vehicle at the Division of Motor Vehicles in your area after making a purchase from a private seller. If you closed with a dealership, this step should be taken care of for you.

About the author: Having owned everything from a DeLorean to an E46 M3 to a Toyota Land Cruiser, Jason Bell is a lifelong car enthusiast who loves sharing his passions as a teacher, writer, speaker and social media manager. Contact him at