The makes and models mentioned in this article are not placed in any particular order, nor intended to be viewed as a ranked list. KSL Cars does not endorse any vehicles. The views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not reflect the views or opinions of KSL.com or its employees.

When is the best time to buy a pre-owned vehicle? Before you need one. Shopping is always less stressful when you have time to do your research, comparing and contrasting different makes and models. But whether you have the luxury of time or you need a different vehicle immediately (read: yesterday!), don’t start shopping just yet. Finish reading this buying guide first, then download our used car buying checklist PDF so you don’t forget any important details. Even if you aren’t in the market for a previously owned vehicle right now, download the checklist for future reference.

a man sitting on a couch budgeting

Do Your Homework

Though the above H-word isn’t a curse word, it usually incites a collective groan from young and old alike. But doing your homework is an essential part of the buying process for any large-ticket item — especially automobiles.

Establish an Initial Budget and a Monthly Budget

No one wants to be car poor. Without careful budgeting, however, it can happen very easily. Be realistic about how much you can afford. Ferrari on a Fiesta budget? Not going to happen.

Your initial budget should include the purchase price, sales tax, registration tax and dealer fees (if applicable). When buying from a dealership, potential incentives or rebates may offset dealer fees. If you are financing the purchase of your vehicle, get pre-qualified and be sure to include application fees, loan origination fees, etc. in your budget. 

The length of the loan is also an important consideration for both your initial and your monthly budget. While it might seem like a good idea to opt for a 72-month or 84-month loan, you pay substantially more interest in the long run and may find yourself owing more than your car is worth due to depreciation. Financial experts recommend sticking with a traditional 60-month loan. Look for something with a lower purchase price If you need more than five years to pay off a used vehicle.

Your monthly budget should also include the insurance premium, fuel or charging costs, parking fees and maintenance. A study conducted by AAA determined the average annual ownership costs of a small sedan are $7,114 ($592/month), while those of a half-ton pickup are $10,839 ($903/month). Exact ownership costs vary based on the size of the vehicle, its model year, how many miles it is driven and where you live, among other factors.

Prioritize Current and Future Needs

In northern Utah, all-wheel drive is usually a must for the winter. Heated seats? Nice, but maybe not necessary. Make a list of wants and needs, then rank them based on your lifestyle. Someone who spends two hours a day commuting has different needs than someone who only runs errands once a week. 

Consider how long you plan to keep the vehicle, too. Don’t say “yeah, baby” to that 1961 Jaguar E-Type if you’re planning to start a family in a year or two. It doesn’t have car seat anchors … or even a back seat for that matter. 

Research Makes and Models

Once you’ve determined your budget and needs, it’s time to do specific research. Sites like Car and Driver, Edmunds.com, Kelley Blue Book and Consumer Reports offer buying advice and make it easy to compare makes, models, trim levels and suggested prices. For specific safety ratings and recall information, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website is a valuable resource.

a man and woman shop for a car

Be a Savvy Shopper

With approximately 50,000 vehicle listings from both private sellers and dealerships, KSL Cars is a smart place to start shopping. If you don’t find the exact make and model you’re looking for right away, use the KSL Classifieds app to save your search and receive notifications as soon as a listing meeting your criteria — including the maximum radius you are willing to go for test drives — is added to the site. Make inquiries via phone, text or email, then schedule times to see the vehicles you’re interested in.  

Inspect the Vehicle Thoroughly

Use all of your senses to truly get a feel for the vehicle. Walk around the car and do a visual inspection. Look under the hood as well, noting the condition of the engine, hoses, belts, battery connection, etc. 

Inside the vehicle, inhale deeply. Does it have that “new car air freshener” smell? Or are there hints of problems like mildew or dusty vents? How does the steering wheel feel in your hands? Are the seats comfortable? Easily adjustable? 

Exhale. And don’t forget to check the tech. You’re gonna need enough charging ports for those long road trips and scenic drives in Utah. Namaste. 

Take a Test Drive 

On the road, drive the vehicle as you would drive it daily — whether primarily on the freeway or around suburbia — as well as in a variety of other driving conditions. Can you see well out of the windows or parts of the frame blocking your view? How does it ride over bumps and bridges? Are the brakes responsive? 

Do the smell test while you’re driving, too. A rotten egg scent is usually indicative of an issue with the catalytic converter, while a sweet odor could be a leaky radiator. A hot, burning smell is associated with multiple problems, including an overheated engine, clutch problems, low transmission fluid or bad brake pads.   

Listen up. How do the speakers sound when you’re on the road? Turn off the radio. Listen to the engine, noting any unusual sounds like clanging or rattling. The amount of wind noise you can hear in the cabin is also a consideration. 

Wait to Make an Offer

Don’t let your emotions blow your budget and make an offer immediately following a test drive. Let the seller know if you are interested, but finish test driving other vehicles and compare the notes on your used car buying guide checklist before making an offer.

Once you’ve agreed on a fair price with the seller (backed by your previous research), have your payment ready. Private sellers will want to verify cashier’s checks or money orders with the issuing institution. If the seller holds the title, it can be signed on the spot. If the lender still holds the title, however, you’ll need to arrange a signing with them. 

a man and woman purchasing a new car

Final Details

Congratulations! You’ve made a deal! Time to collect your prize pony car and ride off into the sunset, right? Not so fast. There are a few final details to take care of.

Private Seller

If you’re buying from a private seller, download a bill of sale for Utah or Idaho. Get any promises made by the dealer or private seller in writing. And be sure to ask for copies of service or repair records pertaining to the vehicle. Execute the required documents and report the sale to the Division of Motor Vehicles. 

Dealership

The dealership will take care of all of the paperwork for you. But don’t sign your life away without reading the contracts carefully. You may want to opt for additional services beyond the warranty coverage — many are excellent values. If the upgrades aren’t part of your budget, however, be prepared to decline them. 

Insurance

Contact your insurance agent as soon as possible. Most policies offer automatic coverage on new and used vehicle purchases for a few days, but the sooner you let them know the better. If you traded in a vehicle, make sure it gets removed from your policy. 

Tap to It

Whether previously owned or brand new, KSL Cars has a variety of vehicle listings to choose from. Use our car buying checklist PDF to quickly compare the models you take for a spin. 

Need a bigger garage to store your new vehicle? The KSL Classifieds app allows you to browse listings and save searches for both KSL Cars and KSL Homes. Download it today.