How to Buy a Used Car Online If You Live In The USA In Six Steps

An artistic photo of a Volkswagen Beetle - not something you want in a used car ad 7 photos
Write down or make a spreadsheet with the cars you are interested to buy. Write down phone numbers, just in case the ads expire. A screen-grab also worksThis picture is not "clear" enough to determine the state of an used vehicleRemember to be polite and respectful to the sellerInspect every inch of a used vehicle. Ask for more photos if the ad has images like thisTriple-check the papers before signing them, and do not pay money in advanceIt's okay to walk away from some "deals."
Used cars are an adventure into the unknown for almost any customer. If you are not adequately informed, only luck will help you get a decent ride.
Fortunately, we savor the age of the Internet, and becoming informed will only cost you a few hours of your time. Evidently, it cannot all happen in one place, so this story will only take a few minutes to read, and from there you can start a personal “checklist” for every used vehicle you are interested in purchasing from an online ad.

It goes without saying that it is wise to have a budget in mind (and in your wallet) before looking for a used vehicle. Second-hand cars come and go, and those that are worth purchasing get sold before someone on the Internet has time to save up for that particular example.

Before we start this guide, our best advice is to get a realistic idea of how much money you can spend for the purchase of a vehicle, and what you expect from that car.

Avoid wasting your time by dreaming (and searching for) unrealistic cars when compared to your needs and budget. There’s no point in searching for a high-end luxury model when you need a car to tow things and carry your stuff from one place to another. Feel free to ask your most level-headed friend about getting a car after explaining what you need from that vehicle.

With the advice above in mind, it is smart to present our suggestions for the basis of a checklist that should be done by anyone looking for a previously-owned car. We are not going to go into specifics here, as this is a guide for those that have a clue about cars, but are not experts in the field.


Write down or make a spreadsheet with the cars you are interested to buy\. Write down phone numbers, just in case the ads expire\. A screen\-grab also works
You have decided you want to buy a used car. You know what kind of vehicle you need, and have a few brands and models in mind. You already have a preference for engine and transmission options, and you know what kind of gear (A/C, power windows, etc.) you expect from that vehicle. First of all, search the most popular second-hand trading web pages in your area, and see if you can afford what you want.

Make an inquiry with several insurance agents to see how much would it cost to get insurance for the kind of vehicle you are seeking. Make sure you understand why the fee might be higher for one model, and why another will get another price. If things are still OK with you, start browsing brand-specific owner forums. Find out common problems, how much it costs to fix them, and general ownership costs.

Find the most patient and detail-savvy owner of the car you like, and write them a message or e-mail asking for their advice. You may learn insights about the vehicle you want to buy, so do not push their patience, and always be polite. Nobody is required to reply, so try to find the nicest person around to get detailed information.

Browsing the ads, choosing what you must see

This picture is not "clear" enough to determine the state of an used vehicle
First things first - start looking for cars in your area. Unless you live in a very secluded part of the U.S., you have a shot at finding a vehicle that fits your needs and that can be found nearby. Do not expect to find it online and buy it across the street, but avoid driving half-way across the country just to see a car.

You are only interested in ads that have a photo gallery, and make sure those pictures are recent ones. If they are unclear, or shot poorly, but the rest of the ad sounds good, it is wise to contact the seller and to ask kindly to see more photos of the product.

If you are looking for something extremely rare, and it is very far away from you, ask the seller to make a video depicting the engine starting and running (from the outside included), and a video of walking around the car. Show that to the friend who has extensive knowledge about cars (if that is not you in your group).

Avoid poorly-written ads, which lack basic grammar, or that do not have any details about the vehicle. You should look for someone that is thorough in their description, not for something like “car for sale, ran when parked, $5,275.” There’s no point in contacting those that have made ads following this pattern.

First contact and the meet-up

Remember to be polite and respectful to the seller
First and foremost, whatever the seller tells you, do not send money in advance, and do not pay anything/provide financial or personal information or anything else that might be exploited to scam you. Just search “PayPal scam” on Google for details on the scheme. There’s no such thing as a private seller that has poor cell reception, but has decent Internet, and will “ship your car to your location,” and you will pay when it arrives.

The most important thing before meeting with a seller is to have your homework ready. Know everything there is to know about that model, from its standard features to optional extra that were available when it was launched. Figure out the difference between a facelifted model and a pre-facelift car, and what to look for on every body style.

Bring a friend with you, and be prepared to walk away from the vehicle if something is not right with it, or if you just have a bad feeling about the seller. Do your best to find a mechanic near the place where the vehicle is located, or pay a trusted mechanic to come with you to see the car before purchasing it. This is why it is best to find a car near the place where you live - you can see it several times before buying it, and the second visit could be with your mechanic.

The inspection

Inspect every inch of a used vehicle\. Ask for more photos if the ad has images like this
At this point, you have found a car that has the proper paperwork, and is without a “salvage” on the title. It is wise to make sure of this aspect before going to see the vehicle. You must check that the VIN on the car matches the one in its papers, and that the seller is also the person listed as the owner. From there, you must see if the vehicle is in the same condition as it was listed.

It must start from the first try when cold, and it must do the same when the engine has warmed up. This applies unless you are looking for a project car, where it might be your job to get it running. Since this guide is not about project cars, you need a car that runs and drives. Carefully inspect every inch of the vehicle, and look for bodged repairs, improvisations, and any sign of a problem that has been covered up.

It is ideal to raise the car on jack stands (not just a jack), and look underneath it. This should be done before paying a mechanic to see it, just to check for any signs of problems, which can range from leaks to a bent chassis. If you can spot leaks yourself, just walk away from the sale. Always check a vehicle at a respectable workshop or with a mechanic before paying anything for it.

The deal

Triple\-check the papers before signing them, and do not pay money in advance
If you have reached this point with all the boxes checked, you should have found a car that suits your needs, is in your price range, and has been deemed “safe” by the mechanic of your choice. It is best to know beforehand what kind of price people put on vehicles just like the one you are attempting to buy before negotiating with the seller.

From the moment the discussion begins, be prepared to give up and walk away if you cannot reach an agreement. Not all sales go without a hitch, and do not expect the seller to make a massive discount just because you asked. However, attempt to get a discount on the vehicle, especially if it does not match the condition in the ad, but is still adequate for your needs.

Triple-check the papers before handing any money to the seller, and be sure never to be rushed into buying just because someone else “is also interested.” Do not fall for those tricks, as shrewd sellers might pretend things like these to push you against your better judgment.

The same goes for dealers, with the classical “let me ask my boss” routine, which could be mated with a loan offered on the spot. Remember to check with your preferred bank for a better deal if you need to borrow money to buy a vehicle.

What you should never do

It's okay to walk away from some "deals\."
We have said this again, and others have reminded everyone never to do this, but it keeps happening. Do not pay an advance/down-payment/reservation fee on a vehicle, and never provide your financial data/Paypal to someone that has asked for it over the phone. Many scams are based on attempted sales or purchases that appear to be great deals with people that seem trustworthy.

Do not drive across the country to see a vehicle that only had a few poorly made pictures in the ad. Avoid images that have been digitally enhanced, and do not bother calling people that did not place any photos in their ads.

Try to find a suitable car in your state, and do not go across the country for a car unless it is the only one in the country with your desired specifications. Always ask for more pictures of the car before seeing it, and make sure it is tidy, and that it matches to the stated specifications.

It is wise to see several cars from your area before leaving the state for something that is further away. Keep the latter as a last resort, and be sure to have someone with you when you see any second-hand car you want to buy. The second set of eyes might spot what you cannot see, from a dishonest seller, to a leak or strange sound of the vehicle that gets past your attention because of excitement.
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About the author: Sebastian Toma
Sebastian Toma profile photo

Sebastian's love for cars began at a young age. Little did he know that a career would emerge from this passion (and that it would not, sadly, involve being a professional racecar driver). In over fourteen years, he got behind the wheel of several hundred vehicles and in the offices of the most important car publications in his homeland.
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