Buying a new vehicle is a fairly simple process, you know which dealerships will have the brand you’re looking for, and you know that the vehicle you buy hasn’t been in an accident, poorly maintained, or stolen. Dealers will even handle things like financing and license plate transfers. Buying used is not quite so simple, there are many more types of dealerships selling used vehicles, and that’s before we even get into private sellers. In the hopes of making the process a little easier, we’ve put together the following guide to where to look for your next used vehicle.
Private sellers are really the wild wild west of used car buying. Maybe you’ll get a good deal, maybe a scammer will sell you a stolen car, it’s sometimes hard to tell. Sometimes these transactions are fine, most people listing vehicles for private sale are doing so honestly, but it can be difficult to tell which is which. If you’re going to go this route, be sure that you get the title at the time of the sale, don’t let the owner brush you off with promises to send it to you later. The prices from private sellers are usually a bit better, and a bit more negotiable, but the downside is that – unless you’re paying cash for the vehicle – you’ll have to secure financing yourself, which can be time-consuming and sometimes not a viable option for those with less than perfect credit.
These kinds of dealerships are the usually small lots that you see dotted throughout the city. These vary nearly as much as private owners, but the advantage here is that you can check online resources like Google or Yelp for some verification that you’re dealing with an honest business, and at least they have a physical location you can return to if there is an issue. On the subject of independent dealerships, Car & Driver has pointed out* that these have the advantage of often offering their own financing, and that this financing is often easier to obtain than private financing for those who don’t have great credit scores. That said, the selection is often pretty limited, and sometimes that “easier to obtain” financing doesn’t have the best terms.
There are a handful of big chains of independent (in this case meaning dealerships that don’t have a new vehicle franchise) dealerships around, which are usually a mix of brick-and-mortar locations and online shopping. These are generally quite good when it comes to selection, sometimes letting you browse a huge online selection from across an enormous geographic area. These vehicles will often go through an inspection/repair process as well, which is a real advantage over the previously mentioned methods. But one major downside, as mentioned by J.D. Power**, is that you often won’t see your vehicle yourself until after you’ve already bought it, always iffy with used vehicles. These chains will also generally have the highest operating costs of any of the methods mentioned here, and the prices will tend to reflect that.
When it comes to peace of mind, a brand-affiliated (meaning a franchised new car dealership) is your best option. These will be dealerships that actually specialize in the brand of vehicle they’re offering, complete with a service department with expert techs and a parts department that cuts out any need for a middleman. Inventory tends to be sizable, and available to be shopped online as well, combining the big advantage of independent chains with the ability to actually see the vehicle in person before you buy. Financing is often the best at these dealerships as well, thanks to a closer relationship with financial institutions.
The biggest advantage of purchasing a used vehicle from a new car franchised dealership is that these dealerships are the only place to find a Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicle. These are usually vehicles that are coming off a lease, and are only 2 to 4 years old. They’re lightly used, but also go through an incredibly thorough inspection process before they can be certified. Additionally, Certified Pre-Owned vehicles come with a Certified Pre-Owned Warranty, and this will be backed up by the manufacturer, an advantage that you absolutely can’t get from any of the other options listed above. If you’re looking for the same kind of confidence that you have when buying a new vehicle, but without the high price, CPO is definitely the way to go.