1. Getting Started
„Only when someone knows his destination, can he find the way,“ said Loazi some 2.500 years ago and thus gave us an important rule for buying a used car: The more you know what you want (and don’t want!), the better to find it.
Before you get started you should set your financial “pain limits.” Consider the maximum amount you want to spend. This amount is an important search key and also signals when you must withdrawal from price negotiations.
You should decide for a category of vehicle that meets your needs (e.g. small car, mid-range or van). You will find information about individual models on various portals on the Internet or in printed car magazines. When choosing a car, don‘t forget to consider all the expected running costs. After making a choice, check for the model’s weak points through online forums so that you know what you should later pay particular attention to. A look at the statistics for breakdowns reveals relevant problems.
Other important criteria for a first search:
- Emission classification
- Current location
Where to look?
The biggest marketplace for used car offers is found on the Internet. Enter the most important criteria in the search option and you will immediately receive all offers that meet your parameters.
Dealer or private?
Buying a used car from a dealer reduces many risks, but bargains are more likely to come from private individuals.
As a general rule, dealers professionally inspect their used cars and fix the defects and damage that they find. Buyers are better legally protected because the dealer remains responsible for material defects for at least one year. If damage is discovered in the first six months, the dealer is automatically liable unless he can prove that the damage incurred after the sale. Common tricks, such as selling the vehicle 'bought as seen, " are invalid. Often dealers also offer additional guarantees.
Your legal protection is significantly reduced when buying a used car from an individual. In this circumstance, the seller is responsible for six months, and thereafter only if fraud is proved. If you look persistently and negotiate well - with luck – you can get very good prices.
When searching for a used vehicle, you may become flooded with results and may have to narrow your criteria. A good way to do this is by limiting the radius in which you want to search for the car. Other limiting parameters include the price, the year of manufacture, the mileage or equipment. Adjust the criteria until you have a manageable number of hits. Now you can compare the cars directly and inspect serious candidates in more detail.
- Set Price Limit
- Research weakness of the desired model
- Hit rate e.g. controlled by criteria “perimeter”
2. Condition Check
„The chain is no stronger than its weakest link“ –is a proverb that teaches us to examine all the individual parts of something before reaching a conclusion about the whole. When looking at a used vehicle advertisement, the following points should be considered:
The more detailed the desciption of the vehicle, the better. When an advertisement is filled out in detail about the strong AND weak points of the car (e.g. accidents or rust), the seller has taken the first step towards becoming a credible seller. If the seller uses phrases such as „in great condition“ without facts to back up the claim, you should proceed with caution. This also applies to vague phrases such as „condition as to be expected“ or „no significant accidents.“ Ask yourself if the description is even believeable when you see an ad that claims only „light scratches/scuffs“ on a seven year old car.
„A picture is worth a thousand words“ is especially true for a used car. Check if the points in the description can be seen in the images. The quality of the pictures alone can be enough to draw certain conclusions; are the images blurry or in low light - is the seller trying to possibly hide something? The more detailed the photos, the better. If interior photos aren‘t included, you should pay special attention to this later. Crust appearing on the paint should also be a warning that something could be afoul.
No advert can answer all of your questions so write down what information you still need so that you can go through these at a later point with the seller.
Before you place a vehicle in your favourite list, you must consider not only the purchase price of the car, but also the anncillary costs. With this information you can decide on different models. In your calculation you should include the following:
- Car tax (depends on the size of the engine and the emissions)
- Insurance costs
- Fuel efficiency
- Maintenance (check with the manufacturer for service costs)
The more that you know about the history of a car, the better you can make an objective judgement about it. Therefore collect as much historical data as possible. Carfax offers a practical service for this. All that you need is the Vehicle Identification Number („VIN“). Just type in the 17 character code and you will recieve a report about the history of the car. You will find (dependant on data) important details about the car:
- Number of owners
- Type of use (Private, Commercial, Taxi, Courier, etc.)
- Inspections and repairs
- Mileage inconsistencies
- Model recalls
- Import and export of the car
With this information you can verify what is provided by and said by the seller. If the VIN of the car isn’t inside the advertisement, you can easily ask the seller for it.
Only cars that pass this condition check should be considered for viewing and a test drive.
- Vague descriptions should be viewed with caution
- Calculate monthly costs
- Collect as much historical data as possible
3. Establishing Contact
Telephone or E-Mail?
Is this the right car AND the right seller? Before you test drive your favorite car, you must first contact the seller ,which provides a good opportunity to learn more about both the car and the seller. Here‘s how to approach it:
Shy people understandably would rather send a written message than call a total stranger. The advantage of sending an e-mail is that you can think over your questions and formulate them properly. Additionally, when you get a reply, you will have your answer in black and white. The disadvantage of e-mail is that you recieve a limited personal impression of the seller and additonal/follow up questions are not immediately answered.
Before agreeing with the seller to a test drive date, you should ask a few important questions. For example, you will want to ask if the car has been in an accident, when is the next inspection date and whether the price is flexible. Confirm the important criteria you used to define your search, e.g. is the car a smoke free car? You can also ask for the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) when making contact (if it isn‘t already written in the advertisement). If there are any other open questions due to unclear descriptions etc., now is the time to ask.
Impression of the seller
Don‘t just evaluate the car, but also the seller of the car. Here is your first opportunity to guage how your questions are handled - with concrete answers or with incomplete/vague ones that create even more questions. If you are dissatisfied with the answers to your most important questions, such as those about previous accidents, excercise extreme caution. Likewise, if the seller doesn‘t want to declare in writing that the car has not been in an accident, save yourself the time of a test drive. You shouldn’t feel pressured into a decision. A serious seller won’t say „You have to decide today.“
If the seller answers your phone call with the question „Which car are you interested in?“, recognize you are probably talking with a dealer. Use your intuition. Does the seller arouse suspicsion or trust? While you shouldn’t be paranoid, you should be alert and only arragne a meeting with the seller if you have a good feeling about him/her.
When all your open questions are answered and you are still interested in the car, then it‘s time for a test drive. This should definitely be done in daylight and you should give yourself at least and hour and a half for viewing and the test drive. If the appointment is made late at night in an industrial park, one should be wary. Be sure to ask if the seller has had the car professionally checked at a garage.
If the advertisement looks „too good to be true“, it probably is. Beware of deals such as „Like new Ferrari for 20,000 Euros.“ Is the seller located in a foreign country and asking for a down payment? This is very likely a fraudulent ad. Online market places only facilitate contact between the seller and potential buyer; they don‘t check the identity and credentials of a seller – in fact, they don‘t even check if the car exists. Generally said: NEVER pay for a car before you have seen it with your own eyes, driven it yourself, and have a legal contract in your hand.
Some of the most common scams:
The seller asks for a downpayment to prove that you are genuinely interested in the car, often using services such as Western Union or Money Gram. To gain trust, a receiver‘s name and control number will be sent, then using faked papers the seller can withdraw the funds. Criminals often use the name of a transport company as an escrow service. In this case, it is almost always a dummy corporation that dissapears a few months later – after the money has been withdrawn. A reputable online market place will never offer an escrow service.
Payment to someone that you know
The criminal tries to intice you by suggesting a cash payment into the account of a person known to you. Of course they will want proof of the deposit and ask for a copy of the payment slip. With data from this document and faked identifcation, they then withdraw the funds themselves.
To win trust of a potential buyer, the criminal sends more and more faked documents „proving“ their integrity. Such bogus documents include confirmation from the online website that the car exisits and that they have had previous, positive experiences with the seller. A secure payment method such as escrow would then be suggested. No serious online market place would ever send a confirmation such as this!
Be carefull of so called „Phishing Mails!“ They look as if they have come from a genuine corporation by utilizing trusted details. Criminals are behind these mails and by using this sensative data, they can plunder bank accounts of funds. By opening attachments from emails such as these, one can unwittingly install viruses and trojans on the computer. They often use the name of online market places in the „From“ field in such emails.
If the seller uses a premium cost hotline as contact, place the seller in your blocked list and never call this person; these are often just complete rip off scams.
- Clear up any questions from the advertisement
- Use your gut feeling to evaluate the seller
- Organize an appointment during daylight
4. On Site
Let’s go for a ride: taking your favourite car for a test drive. This is the only you can see if the car holds all of the promises the seller has spoken of. Learn what to look for here:
Test drive all the cars you are interested in within a short period of time; this way you can better compare your impressions. A basic rule is that the more unbiased you can be when taking a test drive, the better. Strive for a neutral view, even if you think you have found your favourite from the advertisements. Four eyes will see more than two so bring along a knowledgable companion, especially if you are not a car expert. Leave yourself time! You can only develop a balanced impression when approaching the decision with a sense of calm.
A close look at the documents will often provide important insight. Check for any inconsistencies: is the chasis number different in the registration document? If so, the document is probably fake. Is the name of the registered owner in the documents the same as the seller? If not, it‘s probably a dealer in disguise. Gaps in the inspection dates could mean important maintanence was missed. Do the papers show that the seller has only been the registered owner for a very short period of time? Perhaps they were unhappy with the car.
Before you take the car for a test drive, examine it in microscopic detail. Check to see if defects have been concealed. Remember, a shiny appearance says little about the real state of the car.
Get an overview: check out all of your candidates from all perspectives and look for irregularities such as paint, scratches and dents (these can be best seen from a squatting position). The presence of different color tones indicates repainting; in this case ask the reason for repainting. Keep your eyes open for rust. A very dirty car makes it difficult to spot defects and puts into question the credibility of the seller.
Under the hood
Under the hood beats the heart of the car. If there is something wrong, it can quickly become very expensive. Does the engine beam back at you? If so, it has probably just beened cleaned and leaks are not quite so easy to spot. Check for any oil loss. Cracked rubber elements indicate damage.
Trust your nose: does it smell unpleasantly musty inside? If so, there could be a moisture problem. Air freshening trees hanging in the car might not be a coincedence. All safety belts should have a smooth action. Check the seat material and whether the windows open and close without problems. Check the spare tire in the trunk of the car.
Taking it to the street: Don’t just drive through busy streets, also take the car onto the highway because some defects are only noticeable at higher speeds. Optimally, your route should also include winding roads and hills. Be sure to take the same route for each car you test drive so that you can better compare the differences.
Always start the engine from a cold start because some defects will only be noticeable under these conditions. If the display of the cooling water temperature quickly jumps after starting, the seller has probably already had the engine running. Notice whether or not all of the warning lights turn off after the car is started. Before putting the car into gear, test the emergency indicators, lights, etc.
On the road
On the road, the first priority is the driving experience. Sharpen your senses. Turn off the radio and listen for unusual noises. In a safe and appropriate place, drive the car straight and let go of the steering wheel. Does the car change direction? Are the wheels properly balanced (if not there could be accident damage). The car should also hold its direction when braking and not make any unusual noises. Such things can be hard to notice at higher speeds. All of the gears should engage smoothly. Pay attention to all of the technical aspects, but the most important thing is that you feel comfortable with the car.
After the test drive
After returning the vehicle, leave the engine running idle for awhile. Check under the hood and under the car to see whether oil or coolant leaks are visible. After turning the engine off, it should start back up again without a problem.
- Leave enough time for your test drive
- Don’t be hypnotized by a shiny exterior
- Also test the car at higher speeds
5. Professional Check
Why go to a professional?
Get it in black and white: A test drive can be very revealing, but it will never replace the opinion of a professional garage. Here you will learn how to minimise your risk by receiving a condition report.
Some larger problems will be discovered during the test drive and you can thereby sort out some of the „rotten eggs“ this way. But for that favorite car that passes all your other tests, you should support your assesment with an independent view so you do not have any reservations before you purchase. Lots of signs of impending repair can be hidden, even to the trained eye. After purchase repair suprises can be especially unpleasant. A professional check will help minimise this risk.
Up onto the lift
A professional check in a garage costs approximately 100 euros. It‘s more than pocket change, but definitely worth the money. The expert examines the car and puts it through its paces, and at the end places a written status report in your hand. If there are major deficencies with the car, you still have time to cancel your purchase with the seller.
If the expert discovers small issues in the car, you can then use these as bargaining material. If after your test drive you still had open questions, the expert can look into these in more detail and search for possible causes. The known problems disclosed by the seller can also be checked throughly by the expert. If the professional check doesn‘t match up with the description, then the seller is obviously trying to hide something.
- Because of the costs, only take serious candidates for a professional check
- Share your opinions and observations with the professional mechanic
- Beware if the seller does not agree with the professional mechanic
Deal or no deal: Before getting the keys you must haggle to close a watertight contract. This is how you master the final sprint. There are three numbers that you should have in the back of your head when considering any deal: your dream price, your core price and your maximum price. A price list of used cars could be your basis for these figures. In the negotation, tell the seller your dream price, which should nevertheless be somewhat realistic. Ideally, the seller is highly motivated and agrees straight away. More likely, they will tell you their ideal price. Now try to approach your core price.
If the seller remains above your maximum price limit, you can always leave your telephone number with them in case they change their mind. Never let the seller know that you definitely want the car. Stay neutral and reserved. Use your professional check document as bargaining power. Never let the seller try and pressure you into a decision. Apart from price, there are other considerations that can be discussed to strike a better deal.
Make sure all of the relevant documents are available before signing the contract. If the data on the vehicle registration differs from the seller‘s personal identity card, they must also provide proof of authorisation from the car owner. There shouldn’t be any gaps in the inspection history.
Close the contract in writing by using a legally approved contract. This is important because in case of a later problem with the purchase, the contract contains the terms of the purchase. All of the important details should be included. This means all of the personal data of the seller, including his ID number. In case of doubt, you can ask the seller for proof of their identity. Also check to verify that the proper Vehicle Identification Number is included in the documentation.
When buying privately, a warranty is rarely included. It is therefore even more important that all details are included in the contract. Do not accept any conditions that you do not want. Ask for a declaration in writing that the car is accident free. If this cannot be done, get all of the receipts and reports of repairs and problems. All defects should be listed in the contract. A statement should also confirm that the car was not used commercially and was not imported. If it was, then make sure these facts are listed with full details. Take your time and read the contract carefully. If anything is unclear, ask the seller immediately and only sign when all issues have been resolved.
Payment and delivery
Only pay after both you and the seller have signed the contract. If a cash payment is preferred (optimally at a bank), then you have the advantage of getting the key and documents straight away. Alternatively, you can also define the payment method in the contract upon signing. Do not forget that you can also request an invoice from a private seller. This way you can acknowledge the delivery of the vehicle and date of purchase, and use this to register your new car.
- During negotiations, never show that you absolutely must have the car
- Check in the contract that the correct Vehicle Identification Number is written
- Read the contract carefully, don’t be pressured by the seller