Buying a Used Car: 5 Costly Mistakes to Avoid

Updated: May 22, 2022

Mistake #1: Buying a car that is known for expensive problems

Often, when working on another "trouble" car, mechanics ask each other: Why do people keep buying these things? The information is widely available! Some cars are known for common expensive problems and should be avoided like a plague.

To give you an example, the 2013 model year was an especially bad year for the CVT transmission in some Nissan models. As a result, some Nissan owners got stuck with a broken vehicle that costs more to repair than it's worth.

All cars have problems; things like struts and wheel bearings go bad in all cars. The cars you need to avoid are the ones that are known for expensive problems, such as transmission or engine failures. Check CarComplaints.com and Consumer Reports for common problem areas. Read the owner's reviews and forums.

Read the complaints for the vehicle you selected on the NHTSA website; sometimes you will see over 1,000 complaints for one model year and only 160 for the next model year, so you know which model year to avoid. After reading the complaints, you will also know common problems for this vehicle to watch out for.

Mistake #2: Buying cars that depreciate fast

Some cars depreciate fast, others hold their value longer. You don't want to pay $18,000 for a car that will be worth only $5,000 in 3 years. How can you check if the vehicle you selected will hold its value?

Check the current retail price and trade-in value for the same model but 3-4 years older. Check out KBB.com for this research. Avoid cars that lose on average more than $3,000 a year in their value. Remember, there is a good reason why they lose their value so quickly.

Examples of cars that hold their value well include: Jeep Wrangler, Toyota FJ Cruiser, Honda CR-V, Toyota Tacoma, GMC Sierra/Chevy Silverado, Toyota Highlander, Toyota 4Runner, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Toyota RAV4.

Mistake #3: Paying too much for a used car

We buy used cars to save money and it makes no sense to spend too much. One common example is when people pay top dollar for high-end and GT models when similar base-level cars are available for a much lower price. Features like Cylinder Deactivation, Power Sliding Doors, Power Liftgate, Panoramic Sunroof and alike not only make cars more expensive, but significantly increase the risk of $$$ repairs in the future.

The more complex features, the more that can go wrong. Cars and trucks with a turbocharger will cost a lot more to keep on the road as they get older compared to non-turbo vehicles. You will save more money in the long run if you get a simple car. Don't ignore cars with a manual transmission; they are often much cheaper and more fun to drive.

Another example is when buyers focus on low monthly payments and not the total price, which is much more important. There are so many cheaper cars available that you can pay off sooner and be free from car payments.

If you just want a cool car to post on Instagram, rent one for a weekend; it will be much cheaper. Another option is to buy a 'boring' reliable car, but add some fancy modifications to make it look cool.

Mistake #4: Not allowing enough time for shopping around

It takes time to find a good used car. Often, people spend several weekends shopping around and test driving different cars to find one that fits the criteria. Car dealers typically want to create urgency to close the deal on the same day so you won't have enough time to reflect or weigh in pros and cons.

You will be in a much better position if you allow yourself more time for shopping, do some research and test drive several cars before making the final decision. It's a lot easier to evaluate the vehicle's condition if you test drove a few similar cars to compare.

It's also much easier to negotiate if you found 2-3 vehicles that you like. If the dealer knows that they are competing for your business with other dealers, they will be more willing to give you a better deal.

Mistake #5: Not having the car properly inspected

While the used car market offers plenty of great cars and trucks, some vehicles are sold with hidden problems. The car may look clean and drive well, but if the mechanic that you trust test drives the vehicle and checks it from underneath, he or she may find a solid reason to avoid this car. Here are a couple of examples:

Often, cars that come from the Salt Belt look clean on the outside, but the mechanic can check the car from underneath and find the extensive rust damage of the frame/body and other underneath components such as brake lines, fuel lines and crossmembers.

Some modern cars have problems with blown head gaskets. In the beginning, the vehicle shows no signs. Later, however, the engine may overheat and require a very expensive repair. An experienced mechanic may be able to catch early signs of a bad head gasket by checking the engine for leaks, testing the coolant for presence of combustion gases or checking the oil for presence of coolant.