Car Buying Tips


My new car — a little big, but fun to drive. A bit of an upgrade from my ’93 Ford Tempo! RIP, little Tempo.

My dad, the car fanatic that he is, sent me a list of car buying tips and a list of recommended cars when I told him I needed to buy a new car. My dad subscribes to seven car magazines, belongs to two corvette clubs and can often be found in the garage polishing or dusting off his car. He wants to move to the south to get away from the snow — and so he can drive his cars year-round rather than having them get “get ruined” from the salty Massachusetts roads. I’ll never quite understand my dad’s love for cars, but I can appreciate it. I especially appreciated it when he sent me the car buying tips sheets. A couple of my Poynter colleagues suggested I publish the tips. I’ve copy and pasted them below, in case you’re in the market for some new wheels. (Even if you’re not, these are good tips to save!)

Dad’s and Consumer Report’s preferences, based on availability, service, dependability, money’s worth:
Acura CL 01 $6,000 to $7,500 (similar to the Honda Accord) mid size, sporty 4 door car
Acura TL 01-02 $6,200 to $8,000 mid size 4 door car (Acuras have a higher than average theft rate)
*Chevrolet Cavalier 04 $6,000 to $8,000 2 and 4 door car, 2 door is sporty
*Chevy Cobalt 05 $7,000 and up. Nice car, 2 and 4 door, 2 door is sporty.
Chevrolet Malibu 03-04 $5,000 to $8,000 mid size 4 door car
Chevrolet Prism 02 $4,900 to $6,500 economy 4 door car
*Ford Escort and Escort ZX2 03 $4,800 to $6,000 economy 2 and 4 door car
*Ford Focus 03-04 $5,000 to 9,000 economy 4 door car
*Ford Mustang V6 01 to 03 $5,200 to $8,200 good looking, sporty, dependable- low theft rate
*Ford Taurus 03 to 04 $2,800 to $6,000 large 4 door car
Hondas have a very high theft rate. That is why I cannot recommend an Accord or a Civic.
*Hyundai Sonata 03-04 $5,200 to $7,000 mid size, good looking, well optioned 4 door car
Kia Optima 04-05 $5,700 to $8,000 economy mid-sized 4 door car
*Mazda6 02-03 $4,300 to $8,000 sporty mid sized 4 door car
Mazda Protégé 03 $5,800 to $8,000 small sporty car
*Nissan Altima 01 $4,200 to $8,000 sporty mid-sized 4 door car
Nissan Sentra 03-05 $5,500 to $8,000 economy 4 door car
Pontiac Grand Prix 02-03 $4,900 to $8,000 sporty 4 door car
Pontiac Sunfire 03-05 $5,200 to $8,000 Pontiac’s version of the Cavalier
Saturn L Series, L300 02-03 $5,000 to $8,000 upscale economy 4 door car
*Saturn S Series (SL 4 door or SC coupe) 03-05 $5,800 to $8,000
*Toyota Corolla 02-03 $5,200-$8,000, economy 4 door car
* Toyota Echo 03-04 $5,500-$8,000, ugly but dependable economy 4 door car

*High on the recommended list

Do not consider any Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, Audi, Isuzu, Oldsmobile, Saab, Volvo, Plymouth, or Dodge. They are generally very unreliable and often hard to get parts for.
Figure on 12,000 miles per year as an average. In this price range, look for a car with less than 75,000 miles. You can pick up an 03 or 04 with less than 40,000 miles on it.

Don’t let the seller know that you need a car now. He/she will be less willing to negotiate. Every seller is desperate to get rid of his car, so he/she is usually willing to work with you.

Don’t let your emotions get the best of you, and make sure that the salesperson does not see that you are excited about a car. Remain neutral when looking at several cars, because the salesman has to “sell” all of them to you. Don’t make it easy for him. He will work much harder when he is not sure what you want. If he already knows what you want, then the ball is in his court, and you very little, if any bargaining power. Any dealer should give you a 30-day warranty on a used car. Find out what that warranty covers.

Every car you look at a dealership is going to look good initially. Even a bad car can look good from 10 feet away when it is clean and waxed. Walk around the car; are there any cracks in the glass? Are the wheels scraped from hitting the curb? Are their little parking dings? Are the headlight and taillight lens in good shape? What are the tires like? Are they worn unevenly? If the tires on the back of the car are worn unevenly, then they switched the front and rear tires to hide a problem with the front suspension. Does the car sit evenly at all 4 corners? A tape measure is good for this. Measure each fender from the highest point of the fender opening to the ground. The height of both front fenders should match and the height of both rear fenders should match.

Even the least expensive cars manufactured today have good body fit and finish If the gap between different body panels is not consistent from side to side, then there is a good chance that the car was in an accident.

Don’t be talked into spending more money on features that you don’t need. Your Tempo had crank-up windows and one power door lock. It is better to get a lower optioned car in good condition than to get a higher optioned car in worse condition. As long as the A/C works, you are okay. Once you buy the car, make sure you use the A/C every day for a week. They can add refrigerant to a car with a bad A/C system to sell the car, but within a week, all of the refrigerant will leak out. If you don’t use the A/C for a month and then find out it doesn’t work, you have an impossible time convincing the dealer to accept responsibility.

Make sure everything works. Check the radio, heater, automatic trunk opener, automatic gas door opener, power windows and power locks, power seats, cruise control, wipers-all speeds, windshield washer fluid, parking brake, turn signals, horn, etc. Does the car have a spare tire and jack? It is against the law to sell a car without an owner’s manual. Do all of the seat belts work? Are they in good shape? Are the rubber pads on the brake and gas pedals in good shape? If the pedal covers are all worn and the seller says the car only has 28,000 miles on it, the car probably has 128,000 miles on it.

Look at the rubber weather stripping. Bad weather stripping is expensive to replace. Is there any paint over spray on the rubber? If so, then that part of the car has been repaired. If you carry a magnet with you, (take along refrigerator magnet), you can try to attach the magnet to various metal parts of the body. If it doesn’t stick, that part of the car has body filler in it. Of course, the magnet won’t stick to rubber or plastic parts of the car.

Turn the key on, but do not start the engine. Check the lights on the dashboard. The air bag should light, and then go out. Often times when the car has been in an accident the air bag is not replaced, because they cost about $1,500, and the scrupulous auto body shop would rather pocket that money, and you’ll never know you don’t have one until it is too late.

With over 10,000 cars water damaged by Hurricane Katrina, many of those cars have made it to used car lots in the South. Look at the door panels. Are they wavy? Does the carpet look like it has shrunk at all? Is there even a hint of mustiness inside the car? Lift the trunk carpet. Do you see signs of noticeable rust along the inner fenders or in the well where the spare tire is? Is the spare tire wheel rusty? (A little rust in the spare tire compartment is common).

Look under the hood. Check the condition of the hoses? Are they soft and pliable (good) or are they hard or budging (bad)? Look at the serpentine belt, Twist it over, is it cracked underneath? Does the car start right up? Does the battery sound like it is on its last legs? Things like this should not discourage you from buying the car, as they are nomal wear items, but if you can get the dealer to replace them as part of the deal, so much the better. However, follow this method. Write down things like this, but don’t say anything, (you did bring a pad of paper and pen with you, didn’t you?) If you decide you want the car, ask what the price is. Offer less. He is going to ask more than he is willing to let it go for, but does deserve to get paid what it is worth.

After he gives you his price, and talks about the warranty, then you can come back and say that you noticed that the car will need a new serpentine belt, there is a stain on the back seat cushion, and the windshield washer fluid container is cracked. Ask him to replace/repair these things at his offered price. Also make sure that they fix what they say they are going to fix. If you cannot make an agreement, thank him for his time and tell him that you are going to keep looking. Give him your number. Chances are that he is not going to sell the car that day. You can always go back later in the day, or the next day. If he knows that you are walking off the lot and he is missing a $7,000 sale over $200, he’ll likely offer you a better deal.

When you check under the hood, open the radiator, not the overfill tank. DO THIS WHEN THE ENGINE IS COLD. The fluid in the radiator should be a clean green or clean orange. There should be absolutely no rust in the radiator. Check the oil. Is is relatively clean looking? Even new oil looks dirty after 1,000 miles. There should be no traces of water on the dipstick. If the car is an automatic, after you test-drive it, check the transmission fluid. It should not smell burned and should not be brown. It should be red in color. If the car has a standard transmission, how far down do you have to push the clutch in before the car goes into gear? The further down you have to push the clutch pedal, the more worn the clutch is. A clutch should last for at least 70,000 miles. Make sure the break fluid level at the correct height in the master cylinder? If it is low, that usually means that the car has brake problems. If the top of the battery is very dirty and the fluid levels are low, it shows signs that the previous owner did not care much about the car, and that the dealer cares even less.

Drive the car. Hit the brakes. Does it stop in a straight line or does it pull to the left or right. Take your hands off the steering wheel. Does the car continue to drive in a straight
line? If not, the car need front end suspension work or it may have frame damage from a previous accident. At a low speed, turn the front wheels all the way from right to left. A clunking sound on a front-wheel drive car usually indicates that you need new CV (constant velocity) joints. They are the universal joints that connect the drive shafts from the engine to the front wheels. Expect to pay $300 to replace both of them. Look at the boots anyway. They look like black rubber bellows. If they are cracked, or grease is oozing out of them, then you are going to need new CV joints in a very short period of time, even if they are not making noise yet.

Check the exhausts system. Does it look like it is in good shape? Almost all cars now come with stainless steel exhaust pipes, so they should look good.

If you are buying the car from a large Ford dealer on Rte 19, you can probably trust their service department. If you are buying the car from a private party or from a corner used car lot, then don’t even consider it if they won’t let you have your mechanic look at it.

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at

4 thoughts on “Car Buying Tips

  1. If you love your car, be sure to check out this site.
    Get tips from experts on easy do-it-yourself maintenance to buying the perfect car.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: