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What car to buy is, in my view, a far more complex question than whether to buy new or used. The upside if you have decided to buy used: assessing the relative reliability of various auto brands and models becomes far more feasible with used cars than with new ones which have not yet developed a reliability history that you can consult.

As with all things financial, the best way to start your car research is by identifying your ‘needs’ versus your ‘wants’ for the vehicle. Need to be able to transport five people? Need storage space? Need good mileage and/or good reliability? Or is this more of a weekend runabout, something to have fun driving? Once you narrow down your needs you can then start to research specific vehicles. If, for example, you narrow it down needing a smaller sport utility vehicle (SUV) with all-wheel drive (AWD) to cope with your nasty winters – this is not a hypothetical example by the way – then search your options based on those identifiers. Car reviews of a particular brand and model will often mention comparable vehicles, so you should search out those cars also and do a proper comparison based on your most important criteria.

the best suggestion I think I ever read for someone considering buying a particular vehicle model is to see if you can rent one for a few days to try it out

One of my main concerns in buying a used vehicle is its general reliability. You know that you need to do a good inspection of the vehicle before buying to determine its current condition. Beyond that, some vehicles are just more prone to problems than others. Often, the first year a new model of car was released will be particularly problematic, as the manufacturer won’t have worked the bugs out until subsequent model years. Research the same vehicle’s reliability year-over-year to see if there is a preferable year for your vehicle. The best site for researching vehicle reliability, that I recommend, is TrueDelta. TrueDelta is my favourite since you can become a member of the site and contribute to real-life reports of vehicle problems by their owners – crowdsourcing at its most useful. TrueDelta also offers a really good graphic comparison of repair frequency of vehicles not only against their own various model years, but also against comparable vehicles over a range of model years. Phil Edmonston’s Lemon Aid series of new car guides for Canadians get good reviews if you’re interested in a new vehicle, but since I buy used and our library no longer carries the Lemon Aid books, I haven’t consulted one in years.

Of course, a vehicle can look perfect on paper whereas living with it is an entirely different matter. In fact, the best suggestion I think I ever read for someone considering buying a particular vehicle model is to see if you can rent one for a few days to try it out. That slightly lower-than-your-head dip in the doorway may not seem problematic on a single test drive but after bumping your head on it repeatedly over several days, it may be the thing that makes you rule out the vehicle from consideration entirely. You should test drive various models and more than one example of the model you think will best meet your needs. Test driving a potential vehicle is necessary, but the one thing you must avoid is developing an emotional connection to the first car you test drive. That is, of course, the goal of the car salesman which is why they will constantly ask how much you like it. This is positive reinforcement of that emotional bond. It should always be your goal to get the best deal possible, which means comparison shopping and negotiating. You narrow your choices down to a (very) few options – two or three is best. Then you test drive to determine which is your favourite brand, model and year. If you find more than one you think you could live with, so much the better, since that gives you options. Car salesmen hate when you have other options in mind.

Now it’s time to get serious. There are a number of places online you can check for pricing and availability of the cars you are considering. Pricing can be ball-parked by checking out Canadian Black Book or VMR. Those sites provide theoretical pricing models only, unfortunately. In the real world no two used vehicles are exactly alike and they have all been driven and treated differently. The one thing you can be sure of, however, is if a dealer has taken a vehicle as a trade-in, that dealership has paid less than the wholesale prices reflected in the pricing websites. Bear that in mind when determining how much you want to offer. Generally, offering perhaps 20% less than the asking price is a great place to start. And once you’re serious, make your offer in writing – it binds you to nothing but it does show the dealership that you are a serious buyer, and they will be more likely to negotiate seriously with that in mind.

In the real world, it also pays to research what people are asking for similar vehicles they may have for sale. Some of the good Canadian websites that I like to use for this purpose are Autocatch, Autotrader, Kijiji and Usedeverywhere. The nice thing about most of these sites is that you can save interesting prospects to a list and you may be able to set up an alert for new ads meeting your criteria. I like creating and adding to a list over time, as you will be able to see how quickly vehicles in various price ranges are selling and which listings just sit there without movement. Information is power when you get to the negotiating stage. I’ve had dealers tell me they just received a vehicle and expect it to sell immediately when I’ve been watching the listing for the vehicle for several weeks. Sellers will try all sorts of pressure tactics. Knowledge will let you remain in control. I find Kijiji particularly useful for setting up alerts, as it allows you to narrow down your alert to almost any specific criteria that you deem to be necessary and to schedule your alerts daily, weekly or with whatever frequency you like.

Once you know what car(s) you are interested in buying, with what options, and you have a good idea of a fair price for such a vehicle, it’s time to get serious about shopping. I recommend taking a day and setting up schedules to visit a few different dealerships with the desired model(s) on the lot. Setting up a schedule and making appointments has a number of benefits. First, it will confirm the sellers still have the vehicles available – ads often remain online long after vehicles have sold. Second, if you tell the seller you’re coming to see the vehicle at a particular time, they will have a salesperson and the vehicle both available for you at that time. And finally, having appointments with other sellers gives you a perfect no-bullshit excuse to thank the seller for letting you see their vehicle but move on to see another without getting trapped into some car sales gamesmanship that can eat up your entire day.

If at the end of the day you’ve seen nothing you would consider a good buy, it may be time to go back to the drawing board. I found that testing a couple examples of one particular model of a vehicle showed me flaws that when I looked for them, were present on a majority of that model of car. Flaws that made that model of car a no-go for me, like a consistent rust pattern that was clearly attributable more to the design than to the maintenance of the vehicle. That knowledge caused me to switch to a different model of car for my next round of testing. Another really good source of information on particular models of vehicles is online forums. There exist today online forums for almost every car available. Edmunds is a central source for all sorts of models, but searching out specific brand and model forums is an even better source of information. Current owners of a particular model of vehicle are without a doubt the absolute best source of no-nonsense assessments of their pros, cons and potential pitfalls. If there’s something you should watch out for while shopping for your new (used) car, the forums are the place to find out.