This article appeared originally in the December 2009 Levitt Letter.
Today we discuss a captivating way to become a savvier car shopper. To get some background, check out “Buying a Car,” at www.levitt.com/essays/wise-2007-04, from the April 2007 Levitt Letter.
Once you’ve read my prior article and visited Dave Ramsey’s website (I’ve included specific links below*), you may agree that it makes better sense to purchase a $12,000 used car than a $26,000 new one. You might even want a copy of How to Buy a Great Used Car ($4.75) at www.ShamelessCommerce.com.
Now let’s begin a search at www.Cars.com. Beneath the orange “Search Used” button, click on “Advanced Search.” Enter your ZIP Code and click on the circle next to “Used Cars.” Then click on “Let Me Choose Body Styles,” and select “Sedan.” Skip past the “Make” and “Model” fields and enter the price range of “$10,000 to $13,000” and Mileage range of “10,000 to 40,000.” For now, please disregard the Year Range, Exterior Color, and Drivetrain fields.
Please click the orange “Search” button at the bottom-left, and you may see hundreds of choices. The column at left lets you “Narrow Your Search.” Let’s skip past Certification, Price, Mileage, and Year. Beneath “Make,” you can click on “Select More Than One” and checkmark whatever brands you prefer, such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, etc.
With your selected brands showing, you can “Narrow Your Search” again and “Select More than One” of particular models of cars. You might choose Camry, Accord, and Altima. Whichever combination of brands you choose, the result is a list of cars that you can sort by Vehicle, Mileage, and Price—just by clicking their column headings. My two favorite sort options list the cheapest cars first, then the lowest mileage cars first. However, it’s also informative to sort by Vehicle and see how, for instance, the Accords compare to each other.
The purple “Research” tab at the very top leads to abundant details about particular cars. Plus, it enables side-by-side comparison of up to four vehicles. The purple “Shopping Advice” tab takes you to several Buying Advice items and some Car Talk links.
The CARFAX history reports (listed after the seller’s contact info) are only a start. Maintenance records to authenticate odometer readings can help, but there’s no substitute for an independent, professional vehicle inspection. Beware of titles that have been transferred out of state and back, perhaps to hide a “salvage” designation. Ideally you can buy a one-owner car that has a thoroughly documented maintenance history. Purchasing a used car can be risky, but it can prove worthwhile to avoid the dramatic depreciation that is certain with a brand new car.
P.S. A bonus: Click on “Advanced Search” and select “All” miles next to your ZIP code. Choose “Used Cars” and “Search All Body Styles.” For the Price Range, enter “$100,000-No Max.” The nationwide list of six-figure cars being sold with relatively little mileage is evidence that extravagance doesn’t buy happiness. —Mark Levitt