1. Check the vehicle's safety features.
Consider a vehicle with air bags and anti-lock brakes. Not only will they make a car safer, but insurance companies sometimes give discounts on their rates for cars with these features.
2. Inspect the mileage.
Mileage is a good indicator of the vehicle's age, and the average consumer will drive from 12,000 miles to 15,000 miles each year. A late model used car may be more cost-effective and come with many features you may not be able to afford in a new car.
3. Check the mechanical condition of the vehicle.
If you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself, have a mechanic you trust check it for you. Fluids, lights, belts, power steering, the charging system, the air conditioner, the engine cooling system, the brakes and the suspension should all be carefully inspected for any defects and wear. And don't forget to test drive the car.
4. Examine the tires.
Uneven tread wear can be a sign that the car may need an alignment, or that it has damage to its suspension. Make sure the spare tire is in working condition with no damage or excessive wear.
5. Watch for frame damage.
Seriously damaged cars may be repaired, re-titled and sold in some cases, masking a vehicle that may not be structurally sound. When looking at a used car, check for:
rust around the fenders and bumpers, around lights, under doors and in wheel wells
cracks, dents and mismatched body panels
Cars that have been previously damaged may be more likely to have mechanical problems, and do not withstand accidents as well as cars that are structurally sound.
6. Check for cosmetic problems.
Common signs of wear and tear in used cars include cigarette burns, dirty upholstery, smoke stains, and paint scratches and chips.
7. Carefully read and understand the terms of any warranty offered on the car.
Don't hesitate to ask questions of your salesperson, and be wary of hidden conditions and exclusions that may be in the fine print. A reputable dealer will answer your questions completely and explain the details of the warranty.
8. Check the price.
The actual price of the car is only one of many factors that will determine your total price. Don't forget to compare financing rates, warranty costs, trade-in values and processing fees. The different features on the vehicle can also make a price difference. For example, a car with an automatic transmission is usually going to be slightly higher in price than the same car with a manual transmission. Research the vehicle you are considering, and find out what comparable prices are for similar vehicles in your area.
9. Look for a reputable dealership.
Ask around, and talk to previous customers of the dealer to find out what their experiences were like. A good dealer is more likely to be fair and up-front in price, value and condition of its vehicles, and won't pressure you to buy a vehicle you don't want. Hassles should never be part of buying a used car. Be prepared, and know what you're looking for.
EDITOR'S NOTE: CarMax, the Auto Superstore, first opened its doors in 1993 in Richmond, Va. Based on input from thousands of consumers, it was designed to provide a convenient, hassle-free way to buy high quality used cars at low, no-haggle prices. Today, CarMax has locations in more than 20 major cities across the country, with both used-car superstores and new-car franchises throughout the United States. CarMax is also online at carmax.com.