Buy a Used Car

The Cost of Owning a Car

You probably can get a decent used car for as low as $2500 (e.g. a 8-year old Geo Prizm or Honda Civc, with 90-100 thousand miles). Besides the cost of the car itself, you will need to pay for sales tax, inspection charge, tags, title, and insurance. You'd better check around to get an idea how much these extra costs would be before deciding how much you can pay for the car.

Where to Find Used Cars?

The easiest place is around the campus. There will be people graduating, etc. But a better place to find good cars is from residents in the neighboring area. A car kept in a garage is worn much less by rains, snows, and the sun, then a car parked on the street. Your local newspaper is a good source for cars for sale in the neighborhood.

What to Look for in a Used Car?

Year of the car - apparently the newer the better, as long as you can afford it.
Make - the company that produced the car, e.g. Ford, Toyota. Mercury is essentially the same as Ford. Chevrolet, Geo, Pontiac, Saturn, and Buick are all General Motors companies. Dodge and Plymouth are both part of Chrysler, which merged with Diamler-Benz of Germany.
Model - a specific type of car made by the company. For example, Taurus made by Ford.
Mileage - the number of miles the car has been driven. Occasionally the odometer (里程表) could break and the mileage may be reset to zero. Ask the owner whether the mileage as shown on the odometer is original.

Usually a car can last for ten years, or around 100,000 miles. Japanese cars tend to last longer than American cars. With the same mileage, cars driven mostly in the city tend to have much more wear (磨损) than cars driven mostly on highways.

Avoid a car that has had an accident. Accidents make a car's reliability very unpredictable.

Look for a well-maintained car. Ask for a maintenance record from the owner. The maintenance schedule listed below is for most cars. Check the owner's manual for more accurate information for a particular car.

Oil change (换机油) Once very three months or 3000 miles, less often for newer cars.
Tire rotation (轮胎轮换位置) Tires don't wear evenly. Most cars are front-wheel drive, which gives much more wear to the front tires. Tires should be rotated every 6000 miles or so.
Air filter This should be replaced once every two years.
Wheel alignment The makes sure that the tires are held perfectly vertical to the ground. Should be done once a year.
Brake pads Should be replaced every two years.

Bad Signs

The following signs suggest you should not buy this car:
Oil leak (漏机油). This can be the start of many troubles. Repair is expensive. Although some cars can do fine for another 5 years without any repair, you should not take chances.
Low tire pressure. This tells you that the owner doesn't even do a very basic job to keep the car in good shape.
All different tires. If the car has tires of more than two brands, it means that the owner replaced tires in a reactive way, not before something went wrong. It may also indicate that the car is not tire-friendly.
Two bumps. To test the car's suspension, use both hands (and perhaps some of you body weight) to push the car down, and then release. If the car bumps up, and down, and stops, there is no problem. If the car goes up, down, and up-and-down again, the suspension is not good.
Repainted. If certain part of the car is painted a (even slightly) different color from the rest, ask the owner what happened. Chances are the car had an accident. If the car's color is different from what the title says, common sense tells you the car had an accident.
Flooded. Inspect the car for water stains, mildew, mud or sand, etc., especially in hidden areas such as door speakers and the spare tire compartment. Check area under carpet in the trunk for any dampness. Under the hood, look for rust, green stuff on copper, or white powder on aluminum and alloy parts.

Check the Car's History

There are a few way to check out whether the car has been in an accident, flood, etc.
The Title. Some states would mark titles "salvage" or "flood"; others use codes. If the title indicates that the last owner is an insurance company, in which case you should ask for "damage disclosures."
Government Website. You can enter the VIN at to see if this car is listed as a damaged car. This is a free service. However, not all damaged cars are lised.

Further Examination

Have an experienced driver test drive the car and see how the engine, transmission, and everything else works. If nothing appears to be abnormal, and you are really considering to buy the car, get the owner's permission to take it to a mechanic for a mechanical checkup. This may cost you around $40. Ask friends if they know a mechanic who are really good at finding problems with used cars. After the checkup, the mechanic should be able to tell you how the engine and the transmission are working, what parts need to be replaced in the near future, etc. This is different from a state-required safety inspection. Safety inspection only cares about things that relate to safety: the seat-belt, the lights, the brakes and tires, the rearview mirror, etc.


Once you have decide that this is a car you want to have, the next step is to work on the deal: price negotiation, safety inspection, make the payment, buy insurance, get title, registration, and tag.

Price negotiation. If the asking price is too far away from what you can accept, you should have checked with the owner the first time you called to see if you can get a price acceptable to both sides. When you accept a price, make sure the owner understands that it's under the condition that the car will pass the state inspection without much work/cost. You can tell the seller something like "I will take this price if the car can pass the inspections with repairs of no more than $100."

Safety inspection. Most states require that a car passes state inspection and possibly emission test before it can be registered. Usually you don't want the seller to do the inspection, because you don't know if the seller can simply get an inspection paper through the "back door".

Car insurance. Most states require that you have car insurance when registering your car. Insurance is usually more expensive for drivers who have less driving experience in the US. It's also more expensive around a major city, for people under 25, for singles, and for men than for women. The terms you need to know when shopping for car insurance are:
Liability: covers the other car(s) (including the drivers and passengers) when you are at fault in the accident. This is required.
Collision: covers your car and people in your car when you are at fault in the accident. This is optional.
Comprehensive: covers situations where you car is stolen, damaged by flood, hit by a fallen tree, etc. This is optional.
Bodily injury: covers any injury on people who are involved in the accident.
Property damage: covers damage on the car(s) and things in the car.
Uninsured motorists: covers you in case the other person is at fault but doesn't have insurance.
Underinsured motorists: covers you in case the other person is at fault but doesn't have enough insurance to cover your loss.
Deductible: comes with collision and comprehensive. It's the amount that will come out of your own pocket when something happens. For example, if you have a $500 deductible, and the damage to your car costs $2000 to repair, the insurance company will pay you $1500.
Full tort vs. limited tort: this option exists in some states. Full tort means you can ask compensation for both economic loss and noneconomic loss as a result of an accident. Half tort means you can only seek compensation for economic loss. Full tort is more expensive.

Registration. Once you have paid the seller and get the title, have passed inspection, and have purchased insurance, you are ready to register the car and get the title, the registration car, and the plate. In most cases you will get a plate (possibly with a sticker showing when the registration expires) to put on your car so that you can drive it immediately. Title and registration card may be mailed to you later.

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