Car Buying Guide: How to Spot a Good Deal and 11 Things to Look for

Car deal

When it comes to buying a car, how are you supposed to know if you’re getting a good deal? It’s not as hard as you might think. I’ve bought and sold a number of cars over the years, and I want to give you some tips and tricks. In this guide, you’ll learn how to spot a good deal when purchasing a car and I’ll give you 11 things to look for during the shopping process.

Knowing how to spot a good deal is a matter of compiling enough information ahead of time. You’ll need to do some homework, understand what red flags to look for, and know when to walk away. A deal that’s too good to be true often is.

How to Spot a Good Deal on a Car

The first thing worth exploring is how to know whether a deal is good or not. This is a little trickier than you might think.

Salespeople are really good at tricking you. After all, their profession revolves around charging more for a car than they bought it for.

Luckily, there are a few tips to keep in mind.

Do Your Homework

I can’t stress this enough; you have to do your homework before buying a car. Personally, I’ll spend countless hours finding the perfect car and reading about its pricing.

The best way to know if the deal is good is by knowing what figure you should expect to pay.

There is plenty of data online that will tell you the average value of the car you’re looking at. It’s a matter of the car’s history, mileage, make, year, and model.

Go in With a Price in Mind

After doing your homework, you should have a price that you’re willing to pay. It’s really important to do this ahead of time before even going to the seller.

Pick two prices: one that you would be willing to pay, and one that would be a dream to achieve. You’ll have to be realistic with the prices that you set in your mind.

Choosing a car

Walk Away from an Overly Eager Salesperson

The worst thing that can happen during a negotiation is a salesperson that’s too eager to make the deal. If they accept your low-ball offer, you need to walk away immediately.

It’s not rare for a seller to hide a big problem in the car. Maybe it was in an accident that they don’t want to talk about, or there’s a giant mechanical issue going on with the vehicle.

The seller doesn’t want to disclose something that would hurt the value of their car. In mint condition, you might think you’re getting a great deal on the car. However, you’ll find out later that you just overpaid for a lemon.

Private or Dealership?

You’ll almost always get a better deal if you buy directly through a private seller. There are no administrative fees, dealership markups, or painstaking negotiations with a finance department. It’s just you and someone who wants to get rid of their vehicle.

In my experience, private sellers are also more willing to negotiate and let you walk away with a good deal. They aren’t looking to make a massive profit through the sale (in general).

11 Things to Look for When Car Shopping

Now that you can spot a good deal, it’s time to learn some things to look for. Car shopping can be really daunting, so follow along and you’ll have the best experience.

Options That Are Less than 5 Years Old

The best age range for a used car is anything within the last 5 years. This allows you to get ahead with some depreciation while still having plenty of car left to drive.

Most cars will last up to 150,000 miles with good care, so you still have another 7 or so years with your car (assuming an average of 12,000 miles are added annually).

If you go for an older car to save even more money, you might be signing up for something pretty unreliable.

Has A Manufacturer’s Warranty Still

The best option is finding a car that’s still under warranty. If you’re buying from a dealership, they will often offer a warranty for a few years.

If you go through Carvana, they’ll offer warranties for around 100 days after your purchase in case anything goes wrong.

Carvana Smartphone

If you didn’t know, a manufacturer’s warranty will cover major damages that happen prematurely to your car. In the case of a defective part causing a lot of damage, the manufacturer will often fix the problem free of charge.

This doesn’t mean they’ll write you a check if you get into a crash, but it means that their faulty parts will get fixed.

A Deal That’s Too Good

Did you find a great deal that’s $5,000 under what kbb.com says you should pay? Before you rush over there, take a second to ask yourself why the price is so low.

In almost every case, a deal that’s too good to be true is a scam. They’re trying to sell a car that has massive damage that they won’t disclose to you. Maybe it was in an accident or has water damage that you won’t be able to see without a close inspection.

Always be skeptical when it comes to underpriced cars. If a dealership underpriced everything they sold, how would they make any money?

Forget the Add-Ons

Some people get caught up with all the add-ons. Throwing in weather liners or accessories is just another gimmick that a salesperson will use.

When you’re car shopping, you should only be concerned about the car. Who cares if they throw in four free oil changes if that means that they’re overcharging you $1,000?

I’m not saying that you should ignore the trim level and add-ons that the manufacturer included in the car — quite the opposite. I’m saying that you shouldn’t fall for it when the dealer says they’ll throw in something free on their end if you take their deal.

Willingness for a Test Drive

I’ve had an experience before where I wanted to test drive a car and the seller got really squirrely. They ultimately refused me a test drive, so I walked away. Why? I knew they were hiding something.

Cars are the last thing you want to buy sight-unseen. Simply looking under the hood and seeing how pretty the car looks will do very little for you.

Without a test drive, you have no idea what state the car is really in.

Car test drive - at night

Don’t Worry About Monthly Payments

Please, don’t get caught up on what the monthly payments are. You should be negotiating a final price, not a lower monthly payment.

When you buy or lease a car, you’ll have the option to finance the car over a certain period. Buying a car typically comes with a 72-month term and leasing can go up to 36 months.

Here’s where dealers will get tricky. They’ll tell you that they can get your monthly price to $300 if you put down $7,500 on your 72-month purchase. If you multiply 300 by 72 and add 7,500, you’re left with a final price of 29,100.

At the same time, you could commit to $400 a month with $0 down and pay $28,800 over the same term. Even though the monthly is much higher, the final amount out of your pocket is significantly lower.

Always look at the big picture here. You should bring a calculator with you and plug in this simple equation:

The final amount you pay = (your monthly cost) x (how many months the term is) + (all the money down)

Ask for a Third-Party Pre-Purchase Inspection

Performing a car inspection is a great way to avoid a mistake when you’re buying a used car. I highly recommend getting a third-party pre-purchase inspection. This is something that a local mechanic can do.

They’ll go through a multi-point inspection to see how the components of the car look. If everything is in order, you’re good to finish the deal. If there are big issues, you’ll have to address them with the seller, think about whether or not you want to move forward with the deal, and adjust your offer accordingly.

If you bring up an inspection and the seller starts acting weird and suggesting against it, that’s a red flag.

Mechanic man holding clipboard and check the car

Be Willing to Drive a Little for the Right Deal

You might need to drive a few hours if you want to get the perfect deal. I have buddies who took cross-country trips to save thousands of dollars on their dream car. I don’t blame them.

When you’re looking online for your car, you can often filter by location. In other words, you can only see options that are within 50, 100, 150, 200, etc. miles.

I always suggest opening that range up to 150-300 miles so you can get a better scope of what’s available on the market. A 10-hour round-trip journey might seem like a lot, but I’d always sign up for it if it means saving enough money or getting the right trim.

The Right Year, Make, Model, and Trim

Speaking of the right trim, you also need to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples here. Earlier, you did your homework and came up with some numbers you want to stick to. Those numbers only apply to that certain year, make, model, trim, sub-model, and number of miles on the odometer.

A simple variation can add thousands of dollars onto the MSRP and ruin the homework you did.

For example, let’s look at the price of a Tesla Model 3. A 2018 Long Range RWD model with 92,000 miles is $37,500, while a 2021 Performance AWD with 300 miles is $75,000.

Tesla 3 2018
2018 Tesla Model 3
2021 Tesla Model 3
2021 Tesla Model 3

The trim level can be a huge difference from one option to the next. Make sure you have all the details of the car you got quoted before you can understand if it’s a good deal or not.

Clean Car History

Another thing to look for is the car’s history. Multiple owners, a record of accidents, or neglected maintenance are all bad signs.

Carfax does a really good job of spelling it all out for you. They’ll tell you what you need to know to ensure you make an informed decision.

If the car doesn’t have a clean history, you’ll need to weigh how much of an impact that has on your final verdict. Remember, an accident does more than just raise your insurance rates — it can lead to lasting damage to a vehicle that’s costly to repair and tough to diagnose.

Get a Weird Feeling? Walk Away

There’s nothing obligating you to finish a deal after starting a conversation with the seller. You can walk away for any reason or no reason at all. Any time you get a weird feeling or pick up on a strange vibe, you should consider walking away.

There are plenty of cars being sold all across the country, you’re not stuck with this particular car and seller.

Trust your instincts and don’t let them walk over you. With all the ways to buy a car, you don’t have to let a dealership bully you into a decision.

Conclusion

At this point, you should have a better idea of how to spot a good deal on a car. I also provided 11 things to look for if you want the best deal. Check out my blog for more car buying guides, and make sure you have the tools and accessories you need as a car owner.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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