1. Research, Research, Research

Jot down the features that are most important to you, then look up car specs, prices and reviews from trusted sources—such as Kelley Blue Book—to pinpoint the exact make, model and year that best fits your needs. But don’t stop there. Memorize your target vehicle’s features so you’ll know when you’re being shown a lemon or a gem. This includes learning what the typical used sale price of the model is, what the trim should look like, which features come standard and optional, what the typical costs are for repairs, and what the vehicle’s weak points may be.

Once you’ve decided on a make/model/year, set a budget and stick to it. Use the Ford Credit Budget Calculator to help you find out how much you can afford, and adjust accordingly. Laying down this groundwork will help you recognize discrepancies and avoid an impulse buy. Promise yourself you won’t go above your set limit, or you could regret it later.

2. Shop Right

For extra convenience and reliability, you can start by looking at Ford Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicles at a Ford dealership. Every Ford CPO vehicle comes with 12-month/12,000-mile comprehensive limited warranty coverage,* a seven-year/100,000-mile powertrain limited warranty coverage,* a 172-point vehicle inspection and a CARFAX Vehicle History Report.

Used car retailers such as CarMax also often offer limited warranties and vehicle history reports. Independent dealerships, on the other hand, are less likely to offer these perks, and the quality of their customer service can vary drastically, so be sure to look up any dealerships with the Better Business Bureau ahead of time.

You could also consider checking out vehicles for sale by rental car companies. Their stock may be better maintained, because such establishments often uphold a strict schedule for oil changes and checkups. A downside, however, is the fact that each vehicle has probably been used by many different drivers—with a range of potentially damaging habits behind the wheel.

Online auto-enthusiast forums are great places to look for deals on second-hand vehicles. Enthusiasts can be more likely to give helpful advice, offer fair prices on vehicles they’re selling, and perhaps have more honest conversations about their cars because they may assume you’re just as obsessed with the machines as they are. So it may be a good idea to see what’s available on these fan sites before wading into eBay or the murky waters of Craigslist.

No matter where you look, be sure to research multiple used vehicles of the same make and model with similar mileage and conditions. This could help you avoid getting hooked on one particular car, and give you more leverage in the negotiating process.

3. Know Your History

Once you find a specific car you’re interested in, get the vehicle history report to find out its service history, title information, if it was ever involved in a major accident—or if you’re actually looking at a stolen vehicle! Also remember to ask the seller why the car is being sold, whether the vehicle has had any big maintenance issues, or if it’s ever been involved in an accident. Consider all this information when determining how much you’re willing to pay for a specific vehicle.

4. Test, Inspect, Appraise

Take the car for a test drive in various conditions: highway, hills, stop-and-go traffic. Make sure you do it in the daytime so you can thoroughly inspect the condition of the vehicle. Look at everything—the engine, the body, even the undercarriage (use a flashlight to inspect the floor pans and frame rails for rust, leaks and corrosion). Check out the interior for cleanliness and inspect the tires for wear. On the drive, test the brakes, steering and alignment, and all the vehicle’s electrical components. Make sure you don’t smell anything bizarre, and check the engine, coolant and radiators for leaks.

If you aren’t buying a CPO, you should get the car inspected by a certified mechanic to find unreported issues. This is generally inexpensive—and could help you avoid having to spend a lot on maintenance down the line.

5. Negotiate & Stand Your Ground

Now that you have determined the value of the used car and how much you are willing to pay, it’s time to negotiate. If the asking price is higher than you’d like it to be (it probably will be), ask the seller, “Are you flexible at all on the price?” Bracket your offer by giving a price lower than what you’d actually be willing to pay. Tell the seller that you don’t like haggling and that your price is firm.

If a seller cannot meet even your actual target price, kindly and respectfully reply that you cannot go any higher. Leave your phone number and ask them to call if they change their mind. Remember you have researched the vehicle extensively, and you’ve offered a realistic amount. There should be other vehicles in your price range to look at.

Chances are you will be able to bracket and haggle your way down to your target price. When you get close to sealing the deal, be sure to confirm that you are talking about a final price, including any fees or service charges.

Once you finally come to an agreement, if you are financing, it’s time to negotiate those terms. Be sure to bring in quotes from other competing lenders in the form of a pre-approved check or letter so you can get the best deal.

That’s it—you’ve done it. Congratulations on your new used car!

By Jordan Mendoza