Here on The Clark Howard Show, we have something informally known as "Car Call Mondays." Every Monday, my staffers have to ration the car calls because people flood the phone lines after buying suspect used vehicles over the weekend.
With used car purchases, you buy "as is" -- no matter what condition the car is in. The vehicle and all its warts become your problem. If it comes with any warranty, it's usually very limited.
After unusual run-ups in cost earlier this decade, the used-car market is once again seeing good prices return. My preference is for you to buy a 2 or 3 year old used car, rather than a new car. Because when you buy a new car, it loses value the minute you drive off the lot. Let somebody else eat that depreciation and buy used!
But as with any purchase, you have to do your homework when you're buying used.
A step-by-step guide to buying a used car
Arrange your used auto financing first. Look at credit unions, online banks or even traditional banks. Only take dealer financing if it beats any other offer you have. Of course, I would love for you to pay for an affordable used car completely in cash!
Make sure the used vehicle is worth what you're paying. Check Edmunds.com, KBB.com or NADA.com for the true market value so you come up with a feel for the price. You can also use CarGurus.com, which lets you put in your zip code and the make/model of the vehicle you're interested in at their website. They'll comb through some 2 million listings available on published databases and rate the vehicles available for sale with notations of "great price," "good price" "fair price" and on down.
Check the vehicle number. Run the VIN though CarFax.com to find out if it's a flood vehicle or if it's been in a horrible accident.
Have the used vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic. One of the key things to know about buying a used car is that you buy "as is." CarFax alone is not enough of a check; you need to take this additional step. Never rely on any representations that the salesperson makes about the car, be it a commissioned employee at a dealership or an independent seller in your neighborhood.
Check out your no-haggle buying options. It can be tough to find a diamond in the rough and weed out the lousy deals. Try Carvana.com, which has a 7-day no questions asked return policy. It's kind of like the Carmax of the online used car buying world.
Beware of the impact of fuel efficiency mandates on reliability. J.D. Power's new 2014 Long-Term Dependability Study takes a look at how many popular car models hold up after 3 years of ownership. Going back to 2011 vehicles, a strange trend emerges: It's the first time in a long time they're less reliable than the year before. Much of the unreliability is because of the new transmissions in the quest to meet federal mandates about fuel efficiency. Quality is too often being sacrificed in the name of fuel economy. With that said, here are the most/least reliable 3-year old used cars.