With ongoing uncertainty in the used-car market, many are wondering if it's the right time to buy. Whether you're looking for reliable transportation or an upgrade, shopping for a used vehicle can be intimidating.

That's why we've put together this handy guide of tips on buying a used car. Being informed can help you get the best deal, spot any potential problems and hopefully drive away in the best ride for you.

How Much Can You Afford for a Used Car?

The first step to buying a used vehicle is understanding how much you can afford. Create a budget, considering how much you can pay upfront and a reasonable monthly payment.

You should also calculate expenses like gas, insurance and any maintenance fees that may come with the purchase.

One tip for buying a used car is the 20/4/10 guideline, which suggests the following:
• Put 20% down when purchasing.
• Finance for a maximum of four years.
• Keep the payments less than 10% of your monthly income[1].

Consider Getting Pre-Approved for a Loan

After determining how much you can afford to spend on a vehicle, the next step is to consider getting pre-approved for an auto loan. Banks generally look at your income, credit score and debt-to-income (DTI) ratio to determine how much they're willing to finance and at what rate.

With a preapproval letter in hand, the rest of the buying process can be much smoother. The letter explains how much you can afford, what monthly payments will be and how long it may take to pay off the loan. That information can help you find a vehicle within budget and make the actual purchase and loan application much smoother. It might also give you an advantage during negotiations with the seller[2].

Research Used Vehicles in Your Price Range

Once you've set a reasonable budget, researching vehicles is next. Start by looking for vehicles within that price range and with any features you want, then compare cars side-by-side. You might also want to read reviews of each model to understand how reliable they are and how much maintenance costs may be.

Pay Attention to Key Factors

Regardless of your specific budget and desired features, there are key factors to pay attention to when shopping for the right used vehicle.


Features can include things like power windows, a sunroof or heated seats. But don't forget to factor in how you'll use the car when deciding which features are must-haves. For instance, if you often drive on long road trips, heated seats might be a worthwhile investment. Driving assistance technologies are also becoming more common, so consider looking for options like parallel parking help, rearview cameras and automatic braking.


Safety is probably one of your top priorities when buying a used car. You might want to check the vehicle's history report to see if there are any unresolved issues or recall notices. Also, look at how well the previous owners maintained the car to ensure it has been properly serviced.


Reliability is also a key factor when buying a used car. You can research how dependable the vehicle's make and model are, how much maintenance it may require and how readily available parts are (specifically for older models). This information can help you make an educated decision and ensure the used car is dependable.

Resale Value

One final consideration is the resale value—or how much the vehicle might be worth if or when you decide to sell it. For example, you can research how quickly similar models have been selling and at what price. This can help set realistic expectations about how much you could get back when it comes time to sell.

Shopping for Your Vehicle

After narrowing down potential vehicles, it's time to start shopping. There are three ways to buy a used car, so pick the option that works best for you.

Buying From a Dealership

When buying from a dealership, going into the negotiations well-prepared can be a good idea. You can take some time beforehand to organize the paperwork, understand the terms of any loan agreement and research what makes and models the dealer offers. You should also ask about any warranties that come with the vehicle and how much it might cost for additional coverage. We also recommend asking about any special offers or discounts that might be available so you can get the best deal.

Buying Online

With so many online resources for buying used vehicles, finding a car that fits your budget can be easy. When shopping online, you may want to thoroughly research the car before buying and look for reliable e-dealerships that offer vehicle inspections. It can also be a good idea to compare prices between different sites and read the fine print before signing any contracts.

Buying From a Private Seller

When buying from a private seller, be prepared to do more research and due diligence. For example, you can try to get a copy of the vehicle's title or ask to see its maintenance records. If possible, try to have the car inspected by a qualified mechanic to ensure no hidden issues. Lastly, consider getting everything in writing if you decide to go through with the purchase.

Make Sure the Car Is In Good Condition

Regardless of where you purchase a used car, make sure it's in good condition.

Inspect the Vehicle Inside & Out

You may want to do a thorough inspection before buying a used vehicle, starting with the car's exterior. Check for any signs of wear and tear and see how easily the doors open and close. Then test how well the vehicle runs. You might examine how it shifts gears, how tight the steering wheel is and whether things like the heating and AC work.

Take a Test Drive

Once you've inspected the vehicle for any apparent issues, take it for a test drive. This is your chance to get a feel for how the car drives and performs. Consider things like how the vehicle accelerates, brakes and handles curves to ensure it's right before committing.

Negotiate the Best Price

Negotiation is key to getting a good deal on a used car. A few strategic tactics can go a long way in getting a great deal on your chosen vehicle. For example, getting pre-approved before shopping can make negotiating the car's price easier. You can also research the average cost of similar models to determine a reasonable amount.

Final Costs & Fees

It's essential to understand any final fees involved in purchasing a car. These might include:
Warranties: This additional coverage might help with future issues, but it can also add to the cost of your used vehicle.
Taxes & title transfer fees: Depending on location and specific circumstances, you might need to pay taxes and title transfer fees, which can affect the final purchase price of a car.
Maintenance & insurance: You want to factor in how much it costs to insure and maintain the vehicle.
Registration: After purchasing, take all the necessary steps to register the car with the local Department of Motor Vehicles. Don't forget to buy proper insurance coverage that protects both you and the car.

Enjoy Your New Used Vehicle

Buying a used vehicle can be an intimidating experience, but with the right knowledge and preparation, you can find the perfect one. So take your time, do some research and enjoy the process. With these tips for buying a used car—and some patience—you should be able to find the right vehicle at the right price and drive home in no time.

Are you looking for an auto loan? Consider PNC Bank. We provide a wide variety of finance options for new or used vehicles, including refinancing.