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posted on March 1st, 2017

At Turo, we are focused on building the world’s largest and most loved car sharing marketplace, and one of the most commonly asked questions we hear from car owners is “What car do I buy?” We’ve previously written about which cars perform well and where on Turo to address those questions, and thought we’d share a few tips on how to begin doing your homework if you wish to buy a used car.

Mindset

If you’re reading this, chances are you have some idea of the kind of car you want, what your budget is, and may have even started looking for cars on eBay Motors, Craigslist, or local dealerships. But since buying a used car can sometimes be a process of elimination, starting with a specific list may not always be the best strategy. Adding too many constraints up front about the color, features, or even the make and model can drive you into a corner with no availability, as buying a used car is, often, a matter of the best option you can find.

Having said that, there are some clear red flags to watch out for. You don’t want to buy something heavily modified — cars which have been lowered or raised, for example, are worth avoiding as this may lead to unexpected wear of the tires, brakes and suspension over time. You also probably don’t want to invest in cars that have been involved in accidents or have a salvage title. With some Japanese exceptions, most cars are designed to last for 100,000 miles or 10 years, so anything beyond that will require more maintenance and should be factored into your cost of ownership.

Model year

It turns out that the year of the model you end up with is as important as the make and model. Let’s say I’m considering a Honda Accord. I’d start by googling “common problems with a Honda Accord”, and one of the first few search results takes me to the graph below. Note how there is a surge in complaints for model years 2003 and 2008. Why did that happen? Let’s dig in.

Car manufacturers typically re-design a model from the ground up every five years or so, and then polish it in the years that follow. Think iPhone 6 and 6s. Honda introduced a new version of the Accord in 2003 and, being a new version, it came with some new problems. Honda refined it in the years that followed, which explains why the number of complaints trend lower from 2004 to 2007. You see the same pattern with a new model in 2008, which trends downwards till 2012 and then resets again in 2013. Would you pick a car with the color you want from 2008 or a car with a color you don’t want from 2007? Armed with the knowledge that the 2008 model has a lot of reports for “premature brake wear”, the answer can be fairly simple.

Tools for history & price

Every vehicle in the US comes with a VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) which can be used to pull up a detailed history of the vehicle. CARFAX (who also guest blogs for us occasionally) and AutoCheck are popular sources for such a report — they’re like a credit history for vehicles and don’t reveal any personal information. Previous incidents, number of owners, maintenance records, etc. can reveal a lot about the car and will help you avoid potential lemons. Most dealerships will offer one for free, but don’t hesitate to ask. If you’re going the Craigslist route, it is totally worth paying for. There can be delays or omissions in reporting so while you can trust everything that is present on the report, it isn’t guaranteed that everything will be present.

On the topic of price, Kelly Blue Book is a great resource to estimate how much you should expect to pay for a used car from a private party or a dealership depending on its condition.

Test drives

In recent years, we’ve started seeing some startups like Shift, Carlypso, and Fair change the way people buy cars online. Shift is an online dealership which will bring a used car to your doorstep for a test drive within a few hours. While they are not operational in all markets yet, it’s exciting to see that going to dealerships may soon become a relic of the past.

We’ve also had a lot of people use Turo for test drives. If you have never lived with an SUV or a convertible, it’s worth borrowing one over a weekend to do an extended test drive for a relatively small investment. Living with the car can tell you so much more about what you like or don’t like, which can be hard to catch in the excitement and pressure of a short test drive at a local dealership.

Do your homework, reap the benefits

To summarize, buying a used car can be a gamble but you could end up with a fantastic upgrade if you do your homework online to short-list the really great options. There is no substitute for test-driving a car and having a friend or mechanic go with you to verify the condition of the car before making your purchase. Finally, don’t forget that most states in the US have a lemon law in case you need to return your car. Good luck!

Pushkar is Turo's Chief Auto Enthusiast and a bonafide, lifelong car guy. He loves a classic Porsche, an Audi R8, but his heart belongs to the Lamborghini Murciélago.