How to Buy a Used Vehicle

I used to be cool bumper sticker on the back of a minivan.All advice is in bold. If you want to skip the back story, Click “What did we want”.

Let’s take a little trip down memory lane.

Back in 2004, I had my first child. At that time, my husband and I had a pickup truck and a four-door Honda Civic. Life was great. Well, vehicle-wise. I mean, I stayed at home with this kid. But I had that handy Civic with the fold-down seats where we could store the Pack-n-Play, a small arsenal of diapers, bottles, toys, and clothes for a long  trip – clothes for the poops, clothes for the pukes, and a small plastic bag of clothes for the husband. Somehow, it all fit.

Then I was going to turn 35 soon. DS was almost three. It was time for baby number two.

The Civic wasn’t going to cut it.

We looked at our options. We weren’t on the Dave Ramsey plan then, so we looked at new and used. I found a Saturn Relay 3 online for about $22k. It was used with 200 miles. Yes, 200. It was AWD, had a DVD player, and all the necessary things a growing family needs in a traveling entertainment center and café. So we drive the 300 miles to the dealership and came back with our new payments and van, er SUV.

What we didn’t know was that Saturn was going out of business in a couple of years. We knew it was a GM vehicle, (I have avoided GM like the plague), but it was a Saturn, and Saturn seemed to have their act together. What we didn’t know that the Saturn Relay was one of the WORST used cars to buy. Ever.

Now to be fair, the van did last us nine years. It did get us through some massive snow storms. During that time, we replaced the tires a couple of times, some sensors, lamps, and had several other piddly bits replaced.

But at 147,754 miles in the middle-of-freaking-nowhere-Connecticut, in the heat of this summer, the thing crapped out. And I mean about-to-blow-a-rod crapped out.

So long story short, (too late), we were in the market for a new vehicle. We rented a car, got home, and left the crap Saturn in Connecticut.

For two weeks, we were a one-car family. For one of those weeks, we were down a kid due to camp, so it wasn’t too bad. But once we had both kids back, a tooth extraction for a kid, school starting shortly with one kid going to child care and one going to middle school in the morning, (no, we are not on the bus route), two parents with an 8-5 work day, me having nightmares and waking up with massive TMJ pain from clenched teeth, I would be damned if we would remain a one-car family.

Now my husband is the take your time and research kind of guy. I love him for it. I am the get this done and get it done NOW person. So we butted heads a little. But once we learned that the P.O.S. Saturn was going to cost more to repair than it was worth, we seriously looked at cars.

What did we want?
Forget what we WANTED, we needed the following:
A van or SUV
Under $15,000 (we were going to pay cash)
Third-row seating
Needs to last us about ten years until the youngest starts college

Cool to have, but not important
DVD player

Where we looked
Local dealerships (two large ones and one small one)
Local paper

Makes we considered
Toyota Sienna
Honda Odyssey
Acura MDX
Kia Sedona
Ford Flex
Ford Explorer
Nissan Quest

We knew we needed something to haul the kids and their friends to sports. We travel 1500 miles during the holidays and haul gifts and who knows what else, like say, oh, a Spotbot, (that’s another story), which meant we had to have third-row seating. That limited our choices to an SUV or minivan. Since we had an emergency fund and didn’t want to completely deplete it, $15,000 was our max.

Because we needed something to last us a while, we were mostly interested in Honda and Toyota products. Ford was an option because I have a family member who works for Ford and can get parts cheap. I can also get a new Ford with a family discount, but considering that a new car loses 20% of its value after a year, I will let someone else take that hit. So if we got a new Ford Flex at the starting MRSP, (no bells and whistles, no taxes, etc.), with the family discount, it would cost $24,735 for a car that would be worth $19,788 after a year. That’s well over $10,000 of our budget. So, no. We researched the prices, reliability, and resell value of the above makes, as well as other non-GM makes, like Chrysler, Volvo, VW, etc. At the end, it came down to the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey.

Next was the search. If you only get one piece of advice from this post, let it be this – buy a subscription to AutoCheck. Not CarFax, but AutoCheck. Most dealers will already run CarFax on a vehicle for free. We found that in a couple of cases, accidents were listed on AutoCheck that were not on CarFax. But using the free CarFax from the dealers and using our paid AutoCheck, we were able to do some great comparisons. AutoCheck even lets you go by license plate. This was important with a couple of the Craigslist ads.

We used and AutoTrader which allowed us to compare vehicles. There were also dealership ratings, which really were not helpful for us, but they are there for others. We were able to put in so many factors, like price, mileage, third-row seating, makes, models, and more. Still beware; they do not weed out places that sell for parts. There is a local dealership that sells wrecked cars for parts. We would see a 2014 Honda Odyssey for $15,000, but it was wrecked. We printed out our choices. If you do this when going to a dealer, make sure you have the stock number. One of the dealerships we visited has a huge inventory and it takes a while to look for stock without the number, so bring that to save time. Also, if you are testing a vehicle with a DVD player, bring a DVD with you! Same with a CD for CD players or your phone for Bluetooth. 


We went to three different dealers in the area – the mega dealer, the big dealer, and the small dealer. First, we went to mega dealer.

I was a little apprehensive about going to these folks. Their commercials are obnoxious, they are huge, and their reputation as a used-car dealership had not been great a few years ago. But we were limited in our choices.

The salesperson was great. She was very nice and even had our since of humor, (“Look! You can fit about five dead bodies in this trunk!”). She didn’t ride with us when we test drove. The one thing I liked about her even more was she said to the van take up the local mountain to test the power. She told us to turn off a certain street, turn around, and go up the mountain because at that point we would not be able to get a running start and would start halfway up the steep incline. We took Honda Odyssey #1 for a ride. It was really nice, smooth, and had a lot of power. The van had over 100,000 miles, but handled beautifully. The issue was the body and cleanliness. It was not that great for the price. It would work if we couldn’t find anything else, but it was just OK. It had been in an accident, we knew this from the CarFax and AutoReport, but it was minor.

Then came the Toyota Sienna. This one was a newer model than the Honda, had more bells and whistles, and of course, cost more. It was at the top of our price range. We took it out for a drive. It was not as smooth as the Honda, the DVD player didn’t work, and when we went up the mountain all sorts of warning lights came on. We told the salesperson so she would know. She wasn’t thrilled. Now, this is where we were bad customers. We told her we would call back, but never did. It was well over a week before we purchased another vehicle, but we should have called.

Off to the big dealer. They had a Honda Odyssey (#2), totally decked out with a DVD player, backup camera in the rear view mirror, sliding doors, and more. Once again, it was on the upper end of our price range, but, eh, why not. Now this dealer has no-haggle pricing. What you see is what you get. The salespeople do not get a commission. They make a point of telling you this. Honestly, it’s nice, but I didn’t care. I did not feel pressure at other dealers. We tried out the Odyssey. We took it the same route as the past vans. It handled smoothly. The DVD player worked. But, once again, it wasn’t clean. I found a crayon and some other things in the seat pockets. The front bumper was loose. One of the sliding doors wasn’t working properly, and more. The salesperson seemed pissed and knew he lost the sale because of shoddy work from the mechanics.

I will talk about the small dealer later.


If you choose to look at Craigslist, buy AutoCheck, a backbone, and a BS detector. You will need all three. We looked at three vans on Craigslist. Two were Honda Odysseys and one was a Nissan Quest.

Honda Odyssey (#3) required us to drive 45 miles away. It was a great deal and came with a DVD player, a navigation system, and sliding doors. We met in a public parking lot. I tried out the van in the parking lot while my husband  and the van’s owner waited. Things were a little shady. The guy was not American-born, (this normally would not be an issue, but see the part about the Nissan later). The DVD player was still in the box and hadn’t been installed, but the guy told us he paid $100 for it. Then for $300 we can take the van to the dealership and get the sliding door that is broken fixed. And the navigation system? It was a Garmin he bought. When I asked him why he wanted to sell, he said “Because my wife wants something else.” Later, we looked up the vehicle on AutoCheck. The van was recently bought and sold at an auction. So he had the van less than a couple of months. His wife wanting something else was a lie unless he happened to buy a van without his wife’s knowledge AND she decided she wanted something else. We caught him in a couple of lies and decided to pass.

The Nissan Quest was also a great price and was the luxury model. It was well-kept and looked nice. We met in a public place and tried it out. Once again, they were getting rid of it because the wife wanted something else. This guy was also not American-born. The Craigslist posting had two numbers to text – one for the son and one for the dad. I think I was talking to the son by text, but we met the dad. Once again, this guy insisted it was taken care of by a local mechanic, (one we use). I looked at the van and noticed it looked like it may have been a handicapped van at one point because of how low to the ground it was. But it handled well and we said we would go home and think about it. It was quite a deal! We ran the AutoCheck and there were no accidents, flooding, or title issues. Then we looked at the report closely. This van had been bought and sold at an auction one month before. Sound familiar? I texted the son to see when they purchased the vehicle. He said he was out of the country at the time, but would ask his dad. Funny, I never heard back.

Honda Odyssey #3 was a 2009 LX model with under 80,000 miles. Now the guy selling it I knew, sort of, through work. So this was someone I could get my hands on if need be. I printed out the ad. They were asking $12,500 for it. We looked it up on Edmunds and Kelly Blue Book and they were asking a little over, but they had stupidly bought the extended warranty, so we would get that as well. The van was clean and the wife honestly told me that she backed into a pole one time. They were also the only owners. WIN! Everything was great, even after the test drive in a public place! So we emailed an offer of $11,000. We were ready to pay full price, but wanted to see if they would go lower. They said they would call us the next day. So we waited, and waited, and finally I get an email from the wife. She basically told us thanks, but no thanks, that the price was too low and good luck in our search. What? So I looked up the van on Craigslist again. They increased the price to $14,000. It seems husband and wife did not agree on price.

Small dealer

After trying out #3, we went across the street to the small dealer. He had all used cars and he was closed on that Sunday, so we could look around without being bothered. We saw a Honda Odyssey (#4) and a Toyota Sienna (#2). We ran AutoCheck on them and they came back pretty clean. They both had small fender benders, but nothing horrible. The Sienna was older, the Honda was newer, but it was the very basic model. We would have to open our own doors and look out the window for entertainment, but we could still fit a few dead bodies in the back, although the cloth material would be harder to get the smell out than leather. We came back to visit that Monday. The van was being cleaned and a new air compressor was being put in for the air conditioning, so we could come back the next day to test drive. There were no ratings online of the dealer, but when I asked around, I heard nothing but praise. One guy was even best friends with the owner, which helped us a bunch. So we went back for the test drive. Once again, it handled beautifully, but the AC was still broken. We liked the van a lot, and with promises of having the AC fixed, we said we would like to buy, but no paperwork was signed until things were fixed.

After talking things over, we purchased our new-to-us van from the small dealer. He threw in a warranty. The processing fee was about $300 less than the bigger dealers. We spent about $11,500 overall to get a quality Honda Odyssey with just under 110,000 miles.

So what is the lesson?

Research – You cannot research enough. Read “Edmunds” for editor and user reviews. Don’t go by just the star rating because people can be stupid and put one star when they mean five or they rate the dealer and not the vehicle.

Know your budget – Do NOT go over your budget. If you buy a car from a dealer, expect to pay $300 – $1000 in fees and taxes. In our case, our tags are still up in Connecticut, so we needed new tags which was am additional cost.

Craigslist advice – When searching, you have search options. Make sure to choose “clean title” in the search. Also, always meet in a public place with at least one other adult. Do not make the deal there. Think about it and use AutoCheck to check the status of the vehicle. Also, do a search for the Craigslist post. In a couple of cases I saw the same post was made in other states. And if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Private party – Know your state’s laws on taxes, records, titles, etc. Chances are you will have to meet up with the owner at the DMV to do everything.

Walk away – Do not let emotions take over. Until that paperwork is signed, you owe the seller nothing. Be ready to walk away. There is something else out there for you.

Travel if you must – We had a specific kind of vehicle we were looking for. It almost came to the point where I was going to look at one 100 miles away. If you know what you want and can wait, then wait.

Drive a lot – We drove seven vehicles and looked at 10 (inside and out) total. We drove on the mountains, on the highway, and took the neighborhood streets.

Test it – We tested the cruise control, the DVD player, the stereo, the windshield wipers, the brakes, all electronic parts, and looked under the hood while the engine was running.

Take it to an independent mechanic – We didn’t. Probably should have and did do that with our previous purchase for husband.

I really hope this helps someone. Come see me in ten years. I’ll sell you an Odyssey.

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