A PROJECT OF THE County of San Diego Health & Human Services Agency

Buying a Car

Buying a car may be the first major purchase and investment you ever make. In today's mobile society, a car increases personal independence. Everyone wants to have the nicest, most attractive and economical car they can possibly afford. But unless you are making a good salary, have established a credit rating, or have an adult co-signer, you may not be able to buy a new or even a late model used car.

A used car purchased from a private owner may be the most reasonable compromise and the most affordable for you, although there are no service warranties to protect you. If you have the tools and the mechanical ability, you might want to buy a well-used older car, and you could fix what is required for safety and reliability.

Things to Think About Before Buying a Car

  1. How much can you afford to spend on a car? The purchase price is just the first cost of owning and operating a car. Don't forget about the cost of gas and oil, maintenance, repairs, insurance, and registration.
  2. Do you need a car to drive long distances or in the city?
  3. How much room do you need to have in your car? Will you be driving other people around often? Do you have children?
  4. Does the car you want have a reputation for high quality and few repairs? Does it have a reputation for being a highly stolen car? Check www.auto-theft.info/ or the DMV website for statistics on current rates of auto-thefts by area and make.
  5. Does it get good gas mileage? Gas is very expensive and really adds up if you do a lot of driving. It's a good idea to get a car that is good on gas mileage.


Before purchasing a car it is wise to be prepared. The better prepared you are, the greater chance you have of purchasing the best car for your money. This preparation begins with your attitude:

The more you know about the car you would like to buy and the dealer's cost the better deal you will make.

Do not rush into making choices before you have the facts or are ready to buy.

Compare prices on the Kelly Blue Book web site, the National Automobile Dealer's Guide, Auto Trader Magazines, and Edmunds. Know "blue book" prices, which tells you the value of new and used cars. You can get at the public library, or online at www.kbb.com

Check out the reputation of the car dealers you plan to visit by contacting the Better Business Bureau (or 1-800-496-2131).

Test drive the car on variety of roads (highway, city streets, up hill & down hill). If possible, test the drive the car on a rainy day as well. NEVER BUY A CAR IF THE SELLER WON'T LET YOU TAKE IT FOR A TEST DRIVE!

Which Cars Are The Best?

Most libraries have Consumer Reports (published once a month) and Consumer Reports Buying Guide Issue (published every year). They contain information which will tell you how well cars did on tests, which cars are the best buy for the money and records of repairs from different autos. Or check Consumer Reports.

You can also ask the librarian to help you find other publications that may contain information regarding the type of car you are looking for. An ideal used car is less than 5 years old and has less than 50,000 miles.

BEWARE: NEVER BUY A CAR "AS IS". Buying a car "as is" means returns or exchanges are not allowed if a car breaks down after purchasing it. The best time to inspect a car is during the daytime. Bring a flashlight and a checklist of what to inspect

Checklist of Things To Inspect 

  • Under the car for leaks of any kind (thick brown fluid could be leaking oil; green fluid could be radiator or steering fluid leak).
  • Under the hood (make sure the motor is off) : excess oil on the engine could be a sign of a leak.
  • The belts & hoses for cracks & leaks.
  • Each tire for excessive or uneven wear; use the penny trick to test if the tread is too worn.
  • The Shocks ( push down on each corner of the car; one bounce means the shocks are OK).
  • For Peeling or blistering paint may mean the car is rusting; uneven paint could mean the car was in an accident.
  • Make sure the headlights, parking lights, taillights & turn signals all work.
  • To Make sure the steering wheel moves neither too stiffly or too loosely.
  • The engine should start right away without coughing or screeching.
  • Test the brakes to see if they respond quickly.
  • Be alert to any sounds or smells that might signal trouble.

At the Dealership

  1. When going to a car dealership, do not tell them what you will pay for a car. You want them to give you the best deal. It is not uncommon for car dealers to raise the cost of a car a thousand dollars. This inflated price is included on the sticker price. For example, if you told a dealer you wanted to spend $5,000 for a car, they may sell you a car worth $4,000 for $5,000.
  2. Be ready to shop around and not accept the first offer made to you.
  3. Be sure the salesperson knows that if they won't give you good service or a reasonable price, you will leave and purchase a car elsewhere.
  4. Try to purchase the car at the lowest possible price. Be ready to bargain with the salesperson in order to bring the cost of the car down.
  5. If you are making a reasonable offer, do not back down.
  6. Be sure you read the contract before signing anything; do not allow sales people to pressure you into signing, and take your time! Don't believe the "I have someone coming to look at this car" line.
  7. If you are borrowing money from the dealer to buy a car, be sure the terms of finance and percentage are on the loan contract. NEVER SIGN A BLANK CONTRACT!
  8. When signing a sales agreement, be sure the sales manager's signature is on the form. The signature of a salesperson may not be enough to make the agreement legally binding.
  9. Make sure you get a copy of the signed agreement.


Options are the extra features that the buyer may purchase to make the car more luxurious. The more expensive a car is, the more options are included as standards. Options can include cruise control, AM/FM radio, power windows, and more plush or expensive upholstery. Generally, there are three types of options:

Functional: These options add to the car's durability and reliability. (Example: Heavy-duty springs and shock absorbers)

Convenience: These options are not necessary, but make the car more pleasant to drive. (Example: Power window, power steering) Appearance: These options are designed to make the car look better. (Example: Wheel covers, and more plush upholstery)

Don't be afraid to tell the dealer if you do not want certain options on your car such as: rust proofing, cruise control, air conditioning, or an extra expensive paint job. Options cost! Do not allow yourself to be pressured into buying options that you do not want.

Extended Warranties

An extended warranty is protection covering certain parts or functions of the car after the manufacturer warranty expires. You can purchase an extended warranty to cover the whole car or just certain parts of the car. Often theses warranties can be expensive for the consumer while only being used if the car breaks down.

Tips on Buying a Used Car

  1. It is better to buy a used car from someone who will honestly tell you the history of the car.
  2. Ask to see the repair bills of the car - and keep them as records of the repairs/services the car received.
  3. Ask about what accidents the car has been in.
  4. Ask why the car is being sold.
  6. Call the National Highway Safety Administration Office of Consumer Services (1-800-424-9393 or check www.nhtsa.dot.gov) and ask if the car you want to purchase has ever been recalled.
  7. Before you make an offer, have the car checked out by a mechanic to see if it is in good condition or will need any major repairs (find out how much this will cost - but remember, this may save you LOTS of money if the car needs expensive repairs).
  8. Remember, when buying a used car from anyone other than a dealer, it means you will have no guarantees if the car turns out to be a lemon.
  9. Often new car dealerships and rental agencies sell used cars that are in good conditional and may even have a limited warranty.
  10. Invest money on a good mechanic to inspect the car you are interested in buying. You'll be glad you did!

How Many Miles to the Gallon does your car get?

  1. Completely fill your gas tank with gas. While you are still at the gas station, write down the number the odometer displays. This is the total number of miles on the car.
  2. The next time you need gas, completely fill up your tank with gas. Write down the number the odometer now shows. Write down the number of gallons of gas it took to fill the tank.
  3. Subtract the first odometer reading from the second. This number will give you the number of miles you have traveled.
  4. Divide the number of gallons it took to refill your gas tank (step 2) into the number of miles you traveled (step 3).