Most people who buy used cars from dealerships are unhappy.
Not just grumpy and frustrated from the long, confusing, and manipulative process of buying the car, but unhappy with the car itself. AutoTrader.com performed a series of surveys, and fully 69% said they experienced buyer’s remorse after purchasing their last vehicle.
There were two primary reasons for their unhappiness: condition and price.
Specifically, the most common source of disappointment was an unexpected mechanical issue that the consumer discovered only after making their purchase. That’s an all-too-common consequence of an industry designed to prevent buyers from getting accurate information about cars.
The second most common cause for regret was price, with many shoppers convinced that they had been talked into leaving with a car they didn’t want or paying a price that they felt wasn’t really fair. That, too, is the result of how the used car sales industry is structured, with dealerships relying on misleading tactics and the House Edge to bully and mislead customers into spending more than they’d planned.
The key to avoiding buyer’s remorse is to adopt a whole new strategy for your car-buying journey. What you need to do is shop by condition instead of by price.
What to Avoid: Shopping by Price
Shopping by price means making a list of acceptable options and choosing the cheapest one. In many industries, it’s a good move: you end up getting the value you’re looking for with the lowest possible drain on your wallet. In car sales, though, it doesn’t work, primarily because consumers don’t have enough information to accurately compare different vehicles. Think about how many factors influence the true cost of your car:
- The actual size of the loan (if using financing) or cash payment (if buying outright).
- Interest on the loan (depends on serviceable lifetime and source and type of financing).
- Trade-in value of your current car.
- Dealership fees.
- Warranties and other dealership repair policies.
- Cost of maintenance (which depends on car condition, history, and warranties).
- Cost of fuel (lower for fuel-efficient cars).
- …and other factors.
We’ve discussed how variable some of those elements can be, but the problem here goes deeper than dealership trickery. Looking for the best deal just doesn’t work in this industry: genuinely great deals don’t exist, and there’s too little real information available to let you make a well-informed decision.
What to Do Instead: Shopping by Condition
The biggest switch you have to make is tactical: stop looking for the cheapest car, and start looking for the best car. Deal with price by setting a hard limit on what you’re able to spend before you even start shopping, and then stick to that limit (including fees, financing, and everything else). Then make your actual choice based primarily on the internal and mechanical condition of the vehicle you’re looking at. There are a few things to bear in mind here:
Focus on actual cars, not online listings.
There isn’t much point making a list of your options based only on cars.com or some other search tool—by now, you know how unreliable, exploitable, and dishonest those databases are. Instead, visit dealerships and make a list of cars you’ve actually seen and confirmed prices for.
Ignore minor details until later in the process.
Don’t get too distracted by smaller features like trim level or the latest technology. Focus on your basic needs and the car’s condition.
Prioritize miles remaining over miles traveled.
As we say here at MATS.org, what matters is how many miles a car has left to drive, not how many it’s driven so far. Mileage matters less than how well-maintained, well-reconditioned, and well-driven a car has been.
Don’t get hung up on make and model.
At the end of the day it’s your choice. We understand that some people have brand preferences that can’t be broken. Just realize it can come at the cost of buying the car with less miles left on it sometimes. Your core needs are size, shape, and usage needs. Make and model can too often be the deciding factor because of popularity, and your most practical bet is to choose the car with the most life left than the a more popular brand with all the features.
Confirm the condition.
You’ll need a good local mechanic for this, and ideally a highly trustworthy dealership as well, but it’s the only way to be sure you know the condition of your car.
Finally, find a dealership that bucks the trend.
We’ll be honest here: MATS.org is unique as far as we know. You can read about our approach and model here, and we hope that the information helps you find dealers willing to use their expertise and insider information to find a car that’s genuinely right for you.