So, you’re ready to buy a car. You know what you’ll be using it for, you’ve got a price range in mind, and it’s time to start looking at your options. What’s your first step?
Phone a Friend?
For a lot of people, it’s turning to a more knowledgeable friend or family member. Most of us know someone who’s a car person—they probably have a stack of old Car and Driver magazines on a shelf in their garage. And they love being asked for advice, especially about something as exciting as choosing your next set of wheels.
The problem is, most of the time, our car-savvy friends aren’t actually experts at car buying. It’s one thing to go to them to help figure out what size or shape of car you’ll want, and they might be able to clear up the difference between an SUV and a crossover, but they aren’t a reliable guide to which vehicle is worth your money. The reason? They don’t have any more information than you do.
Are These Resources Reliable?
- Online search tools. These sites, like cars.com or cargurus.com, present themselves as one-stop information hubs for the used cars in your area. They allow dealers to post their inventories publicly, and make it easy to search and compare. And they do include some useful information, like mileage, year, and trim level. They’re also deeply flawed, however: dealerships are under no obligation to honor list prices and the information they provide is deliberately incomplete. In particular, it leaves out information about condition.
- History reports. The vehicle history reports provided by Carfax, Autocheck, and other services are invaluable, but prone to being misinterpreted. They’ll tell you if a car has been in an accident, but not what condition the engine is in, whether the chassis is corroded or rusted, or the quality of the interior.
- Price guides. The Kelley Blue Book, NADA (the National Automobile Dealers Association), and Edmunds are another key tool, and if used right, they do provide reliable information. The problem here is that dealers have the same resources, and they can use them to manipulate how you perceive a car. They might set the price below the KBB value, for instance, knowing that you’ll jump on a “great deal,” but then make the sale conditional on financing restrictions that cost thousands of dollars.
A Reliable but Costly and Time Consuming Way
The simple fact is that there are just two ways to get complete, accurate information about the condition of a car.
First, you can take it to a mechanic and have it thoroughly checked out.
Second, you can work at a dealership and check the full “condition reports” that they have access to—but never share.
That means that dealerships have an advantage, one that’s called “information asymmetry.” They always know more than you do. It’s just one component of their larger advantage, which we discuss here, and is the biggest reason that you’re better served finding a reliable auto sales expert than trying to go it alone. Read our advice on how to do that here.