Archived: The 6 easy(-ish) steps to buying a used car

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If you’ve never bought a used car before, the process can seem a little bewildering – not to mention intimidating. But we promise: you can buy a used car yourself, even if you’re a total car newbie.

But first, let’s talk money.

Let’s call this step zero (AKA “you don’t wanna hear it but we’re gonna say it anyway”). Buying a used car is certainly a more affordable option than driving something brand new out of the dealership. But you know what’s even cheaper than a used car? Taking the bus with your UPass. There’s upfront and long-term costs to owning a vehicle and if you think being a broke student sucks, imagine being a broke student with a broken-down car you can’t afford to repair, taking up a parking spot you paid tons of money for.

The financially responsible thing to do is not to buy a car you can’t afford. That means you shouldn’t use credit or go into debt to buy it. If you’re lucky enough that that’s not the case for you, that’s awesome, but unfortunately that’s not the reality for a lot of university students. So the best thing we can do is prepare you for some of the costs of buying (and owning) a used car.

Speaking very generally, if you’re spending less than $1000 on a used car, you can expect a beater that could break down tomorrow or last another five years – but either way, there’s a really good chance you’ll need to spend more money to keep it on the road. If you’ve got $3000 or more to spend, you’re more likely to get a vehicle that will last you longer with less upkeep required. Like we said, that’s a general ballpark range – price can change a lot depending on the condition, history, and mileage of the car, or even how badly the seller wants to get rid of it.

In addition to the cost of the car itself, there’s also gonna be upfront costs like inspection ($120), an MRU parking pass ($800 – $1500), registration ($85), and miscellaneous car swag.

You’re also looking at monthly costs like insurance (anywhere from $175 to $350 a month) and gas ($40 – $75 a tank). Then there’s your other (more irregular, but inevitable) preventative maintenance costs like oil changes, tire rotations, servicing your brakes, and replacing your battery.

Basically what we’re saying is: a car ain’t cheap. Especially a used car, which is less likely to be under warranty – and more likely to have mechanical issues. But if your bank account can take it, great! You’re ready to start your car search.


Step 1: Do your research

Yeah, yeah – the last thing you want to do with your free time this summer is do more homework. But if you’ve got the time, it pays off. If you’ve got friends or family with a car, ask them about it: what do they like? What don’t they like? Alternatively, you can use sites like or to find reviews and compare different makes and models.

As for prices, if you’re not sure how much to expect to pay, or you already have a specific price range in mind, head over to Canadian Black Book or autoTRADER and check out what a specific make or model might cost you. Again, there’s a bunch of different factors that might affect price, like mileage, when the car was made, wear and tear, or mechanical issues, so take your time checking out different cars.


Step 2: Shop around

Okay. You’ve got a budget. You know what you’re looking for (even if you’ve only narrowed it down to “hatchback” or “newer than ten years”). You’re ready to start looking at what’s available! Your options are generally limited to dealerships or private sellers, and there’s pros and cons to both.

Dealerships tend to be more expensive, but they may offer warranties or financing options. You can also find certified pre-owned vehicles that have been inspected, serviced, and warrantied at a dealership. If you’re interested in buying from a dealership, you can go in person to talk to someone, or they’ll often have a ‘used car’ section online if you’re not ready to deal with anyone face-to-face.

Private sellers are a whole other animal. You’ll find tons of options and a range of prices, but the potential downside is that you won’t be warrantied and you may not know the vehicle history. But you can also find some great deals through private sellers. Look on Kijiji or AutoTrader, which both offer the option to see a vehicle history report. There’s other sites like, but they don’t offer the CarProof option, so you’d have to shell out and pay for it yourself if you wanted to see the vehicle history. And if you don’t have a lot of car-knowledge, you may want to steer away from somewhere like Craigslist, since you’ll have a harder time spotting mechanical red flags.


Step 3: Check out the car

Once you’ve tracked down the car you want to buy, there’s still a few things you should do before you make the purchase, including actually going to look at the car. Now’s the time to bring a friend, or at the very least bring along some notes. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, and you don’t know anyone you can drag along with you to look at a car, there’s tons of lists and articles online that will help.

You could also check the VIN (vehicle identification number) at this point – run it through a free VIN decoder online, or go to a registry in person, to make sure that  the year, make, and model matches the car you’re looking at.

If you don’t mind paying a little extra cash (like – forty or fifty bucks), you can also buy a report that details the vehicle history – stuff like unfixed recall issues, accident history, or outstanding loans on the car. There’s a couple of sites you can use, the most popular being CarProof or CarFax. A vehicle’s history can be really valuable information, but often sellers will provide that information upfront, so don’t rush out to buy a report unless you can’t get that info from the seller. And if the seller is being sketchy about providing that type of info, you might not want to buy from them anyway!


Step 4: Take it for a spin

A test drive doesn’t have to be A Big Thing. It takes about half an hour and can give you a good idea if you like the car or not. Maybe there’s big crack that obscures your vision or a suspicious clanking sound, or the seat doesn’t quite go far back enough. In any case, even if the car looks great on paper, it might not feel right when you’re driving it – and that’s enough of a reason not to buy it. There’s always going to be cars for sale, so don’t rush into a purchase if you don’t like it.

If you’re buying from a private seller, now would be a good time to ask if they have any records or receipts of the vehicle’s maintenance history. They might not, and that’s fine – but those records are nice to have, especially since a well-maintained car will last you longer. It’s not a huge red flag if the seller doesn’t have that kind of stuff, but it’s a good sign that they’ve been a good car owner if they can show you what work has gone into it.


Step 5: Get it inspected

The cost of an inspection usually falls to the buyer (that’s you!). A pre-purchase inspection should cost you around $120, and will give you a good idea if there’s anything wrong with the car that you can’t identify yourself (hey – we’re not all mechanics). An inspection can also point out potential future issues – and taking that back to the buyer could help you lower the price. It may seem obvious, but if you’re driving the car to a mechanic, make sure the car is insured and still has a license plate – you could also ask the owner to drop it off, but they’ll still probably expect you to pay for the inspection.

There’s certain things about a car that can cost Big Money if they break down (especially at the wrong time – like going 130 klicks down the highway), so don’t take any chances with your brakes, timing belt, or anything do with wheels (tires/ball joints/alignment, etc). A good mechanic will give you a strongly-worded warning if there’s anything wrong with these systems.

But if the inspection comes back with small-time stuff, like burnt-out headlights or turn signals, old spark plugs, or even a bum battery, that’s good news. Those are all fixes you can do yourself. And cosmetic issues like rust or small dents/scratches can often be dealt with at home after a quick trip to Canadian Tire and a how-to video search on YouTube.


Step 6: Buy that car!

So you’ve found your new wheels and you’re ready to buy ’em. Nice! This is the easy part. Get your cash (or certified cheque) out and make the sale. Once it’s in your hot little hands, don’t forget to register your new car at a registry – you’ll need to bring your bill of sale, proof of insurance, and driver’s license. Speaking of insurance: no matter how excited you are to get your new car home, don’t drive it without insurance. Seriously, it’s not worth it.

We’d recommend keeping a folder with your records – that’s things like your bill of sale, maintenance receipts, or spare pink slips. It’ll make your life easier if you need to dig up any documentation (say, if you’re selling it later, or to see when you had your last oil change).

And of course, don’t forget the best part: taking your new car for a road trip! (And/or just down the road to the grocery store.) Just be ready to chauffeur all your friends around, too.