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used car buying guide

A shopper inspects cars on a dealership lot in Paris on Oct. 10, 2015.AdrianHancu/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

The short answer to the question Which used car should I buy?” is that there’s no short answer. There are hundreds of thousands of used cars for sale right now in this country, and they run the gamut from good to bad to very, very ugly. The only way to figure out which one to buy is to do some homework.

The good news is that you don’t have to be a car person to figure out the answer. It’s not difficult, but it takes time. Sorry, there are no shortcuts, short of lucking into a hand-me-down from your relatives.

“You need to be clear-eyed about what your emotions are and accept the fact that you want to take some surprise and delight with your vehicle purchase,” said George Iny, director of the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a national consumer-advocacy organization based in Toronto and Montreal. A car is a big purchase, but most people aren’t strictly rational about it, which is fine, as long as you understand that going in.

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If you are strictly rational, driven solely by value for money, Iny said you should look for a reliable mid-size sedan like the 2016-or-later Hyundai Sonata. “A mid-size sedan, that’s the best value right now,” he said. But in his experience advising car shoppers, nine out of 10 people will say no to that idea; there’s not much surprise and delight there. People want what they want. (During the pandemic, Iny found that car buyers have actually become more emotionally driven, more focused on wants than needs. You only live once, right?)

Still, be realistic about your needs, advised Brian Murphy, vice-president of research and analytics at Canadian Black Book (CBB), a company that tracks used-vehicle prices. Is it worth driving a full-size pickup because you’re thinking about maybe towing a boat someday? Probably not. If you have two children and a dog, a subcompact SUV is going to be too claustrophobic, but a huge SUV will feel ungainly downtown and rack up hefty fuel bills.

A word of caution about prices. As a result of the pandemic, used vehicles are in short supply across Canada, which means prices are higher than usual, Murphy said. Good used cars aren’t on the market for long, so once you’ve done your homework, be ready to act fast.

The research

Start with online classified sites, including Kijiji.ca, Autotrader.ca and CanadianBlackBook.com. Some car-company websites will also have certified pre-owned listings. Narrow the search results based on your wants and needs, as well as location and price. Set up a saved search if you can and check back regularly to get a feel for the market and what’s out there. Be patient. Eventually you’ll be able to narrow your choices down to a few models of a particular year that you like.

When you see vehicles that tick all your boxes, then the homework really begins.

Check ConsumerReports.org for its vehicle-reliability ratings, which can often be obtained at no charge through your local library’s website. The Lemon-Aid used car guidebooks, which Iny co-writes, are also a good source of reliability information. Here at The Globe and Mail, you’ll find new car reviews going back more than a decade.

Most vehicles will have online communities – message boards or Facebook groups – populated by current owners who can help answer any questions you might have.

Check safety ratings from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the independent non-profit U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). While advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) such as automatic emergency braking are nice to have, remember they won’t always save you; they’re a backup of last resort. Transport Canada has a brief glossary of ADAS technology online.

Using Natural Resources Canada’s fuel-consumption ratings search tool before buying a car could save you money in the long run. “We’re on this gas-price holiday, but I don’t know how long that will last,” said CBBʼs Brian Murphy. Gas costs roughly 30-per-cent less than it did a year ago, he added, but what if the price jumps to $1.40 a litre and you’re not working from home anymore? Fuel bills add up fast. Besides, lowering your carbon footprint is always a good idea.

The point of all this homework is partly to weed out bad or unreliable cars, and partly to give you a checklist of trouble spots and common issues to bring with you when you do go to look at a vehicle. Armed with your research, you’re trying to even out the odds that usually favour the seller and, in doing so, get yourself a better deal on a better car.

The hunt

“In real estate, they say location, location, location,” George Iny said. “It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but with cars it’s condition, condition, condition.” No matter your budget, you want a vehicle in good condition with a well-documented maintenance history.

It is possible to buy a good used car for $5,000, as we’ve said previously. The trick to bargain-hunting isn’t to buy the cheapest Honda Civic or Ford Mustang you can find but to buy a boring car in the best possible mechanical condition.

Don’t necessarily be put off by a poorly written classified ad with bad pictures either, advised Antoine Joubert, a Montreal-based automotive journalist who, at last count, has bought and sold 160 or 180 cars. (He can’t remember exactly.) He took a chance on a vague ad recently and found a mint-condition 1987 Nissan Pulsar NX for much less than it was worth. “I took a chance,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just luck like that.”

Do, however, be wary of cars that may have had the readings on their odometers tampered with to make it appear that the car has been driven less than it actually has. Even the readings on digital odometers can be rolled back. “Modified mileage is the worst thing on the used-car market,” Joubert said. Carfax vehicle-history reports aren’t perfect, but they can sometimes turn up foul play. With a car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) in hand, you can also call the automaker to find out where the car was originally sold, then ask that dealer for proof of maintenance, which should show true mileage.

In other words, if a deal seems too good to be true, maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t. You’ve got to do due diligence.

If you’re working with a higher budget, certified pre-owned vehicles – where the manufacturer offers an inspection and sometimes extended warranties or roadside-assistance programs as part of the package – are a good choice, especially when you’re looking at a luxury car, Murphy said. Certified pre-owned cars can often be financed at below-market rates and usually come with a good warranty from the manufacturer. “Luxury cars have more bells and whistles, so you really want to buy with a warranty,” he explained.

“Once a car is two years old, it has usually depreciated more than 30 per cent,” Murphy said. “Once you get to a seven- or eight-year-old vehicle, they all start to depreciate similarly.”

Three, four or five years old is a sweet spot for used vehicles, Iny said. You’ll find a wider selection in that age range since that’s when many vehicles come off lease. Since the used-car supply is tight right now, don’t be afraid to look at six- or seven-year-old models either.

If, after all this, you’ve truly got no idea what to buy, Iny suggested a few options for value-conscious shoppers across different categories: a 2016 or later Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage or Kia Soul, a recent Mazda3, a V6 Ford Mustang, an old Ford Ranger pickup, if you can find one in good condition, or a 2014-2018 full-size GM pickup with the six-speed automatic transmission.

Buying a used car doesn’t have to feel like doing homework. “It’s always the story that goes with the car that interests me,” said Antoine Joubert.

Be a detective. Listen to the stories, find out who’s done what, uncover the truth, and you’ll end up with a good used car. Happy sleuthing.

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