It’s no secret that there’s a glut of used cars now, thanks to the rise in long-term leases that put millions of cars back on the market each year. In 2017, buyers snapped up more than 39 million of them—more than twice the number of new cars sold, according to Edmunds. But the increase in used cars for sale doesn't make it any easier to find a reliable one.
No one wants to drive off the lot with wobbly-ass tires while the salesperson giggles and counts your cash. And automakers know used car buying fear is real. So they created certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicle programs now offered by more than 40 manufacturers now, from Tesla to Kia. Unlike other used cars, which can be sold by any rando on Craigslist, certified used cars are relatively new models that are only sold by dealers.
While the program specifics vary by manufacturer, you can expect to get up to a seven-year extended warranty, along with roadside assistance, a detailed inspection and a copy of the vehicle repair and maintenance history. Sounds great right?
Not so fast. In most cases, the certified designation just isn’t worth it. Buying one “is basically purchasing a pricey extended warranty for peace of mind against unexpected issues,” according to Consumer Reports automotive analyst Mel Yu. What’s more, you’ll wind up paying anywhere from $850 to $3,000 more for a certified used car than you would for a regular one.
This is especially true if the used car you are buying is less than a year old. “It may not have depreciated enough to make it an outstanding value versus a new car,” Matt Jones, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds points out. “With cash incentives and end of the year rebates you might be better off with a new vehicle.”
As with any purchase, comparison pricing is a smart move. “When comparing two of the same vehicles, I wouldn’t pay more than $2,000 more” for a certified used car, Edmunds editor Jones said.
You definitely don’t need the “certified” label if you’re buying a brand known for reliability, either. “If you are looking at a notoriously reliable vehicle like a two year Toyota, there’s no need to buy the CPO,” said Brian Moody, executive editor for Autotrader.
Ok, but what if I want a certified pre-owned vehicle anyway?
If you insist on buying a certified used car, make sure it is certified by the manufacturer, not the dealer, “Dealers may say the car is a CPO but it is ‘certified’ by the dealer and not the manufacturer,” advised Tom McParland from Automatch Consulting. You run into problems if you move or try to have the car serviced at another dealer in that case.
Also, be cautious about dealers that suddenly tack on a “reconditioning” fee for a certified pre-owned vehicle when you are about to sign the contract. “The ‘reconditioning’ fee is the fee the dealer is charging for the CPO but it isn’t included in the advertised price,”McParland said. In that case, don’t sign the contract and report the dealer to the Federal Trade Commission.
How to make sure your used car won’t crap out on you
Before you buy, always take a test drive in real road conditions to see how the car handles. Pay attention to any weird noises or problems with braking, accelerating or switching gears. Ask to see the repair records and study them for any major or ongoing issues so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Then have an independent mechanic inspect the car for things you might not notice yourself like a rusted out radiator or tires that will need changing in like five minutes.
Another way to gauge future repair costs is by finding out how soon the car needs to go in for a checkup. “Go online and download an instruction manual for the car you want to purchase to see what maintenance services are upcoming,” Jones said. “Then call the dealer and ask for the price of each upcoming service.” You can use this information to estimate your repair costs going forward.
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