How To Buy A Used Car Part 4: Negotiating

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

When it comes to buying a used car there are two basic negotiating mindsets. You can either be fair and decent or unfair and obnoxious. If you seek to chisel and deceive then chances are you will get a bad car. Only the desperate and deceitful are willing to put up with that type of BS.

Want a ‘great’ car? Then realize that many sellers respond extremely well to honesty and decency. Win – win is no sin. So, karma lovers, here’s some tips for negotiating the purchase of a used car by observing the Golden Rule.

Making the Offer

If you’ve followed parts one through three of this series congratulations! You’ve found a car that’s superior to 90-plus percent of what’s out there. Rejoice and let the seller enjoy the benefits of properly maintaining his car.

How to Value the Car

NADA tends to have high valuations while Kelly Blue Book overprices late model vehicles and underprices older ones. Contrary to reality, you can’t find many good $1000 cars regardless of what the Blue Book says. Nor should you get a 2000 Mercury Grand Marquis with over 200k+ for the NADA pie in the sky price of $5000. Stick with Edmunds private party values or, the ‘completed items’ section on Ebay if a comparable vehicle was sold there at ‘No Reserve’.

Negotiate After the Inspection, Not Before

Some folks believe that you should make an offer before the final inspection. I never do.

The reason is that sellers will then get stuck on an unrealistic price if there are major maintenance issues. A $5000 car that needs $1000 in maintenance was never a $5000 car in the first place.

Most sellers will get stuck on that ‘perfect’ number and reject any substantial adjustments. Therefore inspect first, and negotiate last.

How to Negotiate

Begin by declaring your intention to buy the car… so long as the repair costs are addressed in the price.

If these repairs are minor and you’re not interested in a long negotiation, immediately offer to split the difference for the repair costs and call it good. If, however, mission critical repairs run into the high hundreds to thousands of dollars, you have an “opportunity” ahead of you.

Summon the mechanic!

Ask your mechanic to fax the used car’s inspection report to the seller before you speak with them. At first, the seller (and possibly you) may be shocked by the numbers involved.

This can be especially true with older vehicles and luxury cars. However, with a little constructive conversation, even the most alarming repair costs should not kill the possibility of an amicable agreement.

Do The Right Thing

I like to start negotiations for cars with repair “issues” by giving the seller an opportunity to do the right thing. “Given what’s in front of us right now,” I ask. “What would be the fair way for both of us to resolve these repair costs?”

Worst case, the sellers stand pat. In that case, walk. Best case, the seller says they’ll simply lop-off the total bill from the asking price. If that happens, it’s time to shake hands and do the deal.

Compromise

Some sellers begin by offering to reduce the asking price by a very low number. They figure you’re there to haggle (hoping you won’t).

If the first offers by both parties aren’t getting any traction, it’s time to go through the inspection report– and the probable costs of repair– line by line.

Not all repairs are equal

Keep in mind some items are your financial responsibility. Unless it involves a major repair (timing belt, water pump, adjusting the valves, etc.), upcoming maintenance regimens are always down to you.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

In particular, oil changes, tune-ups and replacing filters that aren’t necessary right now should be removed from your list. By doing this from the onset you’re showing goodwill and fairness.

Find an alternative when you need to.

If the seller claims the cost of repair listed in your inspection is too high, ask them if they know of another mechanic who’d be willing to do it for less, and the type of guarantee they will offer. I’ve seen $450 repairs with 30-day guarantees turn into $200 repairs with a full year guarantee. If the car is worth it to you, it pays to explore alternatives that will benefit both of you.

It may take research and patience, but it can be done.

Tit-for tat works wonders

Finally, if you have experience repairing minor automotive issues, use that skill to create some wiggle room to help close the deal.

“You know, I think I could handle that myself. What do you think about us taking off x repair instead? Would a price of y make it a fair deal for both of us?”

Take it or leave it

If you can come to a mutual understanding, enjoy your ride! If not don’t beat a dead horse.

I like to back-out by thanking the seller for their time. Leaving a copy of the inspection report as a “gift” and telling them my final price, should they reconsider. Above all don’t sweat it. There are plenty of excellent used cars out there looking for a good home.

Let’s Recap

To get a great deal: research diligently, test drive patiently, let an expert figure out the unknowns, and negotiate in good faith. Do this and you’ll save unnecessary test drives and thousands of dollars in future repair costs.

You’ll also buy the cream of the automotive crop at an extremely fair price.

[Part one of our used car buying guide is here, part two is here, and part three is here.]

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

More by Steven Lang

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  • Payam.khodad Payam.khodad on Apr 22, 2019

    thank you for this post. i used this method for buying my new car

  • Periodic Periodic on May 29, 2020

    Great article! I would just add a few more things. You should check the car’s history report. Tools like Carvertical can provide you with useful and important information that even experts might not point out: confirmed mileage, accidents history, usage record such as if the car has been used as a taxi, etc. It could become very strong arguments for price negotiation. Also, you should know your maximum price before negotiating. This way you are more resistant to the seller’s arguments and can firmly hold your position. Don’t forget to tell the price that is lower than your top price, so you would have more space for negotiation.

  • Dave M. The Outback alternates between decent design and goofy design every generation. 2005 was attractive, 2010 goofy. 2015 decent. 2020 good, but the ‘23 refresh hideous.Looking forward to the Outback hybrid in ‘26…..
  • Lorenzo Subaru had the ideal wagon - in 1995. The Legacy Outback was a straight two-box design with rear quarter and back windows you could see out of, and was available in brown with a 5-speed manual, as God and TTAC commenters intended. It's nice they're not raising prices, but when you've lost the plot, does it matter?
  • Bkojote Remember a month a go when Cleveland wanted to create a more walkable Cleveland and TTAC's 'BIG GOVERNMENT IS THE PROBLEM' dumbest and dullest all collectively crapped their diapers? Here's the thing- look on any American highway and it's littered with people who don't /want/ to be driving or shouldn't be. Look at every Becky on her phone during the morning commute in her Tucson, look at every Brad aggro driving his 84 month loan GMC. Hell look how many drivers nowadays can't even operate a headlight switch. You expect these people to understand a stoplight? In my neighborhood alone 4 people have been rear ended at lights from someone on their phone. Distracted driving over the past 10 years has spiked, and it's only going to get worse unless Becky has an alternative, because no judge is going to pull her license when 'she needs it to get to work!' but heaven forbid she not check fb/tiktok for 40 minutes a day.
  • Scott Shouldn't the The Italian Minister for Business be criticizing The Milano for being too ugly to be Italian?Better use of resources doing that....
  • Steve Biro Frankly, while I can do without Eyesight and automatic start-stop, there is generally less B-S with Subarus in terms of design, utility and off-road chops than with many other brands. I just hope that when they adopt Toyota’s hybrid system, they’ll also use Toyota’s eCVT.
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