Whether you visit a used car lot or choose the private party route, buying a used car isn’t necessarily an easy process. How can you make the best decision without being an expert gearhead? If you’ve asked yourself this question or are in the market for a new-to-you (but still technically used) car, take a peek at our list of resources below. After you’re done reading, we know you’ll be able to tackle the used car buying process like a pro. No wrenches necessary.

Quick Note: Used vs. Certified Pre-Owned

Before you do any digging, it’s essential to understand what “certified pre-owned” means. “Used” is a pretty simple word most of us understand. But what’s all this about being certified?

The best way to think of these certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicles is to consider them “like-new.” Most dealerships will have specific requirements (mileage, age, condition) the car must meet in order to be certified — and it’s not necessarily an easy thing to achieve. While all used cars include some kind of wear-and-tear, CPO cars are a caliber above the typical run-of-the-mill used vehicle. Think of used cars as the bargain option, the CPO cars as your mid-range choices, and of course new cars as the fresh pick. Now you can understand the differences between all three types a bit better.

Here are your top five resources, in no particular order.

1. Kelley Blue Book (KBB)

You’ve probably heard people talk about the “Blue Book” value of a car. Did you know that they were talking about Kelley Blue Book? The reason a lot of people consider this resource to be super helpful is because it’s informative in a number of ways. As you might have guessed, you can indeed find the Blue Book value of a car, or as KBB calls it, the “Fair Market Range.” That goes for used and certified pre-owned cars as well.

Other great resources on KBB’s website include a list of models for sale near you, quick specifications, the KBB expert review, consumer reviews, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) safety ratings, and at least two other competitors of similar type. If you’re looking at the pricing of a particular vehicle in your area, you can choose pricing for “Buy from a Dealer,” “Buy Certified from a Dealer,” and “Buy from a Private Party.” While these prices aren’t hard-and-fast rulings, they are a good way to gauge fair value of whatever car you’re considering.

2. FuelEconomy.gov

This one’s not hard to figure out, but it might be a very important part of your used car search. While it’s true that a lot of automotive manufacturers will list the EPA-estimated miles-per-gallon (MPG) rating on their websites, they’re often times hidden in salesy language (smallest engine option, non-four-wheel drive models, for example). To find the true MPG ratings, navigate to fueleconomy.gov and find out for yourself.

One of the great things about this website as well is that you can see the calculated annual fuel cost for each vehicle you search. Maybe those city and highway ratings are just mumbo-jumbo to you, but this resource will help you think in dollars and cents. Either way, this resource will definitely help out when it’s time to figure out a budget for your new-to-you car.

3. Safety Ratings: NHTSA and IIHS

The reason we include both of these resources as one is because each offers nearly the same thing, but from two separate resources. Think of it as getting a second opinion. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) both rate vehicles on their safety features. The NHTSA awards stars (0-5 out of 5 total), while the IIHS uses “Good,” “Acceptable,” “Marginal,” and “Poor” to rate a car on its “crashworthiness.” Both sites also include recalls on items other than just vehicles.

Check either (or both) of these resources out as you embark on your search. While most new vehicles these days are packed to the gills with safety equipment, the same can’t be said for older models.

4. Insurance Companies

Now that you know where you can check the fuel efficiency ratings of the vehicles on your short list, check with your favorite insurance companies for rates as well. NerdWallet.com named Amica, Auto-Owners Insurance, and AAA as the top three insurance companies for 2018. There are many more companies on the list, too. If you’re unsure which company to go with, gather quotes from three you like. You can also ask your friends and family which companies they prefer as well and what sort of coverage they have. Oftentimes, many insurance companies will bundle services if you include things like renter’s insurance or homeowner’s insurance, so check out those deals!

Choosing how much coverage to get on your used car can be tricky, but here are a few tips. First, take a look at the minimum requirements necessary — they vary state-to-state. While there’s nothing wrong with choosing the bare minimum, play around and see what a few more dollars each month will get you. If you’re not sure what each type of coverage is, U.S. News has a quick guide to the three most common types of coverage. Kelley Blue Book also explains away those frequently asked questions you might have during the insurance-hunting process.

5. CarFax.com

As goofy as he may look in his T-shirt, the CarFax fox is your new furry friend when it comes to purchasing a used car. The first question that pops into most people’s heads when they encounter a used car is, “Has it been taken care of?” It’s important to know if the previous owner(s) have been rough on the car, or if care has been taken to preserve its value. After all, you don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a vehicle that’s been abused or neglected, right?

Obtaining the CarFax report for your semi-finalists is crucial to making an informed decision. It will give you details on any previous accidents, insurance claims, service history, and basically anything else your potential new ride might have been through. Depending on your budget, you may want to pay for a few, but only use this resource as a final check before making your decision. It will either confirm your choice or advise you to seek other options.

Further Tips for Your Search

Beyond the resources we listed here, there are many other sites that offer help during the used car search. For example, U.S. News recommends obtaining a CarFax before making any sudden moves. Make sure to prearrange financing, cautions AutoTrader.com. And for those looking to have a checklist of important things handy, AARP and Edmunds.com have you covered. Before you walk out of the dealership with keys — if you do end up taking that route — be sure to ask about any fees or warranty coverage left on the car. Repairs, or rather, paying for them, is best avoided if you can manage it.

We hope this article has helped you feel better about the used car purchasing process. When in doubt, click those links, do your research, and set your mind at rest. We wish you luck in your search and remember, have fun driving that new set of wheels!


Rebecca Henderson has a Master's in German and a Bachelor's in Creative Writing. She alternates her time between writing and working on a variety of motorized projects. Most recently, she and her boyfriend have been building a custom drift trike. Rebecca believes that language, love, and a life worth living are only the first ingredients to happiness.