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Shopping for a Used Car? Here’s What to Look For.

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A little research can go a long way toward a fantastic bargain

Many folks are dyed in the wool new car buyers. But used car buyers have the benefit of a significantly reduced purchase price with reliability that can match, and even exceed that of a new car. Sure, used car buyers have had a few experiences that they'd rather not relive, but many have also driven cars that they couldn't have afforded to buy new. The trick is to go armed with plenty of information and reams of research before you even see a car you're interested in. Here are a few tips on finding a good used car:

Orphan cars

An "orphan" is any used car whose manufacturer has ceased to exist. The most recent examples of orphan cars are Pontiac, Hummer, Mercury and Saturn, all which have disappeared from the automotive landscape. Orphans may have a stigma due to the fact that the brands are no longer extant, but their service is still supported by the parent company, and in most cases, mechanical parts are all the same as those still in use by brands that still exist. The term can also refer to a particular model that's no longer being produced. Keith Griffin, who writes about used cars for About.com, recently wrote about the Nissan Altima Hybrid, which will cease production after the 2011 model year. He liked the car so much that he proclaimed that the 2009 Altima Hybrid was the best used hybrid on the market. "Sure, some can quibble that the Toyota Prius gets better fuel economy and can actually cost a little less, but pound for pound, the Nissan Altima Hybrid is the better vehicle, even if it is now an orphan," he wrote.

Invest in luxury

Pound for pound, nothing outside of a power boat depreciates faster than a luxury automobile, which is great news if you're in the market for something used. For the price of what you'd pay for a fully equipped midsize sedan, you can often find a luxury or near-luxury car, with amenities and equipment you'd never find on a lesser automobile. Cars such as the 2009 Buick Lucerne, for example, had an original MSRP of around $40,000 for the Northstar V8-powered trim levels. Lucerne Supers currently sell for less than half that price, even with low mileage. Full-size luxury cars from Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Infiniti and Acura are all available at steep discounts from their original MSRP.

Timing is everything

Over the spring and summer of 2011, gas prices seemed to be on a steady march upward, hovering around $4 a gallon. Immediately, the price of small cars and hybrids skyrocketed. The price of midsize and full-size SUVs languished. If you can live with the cost of an expensive fill-up, and a full-size SUV is the only vehicle that will haul your four kids and tow your boat trailer simultaneously, there was never a better time to find a fully loaded used SUV at a reasonable price. Keith Griffin writes that fuel costs for a midsize SUV might be higher, but "the savings from buying a midsize SUV might more than make up for the higher fuel spending." He recommends the EPA's fuel economy website at www.fueleconomy.gov to determine how big an economic impact a midsize SUV might have on your annual fuel budget.

Pay for an inspection

If you've ever watched the show Pawn Stars, you know that Rick Harrison, the owner of the pawn shop, doesn't buy anything rare without having it looked at by an expert first. It not only helps him ensure the item is legitimate, but also gives him an idea of the item's value and condition. The same should hold true for purchasing a used car, even if it's part of a preowned program. While mechanical issues should always be top of mind, be sure to consider collision damage, too. Good dealers will offer a CARFAX report as a matter of course, providing you with the big picture of the car's collision history. But it's also good to have an experienced bodyman give the car a once-over to uncover any damage that may not have been significant enough to make it to the CARFAX report.

Regardless of your choice, be sure to speak with us about our fantastic auto loan options.

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