How to Buy a Used Car – Including the Audacious 30% Rule

I bought my first used car in the fall of 1981, just after turning 16 and getting my drivers license. It was a 1972 green Chevy Nomad for sale in the neighborhood for just a few hundred dollars. It was a solid, well running car and it was soon sporting a gigantic Led Zeppelin bumper sticker across the tailgate. I’m pretty sure it would have been a good deal for the money if not for the snowy day a few months later when I crashed and totaled it. The only serious injury was to my pride, having to revert to bumming rides from the parents and my friends again until I could find another good deal.

To this day I have not bought a car new. I’m not a big fan of payments or taking that huge depreciation hit driving it off the lot. I believe in paying the least you can for a used car, maintaining it well and driving it until it drops.


The first step is to decide how much you have to spend (cash) and then stick to that amount. Don’t waver, you can find something decent in your price range, even if very low. One of my current vehicles is a 1981 F-150 that I paid $800 for and it drives great. Not so pretty, but reliable.

When you find a few vehicles in your price range check Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds for price comparisons. If they are in line with what the owner is asking go check them out.

First, ask the owner a few questions: Has it ever been in an accident? What kind of mileage does it get? Have you had to put any money into it? And the big one: Why are you selling it? If you like the answers, and they seem genuine, proceed to the inspection.

Walk around the vehicle and check the following:

Body – Rust? Bad rust? Is the paint faded, or brighter than it should be?

Glass – Intact, no cracks?

Tires – Do they have any tread? Any cracking or bulging?

If the exterior passes, open the doors, look in and get in. Check the following:

Smell – This might not be a big deal for some but if a car smells musty or just plain stinky I’m done with it right then. Next!

Upholstery – Any tears, rips or stains? How about the carpet?

Pedals – Do they show any excessive wearing?

Steering wheel – Is it solid up to the firewall, with no play?

Wires – This one might seem a little strange but if there seem to be a lot of wires hanging loose under the dash it usually means it has been pulled out or messed around with.

Trunk – Does it smell musty? It might leak. Is the jack and spare there or under the vehicle?

If it passes that stage ask the owner to pop the hood and start the engine.

Does it start? This might seem obvious, but I have looked at a few cars that failed to even start. While I am walking away the owner is usually assuring me that this has never happened before.

Does the motor run smooth? Any clicking or tapping?

Does the motor show any signs of leakage down the sides? Is it greasy and dirty?

Look up at the bottom of the hood. Is it oily or greasy?

If it runs quietly and the motor is not excessively dirty, hop in the drivers’ seat.

With the motor still running put your foot on the break and slowly shift through all of the gears. Does the vehicle jump or want to move from gear to gear? If so, it could mean transmission problems.

Check out everything with power running to it such as the lights, locks, radio, seats, etc. Does everything work?

If the transmission shifts smoothly and (most) everything has power, take it for a drive.

Try different speeds, including the highway. Does it accelerate to your satisfaction? Is the brake pedal tight, and does the vehicle seem to stop adequately?

Is there any play in the steering? Does the vehicle shake or shimmy at higher speeds? That could mean anything from low tire pressure to a bad alignment.

Run through the gears again, including reverse. Is it smooth or jerky while shifting?

If possible, take it up a hill. Does it loose a little speed or a lot?

If it passes the driving test, it’s time to deal.

I have found that if it is a pretty decent car that I think I might want, its best not to act excited when you bring it back to the owner. Hand them back the keys, make a few comments about anything you might have noticed wrong, and wait a few moments. If they don’t offer a price reduction, shoot them a lowball offer of at least 30% less than what they are asking. Even if they do make the first offer, counter with the 30%. Most people price to deal and I have found that the majority would rather have the cash in hand and the car gone.

If it is no deal, offer your name and phone number if they change their mind, and walk away. There are plenty of used cars out there, and everyone’s situation is different. They are usually selling the car because:

There is something wrong with it.

They need the money for a financial emergency.

They need the money to buy a newer car.

They already bought the newer car and need to unload the older one. This scenario is usually the best one for you, the buyer, because at this point they just want to be rid of it.


All of the above tips apply to buying from a dealer, including the 30% rule. Many of the small lots buy at auction the used car trade-ins that the new car dealers get. Some of these used cars sell for a song, and the dealers have a nice, automatic profit built in.

When my teenage daughter and I were shopping for a used car for her a few years ago we came across one that passed all the tests, including teenager lovability. There was only one small possible roadblock: the car was $3,500 and she only had $1,500 to spend. When we got back from the test drive I explained the situation and made the offer of $1,500. He went in to talk to his manager for a minute, then returned and accepted the offer! Sometimes they shake their head in disbelief, other times they accept.

A few other tips when looking to buy from a lot:

Ask if there are any warranties.

For newer used cars check J.D. Power for owner reported problems.

Ask the dealer for the vehicle history report.


I have not bought a used car using these options, so I don’t have an opinion either way about the kind of deals you might find. Thought they might be worth a mention.

Buy a used car at state or federal auctions.

Buy from a police department auction.

Buy from a car rental company.

Now get out there and find yourself a good, used car. And don’t forget the 30% rule!


  1. Agreed. I think it is a better move to buy from a private party, especially one who you personally know. It's also good to research beforehand the known issues of the particular vehicle. Those are things which may not immediately show up on the initial test drive and inspection.

  2. I have also found a private party is more willing to deal because it is not a business, they just want to get rid of the vehicle.

  3. You can also buy a car from online dealers. There is a site called Chrysler-Pacifica ( that sells Chrysler-Pacifica models. I made a purchase on this site recently and the whole experience was hassle free. You can also try the link.

  4. I would like to thank to Buck Weber for this useful post about How to Buy a Used Car – Including the Audacious 30% Rule . Well myself Jack Goldberg working as a dealer of second hand cars & used cars for sale. I would love to be a subscriber of this blog. I also have bookmarked this post :D

    Cars For Sale

  5. If you are going to go see a car, make an appointment with the seller or dealership. Then show up to that appointment about 20 minutes early. This way you can catch the seller off guard and see if they are trying to cover something up on the car.

  6. Nice post thanks for the share !


  7. Nice Sharing..! I have been following you for a couple of months now but this is my first time commenting on a blog post. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. Keep up the good work. Already bookmarked for future reference.

    Always Money


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