How to negotiate a fair price for a used car

Published: Saturday, April 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 31, 2006 at 10:30 p.m.
Dear Tom and Ray: How do you negotiate the price of a used car when buying from a dealer? With a new car, you can get the invoice price and the retail price online. If the stars are aligned properly and you can stomach the negotiation, you should end up paying something in between. How does it work with a used car?
Leonard Tom: Good question, Leonard. It's harder to know what a used car is worth because, in some ways, every one is different. They've all got a different number of miles, different dents and scratches, and different owners using different driving styles.
Ray: But there are enough of them out there so that a "market" exists. And when a market exists, the market sets the price.
Tom: Here's how you can tap into the market and find out if your dealer is in the ballpark. Go to our Web site, On the right side, you'll see an orange button that says "Research Cars." Start there. That'll take you to a page where you'll see the Kelley Blue Book form. It'll ask you for details about the car, including the optional equipment. Then it'll give you a range of prices, based on whether the car is in "fair," "good" or "excellent" condition.
Ray: But don't stop there. Next, you'll want to look at some actual ads to see what the cars are actually listed for in the marketplace. You can check right here, in your local paper. Or you can go back to our home page and click on the orange button that says "Search Used."
Tom: If the used car you're looking for is popular, you should be able to find several listings for cars of a similar age, similar mileage and with similar equipment. Make sure you note which cars are being sold by private parties (those will be cheaper), and those being sold by dealers (more expensive, but often sold with a warranty). That'll give you a better sense of what you should really pay for the car you want.
Ray: And then, armed with that information, two large friends and a Taser, you can go to the dealer and make an offer. Don't be afraid to offer what you think is a fair market price for the car, even if it's quite a bit less than the asking price. Dealers often build a lot of profit into used-car prices, precisely because it's harder for buyers to assess the real value.
Tom: If the dealer doesn't come down to a price you think is fair, based on your research, walk away and tell him to give you a call if he changes his mind. He might. He might even run after you into the parking lot.
Ray: They always chase my brother out into the lot. Except with him, they're always yelling "... and don't ever step foot in here again!"
Tom: One more important note, Leonard: No matter where you buy the car, or how many "points of inspection" it's had by the seller, we strongly urge you to have it checked out by your own independent mechanic before you buy it. Ray: If you want all the details of our strategy, along with a inspection checklist for your mechanic (too long to print here), you can get the pamphlet we wrote about how to buy a used car. Send $4.75 (check or money order) to Used Car, P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.
Tom: The pamphlet sells for $4.75. And that price is firm, Leonard! Dear Tom and Ray: For years, a friend of mine has been on me about something I did as a young man, which he says is harmful to any car. Many years ago, on the second day of the state of Georgia bar exam, I drove my old beat-up Chevy Vega (I know I am dating myself with this vehicle) to the civic center, where the exam was administered. As I put the vehicle in reverse to park it, the clutch cable apparently broke. I had no clutch and the shifter was stuck in reverse. Being a penniless law-school student, after the exam that day (I was clearly exhausted mentally) I decided to drive the car home, going in reverse the entire 10-mile trip. It was difficult, looking backward over my shoulder, stopping at red lights on a busy street all the way home. Aside from the obvious traffic-law violations, my friend says it is BAD for any car to drive that far in reverse. I say it's NOT, as I got the cable repaired and drove the car for another two years. What do you say about his position versus my position? Thanks.
Steve Tom: Well, thanks for that image, Steve. That's the best laugh I've had all day!
Ray: You didn't do the car any harm. You might have harmed your career, if any future clients had seen you, but the car didn't suffer at all.
Tom: What you did is just like driving home in first gear. Your speed is limited, because the gear ratio is high. But as long as you didn't go too fast and over-rev the engine, no harm was done.
Ray: And because of the difficulty of controlling a car while driving backward (as I'm sure you now know, Steve), I'm confident you DIDN'T go too fast.
Tom: But by the way, Steve, you didn't have to drive home in reverse. When the clutch isn't working, you can still shift gears in a manual transmission if you first turn off the engine. So, you could have turned the engine off and shifted the car into, say, second gear, and driven home more comfortably - without getting a stiff neck. Remember that the next time this happens to your Vega, Steve!
Got a question about cars? Write to Click and Clack in care of this newspaper, or e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk Web site at

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top