- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

The popular belief is that only people who can't afford a new car buy a used one. Not true. Smart people also buy used cars.
The reason is that the minute you drive a new car off the lot, it's worth 10 percent less than it was 30 seconds earlier. If you can't resist the wonderful interior smell, the exact color and options you were seeking and an odometer reading of about 12 miles or fewer, enjoy your new car. Otherwise, here are some tips for used-car buyers that might help you save thousands of dollars and also provide you with a wonderful car.
Near-new cars with lower mileage vehicles only a year old and with fewer than 10,000 miles still have a lot of time under warranty, and they even may smell new. You can get a lot of car for your money and still be protected by an excellent manufacturer's warranty.
Warranties these days are impressive, often running to four years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first. That usually means all scheduled maintenance is free, and the warranty even may include free roadside assistance.
If you want a slightly older car, look for one with relatively low mileage 8,000 miles a year or less. A 3-year-old car with 20,000 miles on it is a good prospect. On the other hand, a 2-year-old car with 40,000 miles on it is not. That vehicle, however cosmetically perfect, has gone too far too fast. If you want to buy it, hammer the seller about the mileage and get a very low price for the car.
Speaking of prices, what's the best way to gauge a reasonable price on any car, new or used? You can find myriad library and on-line automobile sources, the foremost being the Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), which long has been the car-pricing bible. You can look up the car you are considering, factor in the trim and option details along with the general condition and mileage, and then calculate an exact price, both wholesale and retail.
Remember when you are buying from a dealer, whether the car is new or used, that the dealership is in business and has to make a profit. The dealer will be buying and selling at the wholesale price. From that you can figure how much "fat" is in the asking price and negotiate accordingly. Don't begrudge the dealer the need to make a living, but be sure the profit is reasonable and you get the car at an appropriate price.
Buying a used car (or "pre-owned," as is the popular term these days) directly from a private party has its ups and downs. You may be able to get a better price because the seller doesn't have dealer overhead and such, but if something goes wrong with the car two miles after you buy it, you have practically no recourse. You're stuck.
Nevertheless, checking the newspaper (and the Internet) for prices on the car you want will give you a clear picture of the market.
Cars are priced differently in different parts of the United States, according to the Kelley Blue Book. For example, a 1994 Toyota Camry SE with 53,000 miles and many fine options is worth $12,995 in Southern California and Washington but nearly $1,500 less in Connecticut and Minnesota. You would expect cold weather to be the reason, but surprisingly, the Camry's price in Florida also is at the lower end.
Go figure. Perhaps the only lesson to be gleaned from all this is, do your research, because to some degree, the market can be whimsical, and there are deals to be found.
For example, I found a Saab on sale in Los Angeles for $23,000. The owner, Steve Rudman, is a Los Angeles-area resident who brought the car with him when he moved from Washington, D.C. He has had his convertible Saab on the market for nearly a month at subwholesale prices, with very little action.
"Saab has a much bigger presence on the East Coast than the West Coast," Mr. Rudman said.
His price is so good it would make sense for someone on the East Coast to fly out and buy his car, then drive it home. The buyer would end up with either a very good car or, if he or she sold it back on the East Coast, a very nice profit.
Be sure to hit the Internet to check major newspapers around the country. All give easy access to their classified car ads. You just may find a deal so incredible that it will be worth the cost of one-way air fare.

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