It's estimated that more than 14 million new cars will be sold in the U.S. this year. If you think that's a lot, then you haven't taken a look at the used car market. "It varies month to month, but generally used car sales are at a three to one ratio over new car sales," says Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence for TrueCar.com, who adds that used car sales in 2012 should total "a little over 40 million."
Used car shoppers tend to have different priorities than new car shoppers. "Used cars are more of a choice for budget-conscious consumers," says Toprak. "The main appeal of a used car is that someone else took the hit on depreciation."
In fact, says Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst of automotive insights for Kelley Blue Book, "the average one-year-old vehicle is worth only about 70 percent of its original price at auction." In other words, by buying a used car, you let someone else send 30 percent of what they spent on the car down the drain.
Though budget tends to be a primary concern for used car shoppers, smart used car buyers know that getting a great deal on a used car is about more than price. "Buying a used car is really about getting the most car for the money," says Toprak. Most used car shoppers know to get a vehicle history report, mechanic's evaluation and to do a thorough test drive on any used car they consider, but smart used car buyers start their shopping by narrowing down their list to just the best used car models. Here's how they do it.
A used car, no matter how low the price, is pretty useless if it doesn't drive the way you need it to. While a detailed test drive is the best way to evaluate an individual used car's performance, the easiest way to narrow your used car search to a few models is by reading performance reviews of various cars when they were new. A car that drove poorly when it was first released probably hasn't improved with age, while a car with plenty of power, stable handling and good fuel economy when it was new is likely to remain a decent performer as a used car.
Just like with performance, a car that had a low-quality, uncomfortable interior when it was new will probably be much worse for wear as a used car. Studying reviews from when a car was new should tell you how many seats there are, if they're comfortable and what kinds of materials are used in the interior. Reviewers also often mention if they think the materials should hold up well over time. You'll also get actual dimensions for things like cargo and passenger space, which a lot of used car sellers might simply describe as "big."
"Reliability is one of the most important factors" used car buyers look for, says Raffi Festekjian, director of automotive research for J.D. Power and Associates. "Fifty-nine percent of used car buyers said it was their most important consideration." Festekjian says that it's getting easier for used car shoppers to find a dependable car. "We've seen, going back to 2009, that [mechanical] problems are decreasing," he says, citing the 2012 J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study. "From 2011 to 2012, the industry improved vehicle dependability by 13 percent."
The most reliable models, however, may not be the ones that first come to mind. "There are several brands that do well with dependability, but still face challenges with consumer perception," says Festekjian. "Consumers should do their research and educate themselves," with actual data, and not just rely on brand reputation. Though individual used cars will vary, it's easy to find reliability ratings for how dependable a model tends to be. J.D. Power and Associates rates cars that are three years old or older in its Vehicle Dependability Study, which tracks mechanical problems reported by car owners. For newer cars, J.D. Power's Initial Quality Study measures problems experienced by vehicle owners in the first months of ownership.
Smart used car shoppers know that sacrificing safety to save money is a bad move. However, when cars are new, they're crashed tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. You can use the ratings from when a car was new to assess how safe a given model is likely to be. Beyond looking for strong crash test ratings from when the car was new, look for safety features like electronic stability control, which David Zuby, chief research officer at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, says "is a feature that will help you avoid being in a crash." IIHS lists the safety features that are available on used cars, so "there's no reason to get hoodwinked by dealers," Zuby says, or used car sellers who may say a car has a safety feature it doesn't.
Finally, a used car doesn't make much sense as a budget proposition if it's expensive to own. A car's operating cost is how much it will cost to actually use the car and includes things like fuel, maintenance and repair costs. Finding the best used car means not only finding one with a price that fits your budget, but also one with operating costs that you can afford over the long haul. You might get a great deal on a car with an opulent interior, sporty performance and excellent safety ratings, but if you can't afford to keep gas in it, it's not the best car for you.
More From US News & World Report