Get a good deal on a used car

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Clunker-free zone

Clunker-free zone (Phil Geib/Chicago Tribune illustration / February 4, 2011)


Based on condition, mileage and Kelley Blue Book, offering 20 percent below asking is a good starting point. "This is the thing everyone fears but the worst a person can say is 'no,'" Mateja says. There's nothing wrong with a lowball offer, he says. "If they're asking $8,800, I might start at $6,500 or $7,000."

On the other hand, "If anyone jumps on your 20 percent (below asking price), I'd make sure my mechanic had seen it," says Olsen. That old maxim is operative here: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Can't stand the bargaining process? Choose a dealer like CarMax which promotes a no-haggle policy that eliminates the stress and confusion of the negotiating process.

Be prepared to walk away

Don't fall in love. There are plenty of other used cars out there.

Also …

•Buy at the end of the month. Especially at larger dealerships, sales staff are rated on whether they meet monthly sales quotas so they're especially eager to make a deal at month's end, says Olsen.

•No title in hand? No deal! "Don't go with, 'I'll give it to you later,'" warns Olsen.

•Buying from an individual seller who "you'll never see again" can leave you with little recourse if the car is a lemon, says Mateja.

•Certified used cars are often more expensive but less risky.

•Handing over actual cash is never a good idea and a cashier's check from the bank is as good as cash. You probably can get a better deal by offering to pay that way instead of financing, says Berk.

Not sure about the dealership? Check your local Better Business Bureau for complaints and whether they were resolved satisfactorily.
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