Find Yourself a Used Car for College

When Mom and Dad said they'd help pay your way to college, they may not have literally meant your way to get there. Sorry to say, but odds are that if you want to take a car to college, you're going to have to buy it on your own.

Here are a few things to consider when shopping around for that first car.

Find a low-mileage car

Everybody wants one: A car that's in excellent shape with a very low odometer reading. You can scour automobile ads for a low-mileage car, but you may be more likely to find one through your own connections. Tell everyone you know that you're looking for a used car — people at work, at church or temple, at school, at your gym, at your hair salon, at your dry cleaners. Somebody may be selling a car or may have a relative or a friend who is. Or a graduating senior at the school you'll be attending might be advertising on a campus bulletin board. Get a phone number, and follow up on the leads.

Think fuel economy

The attractiveness of fuel economy goes in cycles. When gas prices are on the rise, cars that get more miles to the gallon are more attractive. So, a car with good gas mileage is more valuable than when gas prices are stable. That's good news if you're selling a car that's stingy with gas; you may be able to get a better price for it than for a gas guzzler.

Ask why the owner is selling

You won't have the luxury of asking this question if you buy a used car from a dealer. But if you're dealing with the owner, you'll be able to find out some of the history of the vehicle you're considering. The first question should be, how long have you owned it? The original owner will, of course, know the complete history of the car. Next question — why are you selling the car? The answer may give you some insight into the health of the car.

Ask for repair receipts

Ask the owner for all repair and maintenance receipts. This way, you can substantiate his or her claim that the car is in good shape. Check to see if the oil was changed every 3,000 miles and if the brakes and muffler have been replaced recently. A diligent owner should be only too happy to show you a folder of receipts and a maintenance record, as they help support the asking price of the car.

Use the Internet

Determine what the car you're interested in is worth. Search the Internet by typing "used car prices" into a search engine, or go directly to the Kelley Blue Book site, the benchmark of used car prices. Here, you'll be given the choice of determining the trade-in value or the retail value: The trade-in value is a fair price paid by a dealer to obtain the car, the retail value is what you might pay a dealer to buy the car.

A used car purchased from a dealer may have had some repairs done and a warranty, which a private seller probably won't offer, so you can negotiate down from the retail price if buying directly from the owner.

Here are the items you'll need to know to most accurately establish a car's value:

  • Year, make, and model of car

  • Mileage

  • Condition of the body

  • Condition of the engine

  • Air conditioning

  • CD player or upgraded radio or speakers

  • Safety features, such as airbags and side-impact beams

  • Special features such as auto-theft alarms, power windows or locks, or leather interior

Armed with information, you're ready to win at the negotiation table.