From the February 2000 issue of Startups

OK, so you can't afford a gleaming new BMW--maybe not even a spiffy VW Jetta--so how do you explain all those other people your age who are driving wheels you only dream about? You know they're not earning a dime more than you, so what's the story? Here it is, in two words: Used, or, as the marketers say, "pre-owned." Either way, slightly worn wheels just may be the smartest buy if you're on a tight budget but crave stylish transportation.

Case in point: A new 2000 Jetta GLS runs around $20,000--and dealers aren't coming down far from the sticker price on this super-popular car--but a `97 Jetta GLS, with all the options and low mileage, likely won't cost a dime over $15,000. Go more luxurious, and price cuts become still deeper. A search at the Hertz used vehicles site (http://www.hertzcarsales.com) reveals that buyers of year-old creampuffs pocket thousands in savings.

Doesn't buying a used car mean buying somebody else's problem? Used to be, but today's cars are dramatically better made. Many Web sites and books can help guide buyers through the used-car maze.


Robert McGarvey drives a '99 Camry, but his dream car is a '67 Morris Minor. A what? If you have to ask...don't bother.

What Should It Cost?

Get solid pricing info before ever stepping on a dealer's lot by visiting Kelly Blue Book (http://www.kellybluebook.com) and Edmund's (http://www.edmunds.com). Both offer easy-to-use price guides that, with a few mouse clicks, give a rough sense of what any late-model used car is worth.

Shopping Around

Let your mouse do your car hunting by visiting the many Web sites devoted to used cars. Especially fertile shopping sites are:

  • AutoTrader (http://www.autotrader.com). With more than 1 million vehicles in its listings, this is the biggest used car lot around. You can search by make, model and ZIP code, and there are handy buttons to click for quotes on financing and even extended warranties.
  • Autobytel (http://www.autobytel.com). This Web site offers a leaner inventory, but its certified used cars come with a few big differences. Car prices are no-hassle. Every vehicle comes with at least a 3,000-mile/three-month warranty. All cars have gone through a 135-point inspection; plus if you change your mind within 72 hours, there's a no-questions-asked return policy.
  • Cars.com (http://www.cars.com). This used car database is linked up with dozens of newspapers, making it the Web's version of automobile classifieds.
  • Ford PreOwned (http://www.fordpreowned.com). The giant auto maker's site for moving late-model used cars at hassle-free prices is one of the best around. A recent look found a gorgeous '99 Contour SE with less than 10,000 miles, under a fair warranty, selling for $13,450.

Lemons and Recalls

  • CarFax (http://autos.yahoo.com/carfax.html). Is that car you're eyeing a lemon--meaning its repair history says it belong in intensive care, not your driveway? Click into CarFax, enter the vehicle's 17-digit Vehicle Identification Number, and you'll know, free of charge.
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/recalls/recmmy1.cfm). Has the car been subject to a recall (usually to fix safety-related items)? Being involved in a recall is no big deal--millions of cars get recalled yearly--but check this government database to make sure the repairs have been performed.

Book It

Buying a used car can be a great money-saver--or a fast plunge into a money pit. Find good, precautionary reading here:

  • Consumer Reports Used Cars Buying Guide ($9.99, http://www.amazon.com). Issued annually, this paperback may be the smart car buyer's bible. Filled with tips, the book also profiles 200 used cars and offers suggestions on models to avoid and ones to snag.
  • The Used Car Book 1999-2000 (HarperCollins, $13.95, 800-242-7737). The subtitle of Jack Gillis' book says it all: "The definitive guide to buying a safe, reliable and economical used car." Advice is offered on more than 150 types of vehicles, along with the author's "Best Bets."