Your Dream Car Might Be Used.

Leslie Vander Baan

A used car can be a smart, affordable alternative to a new one, especially when food and fuel costs are high. Here's a primer on how to find a used car you'll enjoy, whether it's basic transportation for the family or a luxury vehicle with only a few thousand miles on it.

  • Use your eyes. Walk around the vehicle and examine it closely. Does the condition of the car match its age? How is the paint ? are there dents or scratches? Look at the gas and brake pedals. If they are worn, yet there is very low mileage on the car, there could be possible odometer fraud. Look under the hood. Are the belts and hoses worn and cracked or have they been maintained? Check for the original manufacturer's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) plate on the side of the door, hood, or trunk. If it is missing, it's possible the vehicle has been in an accident and that panel of the vehicle was replaced.

  • Do your research. Obtain a vehicle history report (one resource is to get a sense of past ownership and whether the car has been a rental or in a severe accident. Ask for service records to see how the seller kept up with maintenance. Then find a mechanic you trust and invest $75 to have the car checked out.

    If the owner has neglected maintenance or there are internal engine problems that need repair, don't buy, no matter how snazzy the car looks. If the vehicle was in a minor accident (less than 25% of the car's value at the time of the accident), the repair was done properly by a reputable repair shop, and that work can be documented, the car may be a very good buy.

  • Know how much you can spend. What is your buying power? Do you have the resources to obtain a certified check upon finding the right vehicle for you? Will you need financing? Don't wait to find the car you want to buy to start answering these questions. It's unlikely a seller will wait for you to figure out your method of payment if other prospects come along and can pay cash. Be ready to move.

    Find out your credit score (I like the service at Interest rates are based on credit score. The higher your credit score, the lower your rate because you are less of a risk.

  • Know how much to offer. Look up the "book value" of the car on Kelley Blue Book ( Following your visual and mechanical assessments, offer a price based upon how the vehicle stands up against the average book value of the car. Your offer should take into account any minor maintenance work the vehicle might need.

Don't forget the hidden costs of ownership.

What will your monthly fuel costs be? How about insurance? Or maintenance and repairs? A car has many moving components and they will wear out. It's best to understand the costs ahead of time for any specialized service the vehicle might require at a dealership. As of July, the IRS allows 58.5 cents per mile to cover gas, insurance, and depreciation. That gives you a sense of your basic costs in operating a car.

Buying a vehicle is a major financial decision. Buying used can give you the car you want, even during a challenging economy.

Leslie Vander Baan is co-owner of Automotive Consignment in Charlotte, NC and . Her businesses have been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine and

Leslie welcomes all visitors to visit for free vehicle listings, tips and advice and much more! At they eliminate the guesswork of how to quickly sell your vehicle, manage the paperwork and most importantly, how to keep the most money in your pocket throughout the process.

For buyers they have a quick and easy search engine that allows you to find the vehicle of your dreams - without combing through dealer ads! Experience the savings of shopping For Sale By Owner on AutoConsign.Com.