16 Family Car Buying Tips You Didn't Know, featured on the Southern Momdays blogAre you wondering how to buy the perfect used family car without buyer’s remorse? Or, maybe you’re looking for car buying tips to get a great deal while doing so.

Either way, buying the best used family car (or van, or truck, or SUV, etc.) possible can be a little stressful and more than a little tricky. Add in the fact that you’ll be transporting precious cargo – your sweet babies – and whoa, Nelly! The pressure to buy the perfect family car is officially on. But, luckily enough, family car buying tips are exactly what I’m writing about today!

The hubs and I have purchased five vehicles over the course of the past seven years, with the latest three being within the past two years.

We’ve collected some pretty valuable tips along the way, especially after financing the first two and paying cash for the latest three. Whether you’re paying for your new(ish) family car with cash (go you!), or you’re opting to finance your next purchase, these tips are sure to help you find and buy the best used vehicle for your family. Kick buyer’s remorse and excess costs to the curb. Buckle up for 16 family car buying tips and tactics you probably don’t know yet to buy the perfect vehicle for your growing brood!

  1. Never visit a dealership when you might seem desperate.

In my list of used car buying tips for your next family car, this one really has to be first. All salesmen look for this. Although it’s not romantic, and it seems to demonize car salesmen (even more than the cliché), I sometimes feel like they’re sharks in bloody water going after the kill. They’ve learned to watch for that hint of desperation and play hard off emotions from that moment on. You then have a lot of legwork to do in order to regain your leverage in the buying relationship.

Although you may be desperate to get out of your current vehicle, or you might be desperate to snag the amazing deal you’ve stumbled upon…keep those emotions close to your chest. Play it professional, but aloof. Be direct: “I plan to make a purchase today. I’m here to look at a specific vehicle you have on your lot.” Then, refuse to look at anything other than the vehicle you’re there to look at.

If you’re having trouble with the desperation phase, look at the situation objectively. You likely live near thousands and thousands of amazing family car options for sale nearby. You can and will find an amazing deal again. Remember this! You have the power here.

  1. Use online directories to find exactly what you want nearby.

No list of used car buying tips would be complete without giving you easy ways to suss out the best picks! We use the CarGurus app and cargurus.com. We sometimes use Carmax to search too, but their no-haggle pricing and low trade/purchase valuations have never sucked us in for a purchase. (Their vehicles are on CarGurus anyway.)

Use filters to discover family cars you might want to test or to look for a specific vehicle with all the bells and whistles you want, within your price range.

Once you have a few to look at, be sure to call the dealerships the morning of your visit to confirm that the vehicle is still available. You may even take the opportunity to hint that you’re looking to buy that day if everything checks out!



  1. Watch for a family car that has been at a dealership for a while.

Two schools of thought are important here.

If a vehicle has been at a dealership for a while, the dealership is likely ready to make a sweet deal on it even if it’s a fantastic car, just to get rid of it.

But, if it’s been there a while…there’s also a chance that something serious might be wrong with the vehicle.

We have purchased two family cars recently in both scenarios – and I can tell you, doing your due diligence is one of the most important car buying tips I can share with you. It’s what will either give you a legendary deal…or make you seriously regret the whole thing.

  1. Stay on task.

I mentioned this in #1, but be sure to stick to your guns about the vehicle you’re there to see. This may seem silly on a list of used car buying tips, but it’s important to say! Don’t let them sway your attention to another vehicle on the lot. And believe me…they’ll try. They always do! The longer they keep you there, the more distracted you’ll be, the more likely you are to make an impulsive buying decision without research, and the more likely you’ll buy from them instead of another dealership. Be wary of this.

  1. Buy used.

This is another key tactic in my list of car buying tips. We’ve discovered that – for us, at least – the sweet spot for depreciation + reliability occurs with used vehicles that are around 4 years old, with no more than 2 previous private owners (preferably 1), no rental or fleet use, no accidents reported, no salvage title, full maintenance records, and less than 20k miles driven per year.

I know what you’re thinking, though. So why not buy new? You get total peace of mind, a perfect family car, plus a killer warranty. That’s a better deal, right?

Well according to Carfax (and about a million other sources), your new vehicle loses 10% of its value in depreciation the second you drive it off the lot. It loses at least another 10% of its value by the end of the first year. So you’re effectively signing up to eat at least a 20% value loss within one year of owning a “new” vehicle. Sometimes, you lose even more! And the depreciation continues steadily year after year, especially over the first 4 years.

I won’t even go into how much money you’ll lose on the interest alone if you finance that new vehicle, either. I just can’t even. It’s too painful.

So I’ll let you do the math on whether or not you can afford to lose that much money in that little of time. For my family, it’s a no-brainer…we buy used to let someone else eat that cost so we don’t have to, and we pay cash to avoid the crazy financing charges.



  1. Always pull a Carfax.

Most lists of used car buying tips tout getting a Carfax vehicle report, and I’m adamant about it. I say Carfax specifically because we’ve been presented with alternative reports before at dealerships and have missed huge details prior to buying because of them. (Like, for instance, a repossession of a vehicle…which we bought. And then spent $6,000 in unexpected repairs over the next 3 months, likely resulting from that repossession, prior to trading out of it.)

Dealerships will claim they’re superior reports or “the same thing,” but they’re often not. They’re just harder to read than a Carfax.

Get a Carfax.

Then pore over it! Watch for inconsistencies. Ask questions. If anything feels off, walk away. Seriously.

Finally, since you’ll have the VIN on the Carfax, check to see if any outstanding recalls exist on the family car. That’s important to consider as well as the dealer likely will have those recalls taken care of prior to your vehicle delivery.

  1. Buy local.

By local, I mean buy a family car that’s stayed local or within states with mild weather conditions. This is one of those often-overlooked used car buying tips that you really can’t afford to miss. It makes all the difference!

Basically, steer clear of vehicles that’ve been in high-stress use (like on a farm) or in severe weather conditions (like in Canada).

Our very first bought-with-cash vehicle was a gorgeous Ford F150, bought in October 2016. Blue body, chrome accents, just over 4 years old at the time…just lovely. Not one chip in the paint. My husband visited the dealership that day to see one truck in particular. The dealer pulled him to the side to look at this truck that had just come in that very day and “had a couple of people already looking at it.” (Remember – distraction tactic!) The truck came from Canada. Andy jumped on the opportunity.

Just mere months later…the paint started bubbling.

In order to get out of the truck quickly, the previous owners had simply sanded down and painted over the horrible rust that had started due to all the wet, icy conditions mixed with road salt and other chemicals meant to make driving safer in Canada. Rust was all along the rim of body. And rising.

We were duped.

And just FYI – we’re still trying to figure out how to get out of this vehicle gracefully. 🙁


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  1. Have two or three different family cars – at different dealerships – that you’re prepped to test.

Let your car salesman know that you’re planning to buy today and that you’re planning to shop around to see specific cars at other dealerships if you’re not impressed with what you see here.

Above all, they don’t want you to leave their dealership. The chances of you returning after you leave are something like 20%. (I’ve heard this stat a hundred times but can’t seem to find an actual source for it – just FYI!)

This can be a very lucrative point to remember on your list of used car buying tips. Using this tactic in particular on our latest family car purchase, we ended up getting $1,000 off a bumper-to-bumper warranty, a brand-new DVD system worth over $800 installed (also with warranty), and promises in signed contract writing (always get it in writing!) to fix a handful of other issues worth another $1000 that we spotted during our test. All were fixed and ready for us before vehicle delivery a week later. We’ve had that family car for almost a year now, and it’s been nearly perfect. It was a sweet deal in the end.

  1. Watch for symmetry, check for rust, and test everything.

Step back and really look at the vehicle. Does it lean, or does one side seem bent? Does it look like dings have been pulled out somewhere when no collisions have been reported on the Carfax? Watch for these! (This is what I meant earlier about “doing your due diligence” earlier in this list of car buying tips.)

Check for rust, especially along the lower edge of the vehicle. Check for paint seams, too. Run your fingers along the edge lightly and feel for any bumps or chips you might not be able to see.

Test everything. That might seem like an obvious used car buying tip, but it’s an important one! Slowly accelerate, then accelerate quickly. Run at backroads speeds and Interstate speeds. Make sure the vehicle shifts gears regularly, and feel for a smooth transition. Feel and listen to it idle. Take a steep turn slowly on each side. Listen and feel for popping or grinding. Take curves at regular speeds on both sides. Feel for “giving” or a loose feel as the wheels turn in either scenario.

Test the cruise control. Test the brakes. Check the windows, the locks, the radio, the wheel controls, the air conditioning, and the heat. Check the horn and the lights. Bring two CDs and an MP3 to test, and don’t forget two DVDs or Blurays to test if there is an entertainment system. (Bring two because they’ll claim it’s your disc if it doesn’t work…) Look under the hood. Look at the undercarriage.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there. In short…test everything!

Think of it this way: this is likely the single most-expensive kind of purchase you’ll make on something after education, your wedding, or a house, and you’d put a lot of research into the other purchases. Get what you’re looking for! Skip the buyer’s remorse. Test, test, test before buying…not after you sign the contract.



  1. Once you’re sure you’d buy if the family car checks out, consider opting for an inspection by a private mechanic.

These generally cost about an hour’s labor at your private mechanic’s shop and need to happen ASAP. Sounds like a hassle and a lot of money to risk, but it can give you great peace of mind in your purchase. So it’s a must-have on any list of used car buying tips.

The dealership may push back against this, but it can absolutely happen before you buy if you decide it’s a requirement. To avoid it, the dealership may offer a warranty at an even lower price as well as a guarantee from their mechanics that everything checks out. As long as you get everything in writing, that’s totally up to you. (We actually took the latter deal and avoided the trip to our mechanic on our latest vehicle purchase. It’s worked out great for us, but that might just be luck.)

  1. Consider buying a good warranty.

I used to loathe warranties. I told everyone they were a waste of money. Save up for and buy your car for cash, then use your emergency fund if something happens to go wrong…

But then we hastily bought a stunning Buick Enclave, leather AWD premium package, that had been at a dealership for months. We drove 45 minutes to see it because it was such a great deal, got to the dealership late evening an hour before they closed, and haggled over price for over an hour (UGH). The hubs only test drove it for a few minutes. We didn’t get a Carfax. Instead, we looked at a non-Carfax vehicle report on the salesman’s phone because he didn’t want to print it for us and we accepted that – HA. And guess what! It turned out to be a total lemon. Everything from the struts to the AC turned out to be busted. Every time something was fixed, another issue popped up.

We did a lot wrong in that transaction – no doubt about it. No list of smart car buying tips was in sight. We were just dumb, plain and simple, and we got taken advantage of because of it.

In the end, beyond the initial purchase price, we lost almost $11,000 between repairs and its lack of value on trade-in just three months later, friends. It took us almost 6 months to recoup and pretend it was a “wash” financially. Let me repeat that: we lost $11,000. Around $6,000 was just in lost cash above what we initially paid to drive it off the lot. The other $5,000 was the trade-in value of our old vehicle.

We always buy a warranty now. Vehicle repairs on vehicles you know nothing about owning can drain you like whoa. Each used vehicle has its own unique set of inherited issues, too. So, it’s your call! For us…we’re warranty people now.

  1. Always be ready to walk away.

If they see you’re not emotionally attached to the decision and are ready to walk away, let me repeat: chances are, they will try to keep you there by sweetening the deal. No list of used car buying tips is complete without this!

Do not, under any circumstances, haggle over and over and over, over price. Give them two chances to meet your requirements on “out the door price” – meaning, the sales price plus tax and all fees. After that, walk away. Your time is precious, and they need to know that.

In fact, they know the more of your time they waste, the more invested you are, and the more likely you’ll buy on their terms. Don’t play that game.



  1. Consider skipping “no-haggle” dealerships.

I’m pretty passionate about this portion of my used car buying tips list.

Not only are no-haggle dealerships no fun, but they’re also basically the exception to almost all of these rules. After one bad experience, I see “no-haggle pricing” on a dealership or a car now, and I drive right on by. “No-haggle” means they won’t budge on their listed price for a vehicle – period. It also means that they will pay you the lowest end of Kelly Blue Book valuation for your trade, too – period.

The only plus to them is that their salesmen generally aren’t paid on commission, so you might get more honesty there and less of a sales pitch. But, that’s pretty much it. If you’re looking to wiggle the terms and fees a bit in your favor, you’ll have a lot more luck elsewhere.

  1. If valuing a trade, try to opt for dealerships that use National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) over Kelley Blue Book (KBB) valuations.

Know what your vehicle is worth based on both models. This is one of those car buying tips that can really pay off in the end.

Most places seem to use KBB valuation over NADA valuation. KBB is basically rock-bottom valuation and gives the dealership a crazy profit margin on your old vehicle. (They’d say it’s a more “realistic” valuation, though. Ha!) NADA values trades at much higher, so if you can find a dealership using NADA over KBB, go there first!

And when all else fails, first go to Carmax to find out what they’d purchase your vehicle for, out of pocket. If all you can find are KBB dealerships, and your KBB valuation is far lower than what Carmax would sell to you for cash, then we’d sell to Carmax and pay cash instead of with trade on the next family car buying venture.

To illustrate, KBB said our Buick Enclave was worth around $14,500 on trade. Carmax offered to buy it from us for $16,000. The dealership we actually traded it to valued it at $18,700 using NADA. See what I mean? Huge difference!

And fun fact: the dealership turned around and listed the Enclave the following Monday at nearly $25,000. It sold within the week. If they’d valued our trade at KBB, they would have made $10,500 back, and we would have gotten $4,200 less in trade credit!

Which brings up another option: a private sale. I can’t speak to this, although I know you can get a lot more money selling privately than you can on a trade. We’ve never sold a car privately, so I don’t have any tips to share with you on that front (yet). But it is an option.

And, one more thought on trading vehicles: some sources suggest that you shouldn’t reveal that you’re trading a vehicle until you get an “out-the-door price” from the dealership. That way, they can’t flub the numbers as much with your trade up front to where you think you’re getting a better deal than you actually are. We’ve never used this tactic, but it’s something to consider in the future.



  1. Ask about dealership fees as soon as you’re serious about buying.

Our latest family car buying experience was a dream. They paid us for the trade (seriously), dropped the price on the warranty, and added in a bunch of extras to fix problems…but then came the dealer fees. It was an important lesson that allowed us to add this little gem to our list of used car buying tips.

They tacked on nearly $1,400 in fees. Not taxes! Fees! A cool $800 was just in docking fees, and another $400 of it was to reimburse them for window etching they’d done as soon as they’d acquired the vehicle, which gave them insurance that protected the dealership if someone (or something) broke windows while it was on the lot. They claimed it was something they did for their buyers because the owner would reimburse a portion of your purchase price if someone broke the windows out while parked somewhere else, but I was like, “We have comprehensive car insurance that covers this already…”

They wouldn’t budge on it, though. Like, not even a little. It was ridiculous. But, we were still getting out of our (freshly-repaired) lemon of a vehicle and were being paid a little to do so, so we bit the bullet.

I say this to explain, everything may seem like roses until you sit down to sign paperwork. Read everything. Ask questions. Go over the numbers more than twice. Again, no matter how much time you’ve spent, always be prepared to walk away, and let them know why. (They might just drop some of those fees as you do!)

  1. While I only suggest buying a family car with cash – because financing wastes (a lot of) money on a temporary purchase that isn’t an investment because it loses (a lot of) money to depreciation – try not to finance your vehicle at the dealership.

So one of my top used car buying tips is to pay cash, but I get that it’s not the most popular way of buying a car.

If you’re financing, consider getting private financing so the fees are more up-front and likely come with better terms. Check with your local bank for starters.

Much like I compare to popcorn and drinks at a movie theatre, the financing and service departments of car dealerships are where the company makes most of its money.

Sneak in your own snacks like the smart kids; bring your own financing. 😉


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16 Family Car Buying Tips You Didn't Know, featured on the Southern Momdays blog


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What other car buying tips or tactics do you have, friends?

Do share with me in the comments below!

I’m always looking for exciting new ways to save big on my next vehicle purchase. Which – let’s face it – is very likely going to be a mini-van! 😉

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