5 Steps for Buying a Used Car in a Single Day

Last Sunday we bought a car. On Saturday I was still a naive public transportation weirdo who had never set foot in a car dealership. By Monday I was a hardened negotiator, with my very own working automobile. Well, sort of.

Here’s how we did it:

1. Discuss, discuss, discuss

Before we ever went near an auto dealer or a Craigslist seller, Mr. Chedda and I spent a long time talking about what we wanted in a car.

The car that Mr. Chedda brought to our marriage was a trusty old bright blue manual transmission 2003 Saturn Vue, shown in the header picture of this post. The car that I brought to our marriage was…a bike and a DC metro Smartrip card. (My bike is worth almost as much as his car was.)

Winter is coming! And I don’t think even the Starks of Winterfell would go a winter without heat in their car. So when we realized that the heater in Big Blue Vue was broken and would cost more to fix than the entire car was worth, we decided to start car shopping.

We discussed all sort of aspects of the type of car we’d want. Some discussion points:

  • We usually only use the car once a week for grocery shopping, so we don’t need many luxuries in it, just the power to get us from home to the store and back.
  • We do tote a lot of groceries and occasionally go on road trips up to a cabin his family owns, so we wanted a decent amount of cargo space.
  • We value fuel economy, since we don’t want to use more resources than we have to and we’re also cheap misers.
  • We like narrow cars that aren’t extra long. One time we rented a Hyundai Sante Fe that just felt like a really hulking behemoth of a car that was impossible to park in small spaces. And I know it’s not even that big compared to the ridiculous size of some SUVs and pickup trucks.
  • We wanted a car that was used, so that we didn’t have to pay the premium for a new car.
  • But, we also wanted a car that was not too used. Neither of us is particularly handy and we hate having to deal with car issues, so we didn’t want an old beater.
  • Because of his shoulder and wrist surgeries, it’s easier for Mr. Chedda to load and unload from a hatchback instead of a traditional sedan trunk.
  • Shifting gears is also pretty hard for Mr. Chedda because of his arm injuries. To boot, I never got very good at driving our standard transmission car (I actually had a nightmare about stalling out on an uphill in busy traffic). We definitely wanted a car with an automatic transmission.

All those discussions happened over a span of months, maybe years. We’ve known that Big Blue Vue was on his last legs for the last couple years now, so we noted our preferences and dislikes to each other casually over time.

2. Look online for models and price trends

Once we made mental lists of our priorities, we used the never-endingly-useful internet to find out what car models would fit our needs and wants.

The short list:

  • Honda Fit
  • Nissan Versa
  • Scion iM/xA/xB/xD
  • Hyundai Elantra, Accent
  • Kia Rio
  • Mazda3 5-door

At this point, we knew that any one of the cars on this list would do well by us. The decision just came down to the price.

And again, internet to the rescue! Craigslist and used car dealers make finding prices for cars pretty transparent. I’m a data analyst by day, so the job of finding out what the usual trends are of prices based on various attributes of the models we were interested in was right in my wheelhouse.

But it doesn’t take a data analyst to look at prices for certain mileages and years, type those data points into Google Sheets, and make a quick scatter plot. It’s a great way to get a handle on what prices are normal and which are abnormally low or high.


By plotting the prices from used car dealers against ones from private sales, we realized that buying from a private seller in our area probably wouldn’t save us very much money. It would, however, add a lot of hassle to our search, since private sellers usually only have one car in inventory. We were open to buying from Craigslist, but checking the prices against used car dealers made us comfortable with the idea of purchasing from a dealer as well.

We didn’t eliminate any of the cars from the short list at this point, because we wanted to see what was out there and how the cars actually felt and drove in person.

Armed with data, we pressed onward.

3. Try out some cars in person

Here’s where we start the day-of car buying process. Used car dealers like CarMax come in handy for this step.

Block off a big chunk of the day. We set out around noon. Then, look at some of the car models you’re interested in. This should be the most fun part of your search.

Take some time to sit in the driver’s seat of each car and see if the seat feels comfortable to you. (Again, I remember that Hyundai Sante Fe we rented and how much we hated the curved seats after sitting in them for five minutes.)

Listen to how the car sounds and be sensitive to how it feels. One car we test drove made an AOOGA sound whenever it went over a bumpsomething was definitely wrong with the suspension.

If you live near a city, you probably have a bunch of places you can go to check out cars in person. For some reason, car dealerships always seem to be clumped together, so pick an area with a bunch of them and go ham on some test drives.

4. Be ready to walk away

Don’t feel pressured to buy immediately. I actually felt very at ease at the car dealerships we went to, but I’ve definitely heard stories of hard selling tactics. You don’t have to put up with that! You have the power to walk away, and you should remind yourself of that constantly.

I firmly believe that there’s never one “All Time Low Sale!” or “Best Prices We’ve Ever Had And You Were Just So Lucky To Come In Today!” day at any store. They’ll try to make you feel like that, but cars are sold every day and you can probably find just as good of a deal a few weeks from now.

When we had test driven (or sat in and vetoed) half a dozen cars, we came across a 2015 Nissan Versa Note that we really liked. It had just over 30,000 miles on it, one owner, and was in great shape!

Since we had already done all of our discussing and research, we knew that it fit our criteria.

We got pretty excited to find it at a price that was on the lower end of what we had seen for that mileage. Still, we took our time asking questions about the history and we took it out for a 30 minute test drive.

We definitely wanted to buy it at that point, but Mr. Chedda and I made a pact during the test drive that if either of us started to feel unsure about it or thought that we needed more time, we could walk away with no guilt trip from the other person.

Sir Shrimp in the unflattering light of our parking garage
Our new 2015 Nissan Versa Note (Sir Shrimp) in the unflattering light of our parking garage

5. Be ready to NOT walk away

We didn’t start the day planning on buying a used car on the spot, but we did come prepared to buy in case we found the right car for us. We came prepared to buy in cash (well, in check) if something really struck our shared fancy.

When Mr. Chedda and I drove that shrimpy Nissan Versa back into the lot, the salesman came over and gave us the usual debrief. Except it wasn’t that usual. “Oh” he said, “I forgot to mention that we’re having a Black Friday sale this week, so you can subtract $3,000 from the price.”

What?! Here’s where being ready to close the deal on the spot came into play.

Since we already wanted to buy the car at its full sticker price, we were definitely into it for $3,000 less.

The Results

So we made a deal and walked out of the dealership with a car! He’s been christened Sir Shrimp because he’s small but mighty!

We didn’t put any money down, because it didn’t impact our interest rate at all. They must get a lot of kickback for financing the whole cost of the car. Weirdly, it kind of feels like a free car right now because we haven’t actually paid anything for it yet.

The financing guy also knocked the cost of the warranty off of the purchase price, to convince us to “buy” the 3-year warranty. They must get a kickback on that part as well.

I don’t feel quite like an expert car buyer yet, but I do feel satisfied that I got a good deal on a car that will be very useful to us! Next up is deciding when to pay it off, but that’s a whole ‘nother question!


Anyone have frugal tips for tricking out our cheap hatchback? A hula girl on the rearview?

2 thoughts on “5 Steps for Buying a Used Car in a Single Day”

  1. Hey Ellie, that is very impressive, coming from a guy who takes about 2 years to decide which vehicle I will buy! I actually drove a Versa Note for a few days this summer when my car was in the shop. Great car for city driving!

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