Part One: The Search
There are endless places to start looking if you want to know what car to buy. First, you have to think of what you need. What exactly do you plan to do with your car once you get it? Are you going to haul anything? Do you enjoy having multiple passengers? Do you need cargo space? Fuel efficiency? Power? All-wheel drive? Two doors? Four doors? No roof? Once you have a list of features you cannot do without, start researching about vehicles that fit that criteria.
For example, say you want a small SUV. So, you head on over to The Car Connection to find out who all made small SUVs a few years ago. Your city has some pretty stiff weather during the winter months, so you decide all-wheel drive is a plus. Turns out a lot of cars offer the SUV stance with diminutive proportions and all-wheel drive. The Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 all fit the bill. This is where automotive journalists are your best friends! For years we have been testing and testing these cars to determine who is best, and the results are still around to view to this day. Find out what the critics think of the cars you will be looking at. Find out what current owners think of them. Find out what sort of recalls have been issued, or if there are frequent reliability issues.
Once you know what you are looking for, let the hunt begin. Assuming you are lazy (I mean, you are in college, right?) you're probably going to start looking on the Internet. That is absolutely fine. There are tons of websites for people to post ads for vehicles they are trying to sell. There is AutoTrader for example. On there, you can set specific criteria you are searching for (you better check manual transmission, dummy) and restrict the radius your search covers. Watch out, because a lot of ads on AutoTrader are from dealers. You are probably better off avoiding a dealer, especially if you are looking to pay cash. eBay is a similar style, but you just have to remember that people love to wait until the last second to outbid you. The only way to avoid that is to pay the Buy It Now price, but then you are probably paying too much.
What about Craigslist? That may be your best bet. When searching, add about five hundred dollars to the highest price you are willing to pay, because there is always room for negotiation. Also remember that you are restricted to just your own city with Craigslist, which can be kind of a drag. What if the perfect car is in a neighboring city? Searching all those Craigslist pages would just be a pain in the butt. Well, someone thought of you you vegetative scholar and created SearchTempest. This allows you to search all Craigslist pages within a certain radius, which really makes things easy.
The Internet might not be the place to score. Well, there is always print ads either in your newspaper, or weekly ad magazines like AutoTrader. Just remember to always be searching and calling with a copy that was printed that day. You don't want to be calling on ads that are a week old. If it was a good deal, someone already got to it.
You wouldn't believe it, but sometimes just driving around can find you the car you've been looking for. I was heart set on a Miata when I was browsing the internet for a new car. Everyone had too high of a price, and I was beginning to lose hope. Then, just down the street a guy parked a little black one at the end of his driveway with $3,250 written on the windshield. Two days and $3,000 later I was falling in love with a little black roadster.
And remember, if you are searching for a specific car, look at as many different ones as you can. Don't buy the first you see, because you never know if there is a better one just around the corner. Once you have found a few, it is time to move on to the next step in buying a used car: the inspection.