This is getting too exciting. Not only have you found the perfect car, but it drives even better than you think. Not only can you see your reflection in the paint, but you also cannot spot a single bit of rust on the entire body. You're so in love you're ready to pay the seller's asking price and walk away happy.
Not so fast, buddy.
First off, that scenario is a pretty rare one. Sure, a used car can be surprisingly functional, but unless it is a sort of collector car with less than ten miles on it, chances are there are a few things that will need fixed on it. If not now, they will later.
It is really a good idea to take a deep breath, tell the seller you need to go home and double-check everything, and return later that day more certain than ever you are ready to buy.
This is where the research you should have done while looking for a car to buy can come in handy. Remember those pricing guides? NADA and Kelley Blue Book will give you average private seller values for the car you just looked at. Now, when it asks for the condition of the vehicle do not put "excellent." You are not buying a collector car. There is no way it is "excellent." "Good," or "fair" is probably the correct choice here. This will give you a sort of approximate price you should expect to pay for this car. In other words, it tells you what it is worth. Compare that with the seller's price, and you will see whether or not they are trying to make a fast buck.
This is also a good time to check out the CARFAX report on the car you want to buy. Unfortunately, it isn't free, but it is just another way of being sure. It might be worth the price. In order to find the VIN# to enter into CARFAX, take a look at the bottom right hand corner of the windshield. The number will most likely be located in a little window in that corner on a metal plaque.
Does everything check out? The car has no accidents, the selling price is just a smidge over the estimated value and it drives like it should. That sounds to me like you are ready to negotiate.
Each person is different in this world, and there isn't really an exact way to negotiate a selling price. Sometimes you can be buying a car where someone is just trying to get back money they invested in repairing it. Sometimes you come across people who try to make extra cash by turning around cars for a profit. Your best shot is to "lowball" the seller, and try to stand firm. Chances are they will meet you somewhere in the middle.
If they won't budge on the price, this is where your inspection can come in handy. Tell them you found a problem, you're on a budget and you need to fix it. Tell them the cost of the repair has to come out of your budget. Or, just try to say the car is worth less with this part broken. Any fault can lower the overall value of the car.
Or, you can be a pushover like I was. I looked at the $3,250 written on the window of my future Miata, asked the guy if he would sell it for $3,000 and it was done.
My negotiation skills hadn't fully bloomed by that point, but I think whittling someone down from $200 to $50 on a moped by showing them all that was wrong with it has something to say.
Either way, hopefully this short guide can help out you first time college car buyers. Hopefully you end up with something that does everything you need, and requires a tiny amount of money to keep it running until graduation. Good luck!