3 min read

The process of looking for a used car

[I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.]

Looking for a car is annoying. Here's what I've done so far:

  1. Figure out what I need in a car.
  2. Look for years, makes, models that should work at a price I may be happy with.
  3. Look for listings online. Filter heavily. Ignore most of them. Focus on private owners over dealerships.
  4. Collect listings of interest in a spreadsheet.
  5. Draft an e-mail template for contacting sellers.
  6. Found a mechanic I want to ask to inspect the cars I'm interested in.

This has taken around ten to fifteen hours so far, I think.

Soon, I'll need to:

  1. Contact the mechanic and figure out details. What are their hours? Do I need to set up appointments for the mechanical inspections? Can I get them done the same day I look at the car myself?
  2. Contact sellers to set up viewing times and mechanic's inspections using my e-mail template.
  3. See the cars. Each one might take thirty minutes to an hour for an initial look-over. Get the apparently-good ones inspected. Talk to the mechanic in private to get their opinion. Maybe another hour or two each.
  4. Get a VIN report on the cars from say CarFax. Review the report. Make sure I understand the information. Check that it's consistent with what I expect.
  5. Pick one to buy. Tell the owner. Tell any others I've contacted that I've found a car and I'm no longer looking.
  6. Call an insurance agency and get insured for the car. (I don't think I need to think hard about this at the moment as there's an obvious default—maybe I'll change my mind.) Odd enough to me, I need to do this before I buy the car, not at time-of-sale and not "soon after."
  7. Assuming I buy privately: Schedule a time with the owner to meet at the courthouse. The clerk will watch us exchange the money and sign the title transfer (and sign it themselves?). This is when I'll pay the sales tax and complete registration.

What I need

A boring, reliable sedan. As boring as possible.

Finding years, makes, models

I defer to Scotty Kilmer.

Where I found listings

Nowhere special. Craigslist first, then cars.com and autotrader.com. If you know of any better way to search, pass it on.

The spreadsheet

I track listings in a spreadsheet. I started out using a ton of nested Logseq bullets for each website and listing, but it got frustrating to compare things and look up details. I switched to a sheet.

This sheet has a decent number of columns. I came up with them because I kept referring back to these pieces of information. These include: Year, make, model, "subtype" (e.g. the "SE" in "Toyota Camry SE"), my subjective interest, the odometer number, the price, the Kelly Blue Book value and the URL for the Kelly Blue Book estimate I used, the listing URL, the seller location, the seller type (owner vs. dealer), any defects mentioned in the listing, contact information, paint color, question, and (if I could get it) a link to VIN report information for the car. This is a lot of information to fetch, but useful to compile.

The e-mail

I wrote a template e-mail block in Logseq. Any text editor will do. I wrote for example $NAME to mark a name I need to fill in before I send an e-mail. I plan to copy and paste this into my drafts and then fill in the details. There is enough that needs to be specified that a template is worth it so I don't forget anything.

This template puts all my requests out there up front. It asks for a VIN number. It points out that I am going to inspect the car including with a scan tool and that I want to have a mechanic inspect it if it looks good to me. It doesn't specify what mechanic I will visit, only says "my mechanic in Lexington." It says that I'm not interested in buying the car without a mechanic's inspection.

It also specifies that I will be bringing someone with me to look at the car so that this is not a surprise.

The other thing I do is suggest a time and place to meet based on the listing location. My rough heuristic right now is "a supermarket parking lot in the same general area as the listing."

Inspecting the car


  1. Scotty Kilmer: How to check used car before buying (DIY inspection).
  2. Scotty Kilmer: Red flags when buying a used car.
  3. Scotty Kilmer: (probably has inspection tips) How to get a good deal when buying a used car.
  4. Progressive.
  5. Consumer Reports.

I don't plan to use every tip from every link. Some of Scotty's are in-the-engine enough that it seems better to leave those steps to the mechanic. The Consumer Reports one has a lot more ideas than I think I'd remember or have the patience to carry out. These seem like a good starting point for thinking about what to check.

Not discussed in this post