Negotiate Buying a Used Car

Negotiating to buy a used car is generally less complicated than buying a new one because there will be fewer opportunities for the seller to add on “extras” to inflate the price. However, you should go into negotiations prepared. Whether you are buying a used car from a dealership or from an individual advertising in the newspaper, you should know in advance how much you are willing to pay and walk away if the seller insists on you paying more.


Preparing for Negotiations

  1. Identify what type of car you want. Part of effective negotiation is knowing the car’s true value. In order to find out how much the car is worth, you need to know what car you want. Come up with a limited list of cars that you want to buy. Also come up with a range of years.
    • Think about your budget, lifestyle, and driving habits.[1] Ask people knowledgeable about cars what a good vehicle for you would be for you.
  2. Find the Blue Book or Edmunds price. Once you identify the type of car you are interested, look in Kelley’s Blue Book or at Edmunds to find out how much the car is valued at. The price the seller asks for—the “sticker” price—will be higher than what the car is valued at.
    • Kelley’s lists the “retail value” and the “trade-in value” for cars.[2] The “retail value” is what the car should sell at; the “trade-in value” is how much you should get when trading in your used car.
    • You can visit Kelley’s website at Once there, you can select “Price New/Used Car” and then enter the information on make, model, and year. Kelley’s will tell you the average mileage the car should have and will provide you with a “fair market” price range based on good condition or better.[3]
    • Visit Edmunds at Edmunds will provide a “True Market Value” which consists of the “Trade In” value and the “Dealer Retail” value. You have to enter your zip code as well as the year, make, model, and mileage.
  3. Decide on your price range. Next, figure out how much you can pay for the car. Before you can go into negotiations, you need to come up with two numbers: your ideal price and your maximum price. You will negotiate with an eye toward getting your ideal price. You will walk away if you can’t get at least the maximum price.
    • Your ideal price should be within the “fair market” price range for a car. Unless your negotiating skills are excellent, you should not expect to negotiate the seller down to a price point outside this range.
    • The reason a car’s “trade in” value is less than its “retail value” is that the seller wants to make a profit. Your goal in negotiation is to lower the amount of profit. It would be very rare that you can convince a seller to sell at a loss. Accordingly, you should not plan on getting a used car for the “trade in” value.
  4. Secure financing. Before going to a car lot, you might want to get your own financing, either with your bank or credit union.[4] This way, you can prevent the dealer from giving you a deal on the price but then padding the costs of financing—a common trick used by sellers.
    • If you have bad credit, however, financing from a dealership may be the way to go. The dealership is more motivated to make a sale than a bank or credit union may be to give you a loan.
  5. Search for used cars. Now that you know what type of car you want, your budget, and the Blue Book price for that model and year, you can begin looking for cars. You can purchase a used car from a dealership or from a private party who advertises on the web or in newspapers.
  6. Find the value of your trade-in. Go to Kelley’s and click on “Check My Car’s Value.” Enter the year, make, model, and mileage.[5] You will then have to select the condition the car is in: Excellent, Very Good, Good, and Fair. Ultimately, you will be provided with a “Trade In Range.”
    • Commit to getting a trade-in price within the range, preferably on the high end.
    • This only applies if you have a car and a dealer; most individuals will not take a trade.

Negotiating for a Used Car

  1. Visit a dealership at the end of the month. You may want to buy a used car from a neighbor or someone who advertises in the newspaper or on Craigslist. In that case, you shouldn’t worry too much about when you purchase the car. But if you want to purchase from a dealership, then try to go near the end of the month.[6]
    • A salesperson may have a monthly quota they need to meet. Also, the dealership may need to clear some cars off the lot to make way for new shipments. If you visit a dealership at the end of the month, you could get a better deal.
  2. Bring a friend. An effective strategy is to have someone go along with you to play “bad cop.” This person should point out negatives about the car, so that the seller doesn’t get too confident that you want to buy it.[7]
    • The bad cop can say things like, “Oh, it’s not four-wheel drive. You wanted four-wheel drive, right?” It doesn’t matter if you don’t want four-wheel drive. The purpose is to sow doubt in the mind of the seller.
    • The bad cop shouldn’t be too aggressive pointing out flaws. You want the seller to be unsure whether or not you want to buy the car—not convinced that the car isn’t right for you.
  3. Tread lightly if you're negotiating with a private seller. Remember that each party is trying to get the best deal that it can. If you are buying a car from a private party (and not a dealer), then that person may not actually know how much the car is worth. Accordingly, a private seller may get angry at your initial offer.
    • If the seller doesn’t know the value of the car, then share with him or her your printouts from Kelley’s or Edmunds.[8] Doing so will at least let the seller know that you are not being insulting with your offers.
  4. Negotiate one thing at a time. If you are purchasing from a dealer, then be sure to negotiate the purchase price of the used car first. Then, you can discuss any trade-in of your current car or financing terms. Sales people will try to lump this all together. By doing this, they can play up how you are getting a good deal on one element (say financing) while masking the fact that you are getting a bad deal in another area (such as price on your trade-in).[9]
  5. Avoid telling the seller your ideal monthly payment. A dealer may ask you how much you want to pay for a car. If you give a number, make sure it is the total amount. If you give a monthly payment amount, then the dealer can use financing to stretch out your payment period, from 60 to 72 months, for example. Your monthly payment may be within your range, but the total amount paid could be much higher than you would like.
    • Ideally, you will not disclose your budget.[10] Instead just shake your shoulders and say, “Depends on the car” or “Don’t know.”
  6. Make a low initial offer. You should start off with a realistic price. But try to make it 15-25% less than your ideal amount.[11]
    • By contrast, some experts think you should not negotiate at all. Instead, they believe you should tell the seller what your target number is and add that you are only interested in buying if they hit that number.[12]
    • Other experts recommend that you have the seller name the first price. In this way, you will be sure not to go too high in your opening offer.[13]
    • Whatever strategy you employ, remember to stay firm about not going over your maximum price.
  7. Remain silent after giving your initial offer. The seller may not immediately respond to your initial offer. It is important not to rush in and fill the silence by increasing the amount you are willing to pay.[14]
  8. Move in small increments. If the seller won’t agree to your initial offer, don’t immediately accept the counter-offer.[15] Instead, move up in small increments. Also don’t swiftly jump to your ideal or maximum price.[16]
    • For example, if your ideal price is $16,000, then you can start off with an offer of $13,000. If the seller counter-offers with $18,000, don’t immediately jump to $16,000. Instead, move up to $14,000.
    • When the difference between each party’s price is $1,000 or less, then move in increments of $100.[17]
  9. Walk away. If you and the seller reach an impasse, then politely say that your offer is final and good for 24 hours.[18] The seller may call you if your price was reasonable.[19]
    • Always leave your cell phone number with the seller if you are truly interested in the car.[20]
  10. Follow up on Saturday or Sunday night. If you are still interested in a car, you can call the seller an hour or so before closing time on the weekend. Try to talk to the same salesperson and check to see if the car is available at the price you want.[21]
    • If the salesperson (or the dealership as a whole) has had a poor weekend, then the seller may be interested in selling to you.
  11. Show up with a bank draft. If the seller still won’t come down on price, one final technique to use is to show up at the dealership with a bank draft made out in the amount you want to pay. [22] A bank draft, also called a “cashier’s check,” is drawn from the bank’s own funds (which the bank gets from you). It is a more secure way for someone to get paid.
    • Sellers may be tempted to sell. Because you have a draft, the sale would be a “sure” thing, even if the sale is for less than the seller wants. Without another offer on the horizon, the seller may close the sale on the spot.


  • When buying from an individual, transfer the car title as soon as possible to avoid mix-ups in ownership later on.
  • If possible, bring a mechanic with you, especially if you're buying from an individual. Also check service records if available and previous ownership. If from a dealer, check out if warranty in place and if extended warranty is available.
  • Before negotiating, take a test drive. You need to make sure that the used car you are trying to buy actually runs okay. If the seller won’t let you take a test drive, then leave.[23]
  • Ideally, your “bad cop” who accompanies you should be someone familiar with cars (if you aren’t). Have them check the car to make sure it looks okay. Check for fluid leaks on the ground.[24]
  • Don't rush when you're shopping around for a car. Give yourself time to find the best deal.[25]


  • Don’t be too impressed by a dealer’s claim that a used car is a “certified” used car. Often this label doesn’t mean anything.[26] Stick with your Kelley’s or Edmund’s price as the real value of the car.


  4. [v161558_b01]. 15 September 2020.
  25. [v161558_b01]. 15 September 2020.