Parents have a number of key phrases that they repeat often and which never lose their utility. One of those phrases, of course, is “Don’t touch that. You don’t know where it’s been.” Because of its effectiveness in keeping kids away from all things icky, this phrase has been passed down from generation to generation. The benefits of knowing where something has been extends beyond bubble gum and bird feathers, and into the realm of used cars. Most used car buyers, however, don’t have a strong understanding of where their new purchases came from, how they arrived at the dealership, and what they’ve been through. A better understanding of the life cycle of a used car can help buyers ask the right questions and make better decisions regarding vehicle purchases.

Life as a New Car

It’s no secret that every used car begins its life as a new car. Interestingly, it is this stage of life—the one that no used car buyer can see—that can have the biggest impact on the quality of a used car. Some of these used cars were well maintained while others have been through accidents and sustained damage that can have lingering effects. Fortunately, new tools can give prospective buyers a glimpse into this phase of a car’s lifecycle. Drivers should download or request a CarFax Report on any car before purchasing to check for past collisions and other forms of body damage.

Trade-ins as a Dealership Source

When their original owners move on, many cars end up at the used car dealership through the trade-in process. During this process, new car buyers turn their old cars in for credit toward the purchase of new vehicles. In some cases, those buyers are repeat customers, trading their cars in to the same dealerships where they were purchased. In many ways, these make the best used cars because the dealerships have a full record of past maintenance and can be very confident in their overall condition.

Auctions as a Dealership Source

Trade-ins aren’t the only source of the used cars that you’ll find on the dealership lot. Auctions—most of which are closed to the public and require a dealership license—are another major source of used car inventory. The cars for sale at these auctions come from a variety of vendors. Banks, car rental companies, government agencies, and other companies come together at auctions to sell retiring fleet vehicles, lease returns, and repossessed cars. Even car dealerships themselves sometime use auctions to sell surplus trade-in inventory. Dealers attend these auctions looking for cars that they can resell at a profit to their customers.

The Inspection Process

Whether obtained through trade-in or auction, used cars undergo a careful inspection process following their arrival. Service technicians perform a careful checkup upon arrival in order to honestly assess a car’s condition and to identify potential problems. At reputable car dealerships, this process is extremely thorough, consisting of hundreds of checkpoints, both large and small.

Details, Repairs, and Tune-ups

In order to get their cars ready for resell, dealerships fix up their acquisitions by repairing the problems that they discover during the inspection phase. Generally, the cars are also detailed during this phase, helping them to look like brand new vehicles. Because dealership service departments are already staffed with skilled technicians, used car buyers can have confidence that they were handled properly. The inspection and repair process, of course, is unique to the dealership market and can provide a major advantage over the for-sale-by-owner secondary market. After this final stage, used cars are ready for purchase.

The next time you’re looking to buy a used car, remember your mother’s advice and don’t touch it unless you know where it’s been. Buyers that know and understand the full lifecycle of a used car will ask better questions and make more informed decisions during the buying process. In doing so, they’ll avoid making icky purchases that they later regret.

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