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Where and How to Find a Used Car in Baltimore

Carfax sticker on a used pre-owned vehicle. Carfax provides vehicle reports for prospective buyers that may reveal problems.

Motivation to learn the unknown is a critical part of my work as a researcher. I once spent two years building a half-million dollar, two-photon microscope from scratch by myself! When I moved to Baltimore, I knew nothing about driving. The ability to teach myself new skills was especially helpful when I decided to learn to drive, and then buy and fix up a used car.

In my last post, I shared my experience learning to drive in Baltimore. It’s time to let you know where and how I got a used car. Take a look if you are considering buying or selling a used car.

Unlike shopping for a new car, where a dealer is the only place to go, you can get a used car almost anywhere, including dealers, car rental companies and private owners. Although I got my car from the owner, I have considered all three methods. Car dealers include regional dealers that sell new and used cars (Heritage, Sheehy, Bob Bell, etc.), nationwide and online dealers that buy and sell used cars with tens of thousands of choices (CarMax, CarGurus, Carvana, etc.), and small roadside dealers that sell used cars of various brands but usually have less than 20 choices. Car rental companies typically sell cars manufactured less than three years ago (Avis, Hertz, Enterprise, etc.). Therefore, the vehicle is usually in good shape and is still covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. There is a nearby Avis store in Canton (4900 Boston Street) where you can drive for two hours free or two days for $140, and they will reimburse the fee if you buy the car. I booked a car there, but didn’t try it because I bought my car one day before the appointment. Used cars from private owners can be found on sites like eBay, Facebook and Craigslist. Cars sold by private owners vary greatly, and there is no warranty. Different options have different pros and cons. Consider a dealer or rental company if you want a warranty and prefer newer cars and a private owner if your budget is low.

No matter where you go, check the used car carefully before paying for it. You can filter out a lot of candidate cars online before testing the vehicles. First, take a look at the photos showing the car’s outside and inside. Second, check the text description, including manufacture year, accident history, how many owners (one owner is best), title status (clean, rebuilt, salvage, etc.), odometer range (100,000 miles is considered a cutoff point for used cars) and transmission type (automatic or manual). Pay attention to malfunctioning parts. For example, if the check engine light or airbag light is on, the car wouldn’t pass the state inspection and would need mechanical repair.

Third, get the history reports. The information provided by the seller is usually incomplete and could be inaccurate. You wouldn’t want to buy a car with a record of a severe crash on the highway with airbags deployed. The dealer is responsible for providing the latest history report from Carfax or AutoCheck. If the private owner hasn’t purchased the history report, you can ask for the vehicle identification number (VIN) and buy the history report (approximately $30). The VIN is like the car’s fingerprint, and it has 17 characters. History reports collect information from dealers, mechanical and body shops, insurance companies and state vehicle administration offices. However, be aware that if the car owner chooses to maintain and repair the car themselves (like me), you won’t see any maintenance or accident records.

The last step is to get the estimated price through websites like KBB or Edmunds (free). The price depends on mileage, car brand, ZIP code and car condition. You pay roughly an extra 25% buying from a dealer. If you are comfortable after all four of these steps, you are now ready to drive and potentially buy the car.

Test driving at the dealer and car rental company is pretty straightforward. Just go to their store. For private owners, a shopping plaza, grocery store or place familiar to you and the owner works well. I do not recommend meeting at the owner’s home for safety reasons. If you don’t have a car and the owner is eager to sell the vehicle, they may drive to your home directly. I tested three cars from private owners. I met one at the Homewood campus (he drove here from Towson) and two at 929 Apartments (they drove here from Timonium and Ellicott City). Before driving the car, ensure it matches the description mentioned on the website and history reports, especially the VIN. The VIN is usually located at the driver’s side dashboard near the windshield (visible from the outside) or the driver’s side door jamb (which you need to open the door to see). Also, check the car body, tire depth (Maryland requires at least 2/32 inch for transferring the title), rotors, and the color and smell of engine oil and transmission oil. All those conditions should be considered when negotiating the price with the seller.

When driving the car, check the acceleration and braking speed, listen carefully for abnormal noises and feel how smooth the ride is when turning the vehicle or hitting bumps in the road. If you are satisfied with the car, you can negotiate the price with the seller based on the estimated price on the website, the car’s condition and your driving experience. I do not recommend driving a hard bargain, especially for a private owner. The final step is to inspect the vehicle (if it hasn’t been inspected yet), pay the seller and get the title. Title transfer can be completed in the dealer’s store or any tag and title store with the owner. There is no need to go to the motor vehicle administration (MVA).

Buying a used car from a private owner is much more challenging than buying a new or used car from a dealer. You need to learn the basic mechanics of a car (which is also helpful for repairing it, the subject of my next blog), meet with different people, and most importantly, know where to get the information you need.


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