Buying a Used Car in California, mobile view, May 2023 blog, Travis CU,

Buying a Used Car in California

If you want to buy a used car in California, you’re in luck. With more than 14 million vehicle registered in the Golden State just in 2021, chances are good you’ll be able to find the used one you want. Buying used instead of brand new is a smart choice for those who want the most bang for their buck, because you’ll save on purchase price, car insurance, registration, taxes and more.

Before you start that online search, however, there are some things to consider. These include how much car you can afford, a vehicle’s history, financing, insurance, maintenance and other costs. Let’s get started.

Check Your Credit Report

The first step on your used car journey is to check your credit report and credit history. This will reveal if there are any concerns or issues, such as identity theft or fraud that might prevent you from having a good credit score, which is the key to getting a lower interest rate on an auto loan.

The three major U.S. credit reporting agencies – Experian, TransUnion and Equifax – provide a free annual report to Americans each year at Reviewing your credit report regularly will help you stay on the path of financial wellness throughout your life.

Determine Your Vehicle Budget

Before you begin car-shopping, determine how much of a car payment you can afford each month. Be sure to factor in other costs such as gas, maintenance and insurance. This will help keep you on budget.

The best way to buy a car if you’re not making a cash purchase is to get pre-approved for an auto loan. Credit unions (such as Travis) offer instant pre-qualifications so you’ll know exactly how much car you can afford along with your estimated monthly payments. You can use our auto loan calculators to determine monthly payments if you want to crunch the numbers yourself.

Once you know your budget, start searching online. There are several websites for the used auto market, including Carmax and Autotrader. They work by listing used cars for sale with photos and information about each vehicle shown. Learn about buying a used car from a dealer.

Identify the Right Vehicle

Take some time to consider exactly what you will be doing with your used car. Will it be used as a commuter vehicle for work? Do you plan to travel long distances? Will you be driving young children around?

Perhaps it’s a weekend vehicle that will carry lots of recreational equipment and perhaps tow a trailer, boat or a camper? Identifying the right vehicle for your driving needs will ensure you get the one you need and will enhance the ownership experience.

Check the Vehicle’s History

Once you’ve identified a match to your search, check the car's history report. This will tell you about any previous accidents, damage or if the car was salvaged. You’ll also get the title/ownership history as well as past maintenance data.

The Federal Trade Commission offers a vehicle history report with title insurance loss and salvage information through this website, Simply enter the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) that can be found on the car’s windshield and on its sales documentation. Other websites offer a similar search, including Kelley Blue Book and

Financing Your Vehicle

Once you’re satisfied with a vehicle’s history, make an appointment to inspect the car in person. Be sure to check the vehicle thoroughly and take it for a test drive.

If everything checks out, it’s time to discuss price. Let the seller know you’re pre-approved for an auto loan; it’ll take off some of the sales pressure on you. Be firm with the price you want to pay and don’t be afraid to walk away if you’re feeling uncomfortable or don’t like the deal. You’re in control.

Complete the Paperwork

Once you’ve settled on a price, the costs don’t stop there. There are other expenses associated with a used vehicle purchase. These include paying California sales tax, as well as fees for title transfer, vehicle registration, vehicle licensing, smog transfer and possibly more. There’ll be a lot of paperwork to sign, so go slow, read everything and be sure you understand each document.

In most cases, you’ll need to get your vehicle insured before you’ll be able to drive it off the lot. Contact your auto insurance provider or find one online. Auto insurance averages about $100 a month, which should be factored into your budget.

Maintenance Costs

Just like new cars, used cars come with maintenance expenses. Here are some of the main areas to consider:

  • Routine maintenance: Your used car will need regular maintenance if you want to keep it running efficiently. How much it will cost will depend on the type of work needed and where it is serviced. Routine maintenance such as oil changes and brake replacements can cost hundreds of dollars per visit, but can extend the life of your vehicle. For example, a set of new tires can total more than $1,000.
  • Fuel costs: Be sure to factor in the cost of gas (unless you purchase a used electric vehicle). Calculate the miles you’ll drive on an average week and divide that by the miles per gallon your vehicle can achieve. Once you know how many gallons of gas you’ll use in a week, you can multiply that number by the current price per gallon of gas to get your estimated weekly fuel costs.

Get Started with TCU

Travis can help you get started on your auto loan purchase. Visit our Auto Loans page to check rates and special offers, such as our 90-days deferral of first payment. You can also check your pre-qualifications to see if there’s already an auto loan waiting for you.

TCU also offers competitive financing for new and used boats, jet skis and other water vessels that meet our loan requirements. There’s also financing for new and used recreational vehicles, campers, trailers, ATVs and more.

We hope these tips will help you find your perfect used car in California. Happy driving!

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