How to Buy a Used Car in the USA – A Guide for Non-Resident Aliens Part 1

We recently moved to Nashville, Tennessee in the second week of August 2015. Since we came from across the world, we couldn’t bring our car over. In the United States, if you don’t have a car, it is extremely difficult to travel and move from one place to another. It’s not impossible, but very difficult, unless you live in cities with a well developed train or bus system. Our situation is made even more complicated because we have a toddler that would also love to go places with us.

If I had at least USD 5,000 in cash, I would have been able to find a serviceable car that is quite old, with high mileage, but would still function well. But alas, I didn’t have that amount of money.

I could also apply for a loan. But my problem is that, as a new non-resident alien in the US, I didn’t have a credit history. That fact alone, meant that I couldn’t simply walk into dealerships and expect a good rate from them.

It took me quite some time to find a car. But thankfully, I did. Here’s how I did it. I hope this guide on how to buy a used car in the USA could help you, too.

First off, I needed a driver’s license. It was called a Temporary Driver’s License in Tennessee, because my work visa was only good for up to the third quarter of 2017. So my license was also good for up to that period. Before I visited car dealerships, I sat down with my wife to narrow down our options. We needed to agree on the type of car we wanted. It would be time consuming to search for every single type of vehicle out there.

Deciding on the Type of Car We Wanted

This is the type of car that we finally identified:

  • It should be a sedan or a hatchback. I personally wanted a hatchback because of the extra cargo space. We didn’t want a minivan. While coupes are nice looking, it would be terribly difficult for our toddler to enter in and out of the back seat.
  • It should have good gas mileage. We didn’t want to spend too much money on gas. A SUV or a pickup truck was definitely out of the question.
  • The odometer reading should be below 100,000 miles. I know that this might not matter all that much, but it still gave me just a little extra peace of mind to know that the car we will buy has not yet been driven to the ground.
  • It should cost under $10,000. Anything above that will break the bank, and will make our transition to Nashville way more difficult than it should be.

We decided to look at compact cars such as Ford Focus, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, or Toyota Corolla. We briefly considered sub-compact cars such as Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, or Ford Fiesta, but decided against it because they were small and wouldn’t carry a lot of stuff if we needed to travel cross-country.

Searching for Used Cars Online

As soon as we got this set of criteria pinned down, I went online to check for dealerships near our area that sell Compact Cars. Craigslist was one option, but by looking at different car websites, I managed to stumble onto useful sites that showed the different types of cars near our area. I could look around our neighborhood for car dealers, but that would be time consuming. I’m just thankful to be living in the 21st century and have the power of my fingertips.

Here’s the list of websites that essentially function as classifieds for used cars, which I used:

The features of these websites are almost always the same. You could narrow down your search by using their search operators. You could also specify how many miles you want to travel to look for a car. I went for a maximum of 30 miles of our zip code. You can also modify the order of the search results according to Price, Mileage, distance from you, and the model year of the car.


Among these websites, I found the search operators of CarsDirect and AutoTrader to be the best. If you intend to use them, you will also find out that the cars they list are pretty much from the same dealerships around you.

Consider using Google Maps, Craigslist, and the Car Sales Arm of Car Rental Companies

I also used Google Maps to look for dealerships near our apartment. I went directly to the website of the dealership and look at their inventory. I did find some options in doing that. Apparently, dealers of new cars also accept trade-in from their clients and sell those used cars, too. I found an option for a Ford Fiesta, and also my Kia Forte from one such dealership.

You can also check craigslist if you want to purchase directly from a car owner, instead of from a dealership. But make sure that you only buy a car with a Clean title. The search operators of craigslist also allows you to weed out Salvage or Rebuilt titles. You can also look for the car sales arm of car rental companies such as Hertz, Enterprise, and Budget, among others. These cars are usually only two years old, and tend to be well maintained by the rental company. Admittedly, though, a lot of car buyers tend to look down at a car being offered by a rental company because of the potential damage and abuse done by those who rented such cars.

List your top five choices for a car and schedule your test drive

I usually keep a simple spreadsheet of my top car choices with the following data: Make, model, and year of the car, Price, Mileage, Color, Dealership information (website, phone number, etc), and I take some notes based on the Carfax or Autocheck of the vehicle. That last piece of information is crucial. You definitely want to know how many people have owned the car, was it ever involved in an accident? If it was, did the airbags deploy and was it ever significantly damaged? Was it a former rental car? Are the service records of the car available?

The Carfax or the Autocheck are not a perfect way to ensure that your used car is good. But they help you narrow down your choices even before going to the dealership for a test drive.

If you want to go for a test drive, I suggest reading the following articles to help you out:

Ideally, you might want to have a mechanic look at your car before finalizing your decision. And don’t be afraid to visit several dealerships before deciding on your car. But once you make a decision, don’t take what the dealership offer you for financing right away. There may be other ways to finance your car that will not break your bank.

In the next post, I will write about how I got a 12,000 financing deal for my Kia Forte.

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