The fun factor for used car shopping ranks right up there with “buying airline tickets” or “going to the gym.” You know you’ll be so happy when it’s over, but in the meantime, the process can seem agonizing. That’s because it’s hard to know exactly what you’re looking for when you’re used car shopping.

Sure, you could go to the dealer and buy the shiniest, latest model they have. But you might end up spending more than you need to. Here are 5 characteristics of a hidden gem.

1. A car with low miles

Sometimes it’s smart to ignore the model year and go with low miles as a better metric. That’s because a car with fewer miles generally has less wear and tear. Of course, a newer car might have more bells and whistles, so you may have to decide what’s more important to you.

One bonus tip on a car with low miles: the tires are a good indication of whether the odometer is accurate since a very low-mileage car should still have its original tires. The tires also can supply a little window into the owner’s driving habits. Here’s a clue: a car that has been driven aggressively tends to have more wear on the outside “shoulder” of the front tire, near the sidewall.

2.  A car with an owner you know

Sometimes the best source for a hidden gem of a car might be the people you know. You can ask all about the car’s habits, service records, etc., and expect to get a straight answer. So go ahead, post about your used car shopping plans on social media and see what happens.

3.  A car with low ownership costs

Buying the car is one thing. Maintaining it is another. You want a car that’s known for needing fewer surprises and maintenance you can find those estimates using a tool like Kelley Blue Book’s Five-Year Cost to Own calculator. It’ll also offer an estimate of your proposed vehicle’s depreciation so you can see what your car might be worth after 5 years.

And remember that luxury cars often come with luxury repair price tags. Check with a trusted mechanic to get a ballpark cost for common repairs or equipment replacement, like new tires, so you know what you can expect.

4. A car with a clean vehicle history report

Has your car been cleaned up after suffering flood damage? Repaired to “near-perfect” condition after an accident? This is information that a prospective seller might not tell you, but can greatly impact your car’s performance and longevity.

That’s why you might want to invest in a vehicle history report to get all the info regarding previous owners, any accidents, and a service report. If your car has been registered in numerous states, you’ll find that out too. It’s not necessarily a deal killer, but a more stable used car history is typically better. There are several services that offer vehicle history reports, which might be well worth the money (and peace of mind).

5.  A car that smells fresh

Though you probably can’t expect a new car smell, you also don’t want one that smells either musty or smoky. Both mold and cigarette smoke can be really hard to deal with and might linger, no matter what sort of pine air freshener you use. And a musty or mildew smell could point to water leaks and/or hide previous flood damage.

Safe and smart | Car safety


about Cathie

Cathie Ericson writes about personal finance, real estate, health, lifestyle, and business topics. When she's not writing she loves to read, hike, and run. Find her @CathieEricson.