STOP 2: Armed with your budget, head to car-research websites.
Say you're interested in a Honda. The Web can tell you what a 2005 Civic is worth, how many airbags it has, its reliability and its fuel efficiency.
"This is your chance to look at all the options, all the features, to get all the facts," says Jim Riesenbach, chief executive of Autobytel, which has vehicle info and used-car listings on its site.
For many late-model cars, you can test drive a new one at a dealer to get a feel for it, which helps narrow your choices. Compare the new price of the car to its used value -- some models depreciate faster than others and can be deals. But too much loss in value too fast may mean problems.
Once you've picked a favorite, search the ads on sites like Autotrader.com, Craigslist.org and Cars.com (part-owned by the Tribune Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times). The ads are from individuals and dealers; it's not always clear which is which. The next step will help you pick between the two.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times