Key to modern shopping? Research, research, research

For those who -- like the economy -- are in a financial bind, buying a used car sounds better than applying for an auto loan. As a soon-to-be college grad with plenty of job uncertainty, taking on a long-term lease or another loan just wouldn't jive with my budget.

I went to a few dealers, but the used cars in their lots were simply out of my range. Signing a lease was my best option, they assured me. And If I was subject to some penalty if I didn't buy there, they'd be right. But I wasn't stuck.There are plenty of cheap options in the online used-car market and some cars had decent-looking odometers. I did most of my shopping on Web sites such as AutoTrader.com, Edmunds.com, Cars.com and even Craigslist.

Cutting lot walks and awkward conversations from my search saved a lot of time and money. However, I did suffer when it came to the seller's professionalism. I spent a lot of time calling disconnected telephone numbers. Luckily, a lot of dealers post their inventory online.

After price, my biggest concern was fuel economy. I researched really affordable cars and fuel-efficient cars and narrowed down my choices using a Venn diagram.The winner was an early Ford Focus.

The Focus has been one of Ford's best sellers. My conversations with many sellers sounded the same: They were buying them by the dozen and selling them even faster. I quickly learned that if I found a good deal, I needed to jump on it or it'd be gone the next day. The used-car dealer who sold me a 2001 Focus said he'd already sold 30 others this year. He posts them online.

The Focus was the world's best-selling car in 2001.

Hopefully my car had the world's best owner and I should be in great shape.

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