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What to Ask When Buying a Used Car

By Autolist Editorial | June 16, 2022

Asking the right questions about used car buying is paramount if you want a good deal on a car that still has many miles ahead of it.

You've probably already researched various makes and models while looking for the right used vehicle for you. Once you create a shortlist of possible options, you need to rule out the good cars from the bad.

Remember, all used cars come with a history, and many have more than one previous owner in their records. It is up to you to understand as much of its history as possible if you want a reliable vehicle.

To help you sieve out the lemon cars from the reliable, you need to ask the dealership or private seller the right questions before finalizing the deal.

Continue reading to find out what questions to ask when buying a used car.

Top Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car:

If you found your dream car at a dealership, then you may not benefit from getting as many questions answered as you would like. This is because the dealership most likely purchased the vehicle as a trade-in against the sale of another car, or they may have bought it at an auction. In these instances, the best way to inspect the vehicle is by requesting a vehicle history report and typing in the vehicle identification number (VIN). You can also ask your mechanic for a thorough inspection.

When buying a used car from a private seller, you will have a greater opportunity to have more questions answered. The seller knows the vehicle personally, having owned it and driven it. Ask as many questions as possible about the car's ownership history and existing condition. You should also review the vehicle history report thoroughly and not only rely on what information the seller provides verbally.

So, what are the right questions to ask when buying a used car? Take a look at the list below.

Why are you selling the car?
This simple question can give several clues about whether you want to proceed with the sale. The most straightforward answers are the best: we don't need this one anymore because we needed something bigger/smaller/nicer/etc.

Be wary of long-winded or complicated answers. An honest seller should have a relatively concise reply.

Are you selling the car as is, or is it under warranty?
If you purchase your used car from a car dealership, then having a warranty offers you peace of mind. However, do not be too quick to sign the dotted line because of a warranty offer. Read the warranty terms to determine exactly what it covers and how likely it is that you may use it. Car dealers know how to close a sale and may not always take you through the fine print.

If you are dealing with a private seller, ask them if the vehicle is being sold as it stands or if there is still a warranty. Ensure you receive the documentation regarding the warranty and read through it carefully; you may find the term is almost up.

How old is the car?
Typically, the model year will appear in the vehicle's advertisement. In most cases, older cars have more mileage and have endured more wear and tear, which means they are more likely to need more regular maintenance and repairs. Older cars may carry a lower sticker price, but they become more expensive in the long run.

What is the mileage on the odometer?
The best-used cars are typically ones with average mileage for the year. The US average is about 13,500 miles per year, but it varies slightly depending on the region. The more miles a car has driven, the more wear and tear it has been exposed to. This question leads us to the next question since it's still relative to the vehicle's mileage and how the car has driven those miles.

How was this car driven?
Cars vastly outside of the average annual range of miles aren't necessarily bad ones. However, you should question those with a low number of miles for their model year; they may have been sitting for long periods. Vehicles used as seasonal vehicles or only driven a couple of miles per day may need repairs ranging from new tire rotations and batteries to oil changes. The fuel in the tank could also be old. Ask the seller and check for yourself that the maintenance was done.

Highway miles are considered easier on a vehicle and its components than city driving with frequent stop-and-go activity. Ask the seller what the car was used for because a newer vehicle with very high mileage might have been used for short trips around town and put through strenuous use. However, if the seller had a long daily commute and kept up with the maintenance, the vehicle should be in good shape.

How long have they owned the car?
The ideal situation for added peace of mind is if the vehicle only had one previous owner because then you will know exactly how the car was driven and maintained. If one owner had it from new, they would most likely have all the service records handy and know all the answers to your important questions.

If the seller didn't purchase it as a new car or had it for a long time, then prepare yourself for some unknowns. This takes us to the next question.

How many previous owners are there?
A used vehicle with as few owners as possible is the most desirable, especially for one that's only a few years old.

Many previous owners over a short period might suggest a car skipped regular maintenance or was generally mistreated. If a used car has changed hands several times, it may also be challenging to obtain a full report of its maintenance records, accident history, repairs, and other important information.

For older vehicles, at least three or four owners are relatively typical. But check that there are some available service records; otherwise, it may not be worth signing that bill of sale.

What is the status of the car's title?
This is an important question to ask when car shopping for a used car, and it may lead to quite a bit of homework for you.

Several services track whether a car, truck, van, or SUV has been involved in an accident and its history. Companies like Carfax or AutoCheck can assist with such reports and may even offer verification that the miles on the odometer are genuine.

But there are things the buyer can do for free and without the vehicle identification number.

Also ask the seller for as much as they know about the car's accident history, and be sure to verify that it has a clear title. That means that it isn't stolen, a total loss as declared by a car insurance company, or anything that could raise suspicions.

Terms like "junk," "flood," "branded," or "salvage" indicate that there's more to the history of the vehicle. The cost to repair the car by an approved collision repair site with manufacturer-grade parts would exceed the Kelley Blue Book value. This could raise a red flag.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean it's not worth buying.

While they obviously will not come with a warranty, salvage-titled vehicles can be repaired to a high standard using used parts or replicas pieces that don't affect the operation and are safe. It may not be factory new, but it can save thousands off the vehicle's sticker price. That's especially the case with older cars or higher-mileage examples that would significantly lower value at a car auction than a similar model with typical age and miles with equal depreciation.

Also watch out for Lien Titles.

Be wary of cars sold by both car dealerships and Craigslist private sellers that have liens or loans on them. Those are easier to purchase if you can pay off the loan in full, but transferring the finance plan from one owner to another can be loaded with one-time fees or outright impossible. Find out from the lender holding the vehicle's title how much transferring the car loan will cost and if you're pre-approved for it.

That doesn't necessarily mean it's not worth buying.

While they obviously will not come with a warranty, salvage-titled vehicles can be repaired to a high standard using used parts or replicas pieces that don't affect the operation and are safe. It may not be factory new, but it can save thousands off the price of the vehicle. That's especially the case with older cars or higher-mileage examples that would carry a significantly lower value at a car auction than a similar model with similar depreciation.

Has the car been in any accidents?
Don't necessarily pass up on buying a used car if the current owner or vehicle history report indicates that it has been involved in a minor or moderate crash. That means it's less likely to have once been declared totaled.

However, approach vehicles that have been in severe collisions with a lot of caution or avoid them altogether. Airbags, seatbelts, head restraints, and other safety systems could be compromised and may not work correctly.

Are there any mechanical problems or repairs needed?
As the person who drives the used car most often, the current owner should be aware of any wear and tear issues or mechanical problems, such as broken air conditioning or mismatched or worn-out tires. While the owner may not volunteer this information, they might answer a direct question truthfully.

Some essential safety items worth checking include tires, brake pads and discs, transmissions, and electric components. Any deferred maintenance could lead to repairs exceeding the vehicle's value.

You should ensure that any used car you buy has a proper maintenance and service history record.

Speaking of which, where are those records?

Where are the maintenance records?
Someone who takes good care of their vehicle will most likely have at least some insight into its maintenance history.

That includes oil changes, brake pad replacements, paintwork, and tire and wheel repairs. The most meticulous owners will even have receipts for any repairs or replacements done in the vehicle's time with them.

You need to know that a used car worth your hard-earned money has been well-maintained, so there won't be any surprises. Some AutoCheck and Carfax reports offer insights into the vehicle's repair history and even provide information regarding its emissions testing.

Are there any items missing or damaged?
Expect a used car to have signs of wear and tear. A gear knob may be a little crooked, or the dashboard plastics could have some scuff marks.

But large missing items like a radio, armrest cover, or even spare tire and kit should raise some red flags. Ask the seller why something is missing or damaged and why.

What other items are part of the sale?
Some private sellers may include accessories with the sale. If you purchase the car from a dealership, they may include things like pinstriping, fabric protection, and other small add-ons. Don't be too quick to accept the niceties, though; first, check how much extra some items cost and if they impact any service costs.

May I take the car for a test drive?
A test drive provides information about how well the car handles and could highlight any strange noises, smoke emissions, or any other issues the seller may have left out during your discussions. If the seller refuses a test drive, walk away from the deal.

Can I take the car to my mechanic for an independent inspection?
It is always a good idea to get expert advice. Ask the seller if you can take the vehicle to your mechanic for an independent inspection. It may cost you anywhere between $100 and $200, but it could potentially save you a lot more. Once again, if the seller denies you this option, then walk away from those red flags.

What is the Kelley Blue Book value, or similar valuation, for the car?
Websites like Kelley Blue Book will help you identify the potential value of the used car you want to purchase. Understanding this market-related value will help you fairly negotiate the final sales price.

Talking about negotiations, here is the next important question.

How firm are you on the price?
Once you're serious about buying the vehicle, it's time to negotiate the price of the car with the current owner. When you go to the dealership to buy a new car, you haggle, and there's no reason you shouldn't ask a seller to take less on a used car.

Sellers, especially car dealers, often set the vehicle's pricing slightly higher than what they would like to get to give themselves some wiggle room. The worst thing that can happen is that the person says no. You're in a position of power since the seller needs to sell the vehicle.

Try starting at 10% less than the sticker price and then negotiating the final price.

Asking these important questions can be a hassle, but it pays to be inquisitive when buying a used car. It saves a lot of headaches later and gives you some valuable peace of mind.