What to Ask When Buying a Used Car
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What to Ask When Buying a Used Car

By Melissa Spicer | October 19, 2021

Asking the right questions when it comes to used car buying is paramount to getting a good deal. Chances are that you've probably already researched various makes and models to find the perfect option for you. After creating a list of the different cars you're interested in, there will be a chance to ask the owner or seller the right questions that will ensure the vehicle will perform the way you'd like it to — and be as trouble-free as possible.

Here's a list of what to ask when car shopping for a used car:

What is the status of the car's title?

Several services track whether a car, truck, van, or SUV has been in an accident or its history, such as companies like Carfax or AutoCheck, including 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.

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, been declared a total loss by a car insurance company, or anything that could raise suspicions. Terms like "junk," "flood," "branded," or "salvage" indicate there's more to the history of the vehicle. Then verify this history with one of the history report sites.

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.

Cars with salvage, junk, flood, or other damage-related titles have been declared total losses by an insurance company. The cost to fix the vehicle by an approved collision repair site with manufacturer-grade parts would exceed the Kelley Blue Book value. This could raise a red flag.

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 significantly lower value at a car auction than a similar model with typical age and miles with similar depreciation.

However, not every state has the same names for titles. Verify where the vehicle has been registered over its life.

Has this car been in an accident, and does it have a clear title?

Don't necessarily pass up a used car that the seller or vehicle history report indicates has been in a minor or moderate crash. That means it's less likely to have once been declared totaled.

But vehicles that have been in severe collisions should be approached with a lot of caution or avoided altogether. Airbags, seatbelts, head restraints, and other safety systems could be compromised and not work correctly.

Check that the seatbelts retract and buckle as they should and that the doors and locks function. The best way to ensure that the airbags are working is on a light in the instrument panel. Right on startup, the airbag light will illuminate for a few seconds and then go off. If it stays on or goes on again, there's a problem with one of the safety systems.

The same test will work for traction or stability control systems.

How many owners has this car had?

A used vehicle with as a 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. For older vehicles, at least three or four owners are relatively typical. But check that there are some service records.

Why are you selling?

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.

Where are the maintenance records?

Someone who takes good care of their vehicle will likely have at least some insight into its maintenance history.

That includes everything from oil changes, brake pad replacements, paintwork, and tire and wheel repairs. The most meticulous owners will even have receipts from the light bulb and floor mat replacements. Look for these vehicles.

For older vehicles, there should be as extensive of service history as possible. You want to know that a used car you buy has been well-maintained so there won't be any surprises. Some AutoCheck and Carfax reports can also offer some repair insights, including repairs to things like emissions systems.

Are there any issues or repairs that need to be made?

As the person who drives the used car most often, the owner would be aware of any severe issues or repairs that need to be made, such as broken air conditioning or tires that are mismatched or worn out. While the owner might not volunteer this information, they might answer a direct question truthfully.

For example, vehicles with a timing belt require it to be checked or changed from as low as 60,000 miles to well over 120,000. It's considered regular car maintenance, but it's expensive, and many owners put it off as long as possible. But neglecting it can cost even more. If the timing belt breaks, it can cause catastrophic damage to the engine.

Other essential safety checks include tires, brake pads, and discs, transmissions, electric components are usually expensive. And deferred maintenance could lead to repairs that might even exceed the vehicle's value.

You should ensure that any used car you buy has had this replaced according to the manufacturer's recommendations or be prepared to have it fixed under your ownership so you don't end up with massively expensive repairs later.

How much has this car been driven?

The best-used cars are typically ones with average mileage for the year. The US average is about 12,000 miles per year, but it varies slightly depending on the region.

Cars vastly outside of the range aren't necessarily bad ones. But you should question ones with well below the number of miles for the age should be looked over to see if they've been sitting for long periods. Vehicles used as seasonal vehicles or only driven a couple of miles per day might need repairs ranging from new tire rotations to oil changes. The fuel in the tank could be old, too. 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 driving. But ask what the car was used for as a newer vehicle with very high mileage might have been used for short trips around town, like for Uber or Lyft, and put through hard use. However, if the seller had a long daily commute and kept up with the maintenance, the vehicle should be in good shape.

Why are certain pieces missing?

Expect a used car to have signs of wear and tear. A gear knob might be a little crooked, or the dashboard plastics could have some scuffs. A little badge could be missing, too.

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

May I take the car for a test drive?

If you're viewing the car in person, there shouldn't be a significant reason why you can't drive it. It doesn't have to be long-distance, but even going around the block can verify if the condition described is accurate.

The seller should go with you and listen closely to how the car feels when starting, turning, and braking. Check for unusual suspension, engine, and transmission sounds. Responsibly accelerate and decelerate and test the brakes firmly, too. And the car should be able to go forwards and backward unless already disclosed.

May I take the car in for an independent inspection?

After narrowing down the car you want to buy, get permission to take it to a repair shop of your choice.

If you're familiar with the make and model of the car and have a mechanic in mind, take it there. However, look to online services in the area to see ones specializing in that type of vehicle, such as if it's a Honda product.

You can also search your local area to see if mobile mechanics do such inspections. But note that often the companies that offer these services have fine print in the contract that protects them from liability if you buy a used car they inspected and it turns out to have significant problems.

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 pricing of the vehicle slightly higher than what'd they'd 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 negotiate the final price from there. Go with your gut on this one and ask for a more significant discount if you sense the seller might accept it like there are similar models in the area or significant problems.

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 or just gives you peace of mind.