7 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

Are you in the market for a used car? If so, you should know which questions to ask before you start shopping or enter negotiations with a dealer or seller.

In some cases, buying a used car is preferable to buying a new one. You won’t need to worry about depreciation and you can spend less money. The key is being as prepared and knowledgeable as you can be ahead of time.

With that in mind, don't fall in love with a new car until you have the answers to these seven questions to ask when buying a used car.

#1: What is the car’s maintenance history?

Asking about a vehicle’s maintenance history is one of the best ways to get a feeling for how the previous owner(s) have cared for it. Ideally, you want a car that’s been serviced either by a dealership or a professional mechanic, not by a so-called “shade tree” mechanic who’s not affiliated with a garage.

It’s a good idea to press for details. If the only maintenance has been an occasional oil change, that’s a red flag. Cars require ongoing maintenance for safety reasons and to operate properly. You don't want to buy a car that has been neglected.

#2: Can I see the maintenance records?

The second question to ask is a follow-up to the first. It’s one thing to take someone’s word for the maintenance on a car and other thing entirely to get a folder full of detailed maintenance records you can review.

If you do get a copy of the vehicle’s maintenance records, make sure to review them thoroughly. And, you should also have your mechanic review them. It’s possible that someone could have altered the records, but an experienced mechanic should be able to spot discrepancies and point out red flags.

#3: Can my mechanic check the car out before I buy it?

Anything other than an immediate “Yes” in response should have you walking away as fast as you can. A seller with nothing to hide will have no problem with a mechanic checking out the car. If they're trying to gloss over problems or avoid giving you the opportunity to take it to your trusted mechanic, you should be concerned.

Asking this question early can save you time. If you ask it up front and don’t get the right answer, you won’t have to waste your time reviewing maintenance records or doing a test drive. You can simply move on to the next car (or perhaps a different dealership).

#4: Has this car been in an accident or does it have a salvage title?

It’s always a good idea to ask if the car has been in an accident or natural disaster. Cars that are seriously damaged in a flood, fire or wreck will likely be issued a salvage title. It’s a title that indicates the car’s history and can give you a warning about potential problems.

You should also be aware of title washing, which occurs when a buyer registers a car in another state to get a clean title. If you’re buying a car in Florida and it’s registered in Massachusetts, you should ask questions and do your homework even if the title is clean.

Everything You Need to Know About Buying Used Cars

#5: What things don’t work the way they should?

Many buyers will offer information about the car up front. It’s still a good idea to ask this question and pay attention to the responses. Sometimes, sellers will gloss over problems or give you incomplete answers. For example, if someone says, “It just needs Freon,” that might be code for a broken air conditioner.

It’s also worth noting that all old cars have something that’s not perfect. If a seller tries to tell you the car has no problems, you should be suspicious. It’s unlikely that’s true.

#6: Can I take it on a test drive?

It might seem obvious to ask for a test drive, but a lot of eager buyers skip this step if they think they can get a great deal. You should never buy a used car without test driving it first.

The test drive gives you an opportunity to see how the car feels and how it handles. It also gives you a chance to test everything yourself. Take your time during the test drive. Turn everything on and off and make notes of any problem that arise.

#7: Would you be willing to drive this car cross-country tomorrow?

This last question might seem like it comes out of left field, but its unexpected nature is what makes it worth asking. If you detect any hesitation or get an evasive answer, that tells you there’s an issue with the car and you should keep looking for the right vehicle.

A related question to ask of an individual seller is, “Why are you selling the car?” which is more expected but still may reveal some hesitation.

When you’re buying a used car, you should ask as many questions as you need to in order to determine whether the car is worth buying. An honest seller will be happy to answer them.

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