10 essential questions to ask when buying a used car

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So you’re looking to buy a used car. Maybe you have your sights set on one in particular. You’re ready to take the plunge, but you’d like to ask the right questions to make sure you’re not dropping thousands on a vehicle that’ll brake down three miles from the used car lot.

Here’s our list of 10 essential questions that will help you get an honest idea of the vehicle you’re about to purchase. Some of these questions can be asked over email or phone, and some are best asked in person. No single question will identify the perfect car, but these queries will help highlight any potential problems. If you’re not sure where to start looking, check out our guide to buying a used car online.

Before viewing the vehicle 

Asking questions beforehand will give a better picture of the overall health of the vehicle. Here are the six best questions to ask before meeting.

Why is the owner selling? 

Owners will have a reason for selling their vehicle. In most cases, asking this question will give you a better idea of the car’s overall value. Answers usually fall into three basic categories:

  • Looking to sell right away. This is usually good for the buyer. You can talk these people down.
  • Looking for the right price. These are usually good cars but it’s harder to get a lower price and the owners are willing to wait.
  • Doesn’t provide a clear answer. This could be a bad sign. It could indicate that something is wrong with the car, and they’re trying to sell it anyway.

How many previous owners?

A long list of previous owners shouldn’t be too surprising for an older vehicle, but it may also indicate problems. If the car is relatively new and has relatively low mileage, but has had many previous owners, it might be a good idea to dig deeper into its history. More on that below.

Has the vehicle been in extreme weather?

The weather conditions a car spends its time in factors into its overall condition. Cars from snowy climates may be more prone to rust from driving on roads that get salted every winter, for example. More seriously, flood-damaged cars can outwardly appear to be in good condition, but can hide significant damage from being immersed in water.

How many miles does it have?

Mileage is more or less the prime indicator of the value of a vehicle, and it also gives you insight into the vehicle’s condition and potential maintenance costs. High-mileage vehicles are more likely to be worn out, or need maintenance work. The price you negotiate will almost certainly be based on mileage, and so will the car’s resale value and insurance premiums.

Has it been in a crash? Has it been modified? Is it being offered for sale with a salvage title? 

A vehicle history report will give you a better idea of the condition of the car, as well as answer important questions about mileage, ownership history, and whether it has been in any crashes. To look into this, you’ll need the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). This is usually stamped into plates located on the driver’s side of the dashboard, the engine bay, or door jambs.

The two main providers of vehicle history reports are CarFax and AutoCheck. If you’re buying a used car through a dealership, a report from one of these companies may be provided for free, but otherwise you’ll have to pay for it yourself. CarFax charges $34.99 for a single report, while AutoCheck charges $24.99. CarFax also offers five reports for $99.99, while AutoCheck offers 300 reports for the same price.

Another option is the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. It’s run by the Department of Justice, and access is granted by participating state DMVs. Insurance carriers, car recyclers, and salvage yards are all required by law to report information to this database, and that information is passed along to consumers through third parties. Reports are cheaper than CarFax and AutoCheck (some are even free), but also less detailed.

A crash-damaged vehicle doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, as long as the damage was repaired properly. The same goes for modified vehicles — high-quality mods are fine, but poorly-executed jobs can be big trouble. Vehicles being sold with salvage titles are probably best avoided. They point to major problems with the car in question, and registering a car that was previously issued a salvage title can be complicated.

What about recalls?

Not all recalled cars get fixed. To see if the car you’re looking at has any unresolved recalls, first enter the VIN into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s recall database. That will generate a list of recalls for that vehicle, which you can check against maintenance records. Many automakers have similar recall-lookup tools in the customer service sections of their websites.

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