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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.

If you are interested in knowing more, especially the reasons why the check engine light is on, you can check the guide we created.

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.

When you’re viewing the vehicle

Ask to have the vehicle inspected by a licensed mechanic

This is a must. A licensed mechanic can identify any problem areas with the car, and let you know what you’re potentially getting into. If the owner won’t allow the car to be inspected by your mechanic, walk away.

Things to look for:

  • Body damage or repairs: Body panels that are different colors, or have paint finishes that don’t match, may have been repaired or replaced. Bring a magnet and check that it adheres to the metal panels. If it doesn’t, there’s a thick layer of body filler underneath. Check for rust as well.
  • Exterior and interior trim: If any of it is missing or damaged, make sure that is reflected in the final price.
  • Under the hood: Check for exposed wires and fluid leaks. Check the belts for cracks and to see if the hoses are stiff or brittle (both are signs that the parts need to be replaced). Check the oil for metallic particles, a sign of serious engine problems.
  • Interior: Check to see if electrically-operated items like windows and air conditioning work, and for any strange noises. Check the trunk, spare tire compartment, and front foot wells for rust, moisture, or a mildewy smell, as these areas tend to trap water.

Ask to see maintenance records, receipts, and title.

The more documents, the better. Maintenance records will show that routine things like oil changes have been taken care of, and also shed light on things like crash repairs and recalls. Receipts will serve as proof that it was actually done, and give you an idea of how much the car will cost to maintain. Regular maintenance needs differ for individual models, so do a little research to know what to look for.

The less documentation an owner can provide, the more of an unknown the car is. Deferred maintenance can lead to problems down the line, and there may be items that need replacing, which will burden you if you take ownership.

The real issue, however, is the title. If the person you’re buying from doesn’t have one, actually purchasing the car will be difficult. They may not even have the right to sell it to you.

Ask for a test drive.

This one’s a deal-breaker. If the owner denies your request to test drive the vehicle, then you can be pretty sure that there’s some major problem with the car. You should never buy without test driving. It’s also best to bring a friend to help with some of this.

Things to look for on a test drive:

  • Before setting off, cycle the headlights and have your friend check that they are working. Also have them check for excess smoke from the exhaust.
  • Check to see if the steering wheel feels loose, or if the car veers to one side while driving straight or under braking.
  • Listen for unusual squeaks and rattles. At higher speeds, check for vibrations.
  • As in a new car, acceleration should be smooth and consistent, not jerky.
  • Listen for squeaky brakes, and make sure the pedal feels firm over multiple stops.
  • Drive in tight circles in a parking lot. Check for rubbing or clunking in the steering.
  • A transmission that feels clunky or jerks while shifting is a bad sign. Put a manual transmission in top gear at 30 mph and floor the throttle. Revs building up very quickly is a sign of clutch slippage.

Ask to reduce the price.

There are advantages to buying a used vehicle. Oftentimes, you can get a sweet deal, if you know what you’re doing. It’s okay to ask how low the owner is willing to go. This is especially effective if you identify any possible setbacks to the vehicle.

That’s it! Did you find our list of questions to ask before buying a used car, helpful? Do we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below.

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