Auto Loans

15 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It may not have been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Buying a used car can save you money, but do your due diligence before signing on the dotted line. Whether you are purchasing from a dealership or buying from a private party, there are a number of key questions you should ask when buying a used car.

6 questions to ask when buying a used car

No matter how you choose to purchase a used car, whether it’s coming from a dealer or private seller, trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to ask questions about the vehicle you are considering. Here are questions that could help you get the answers that will reveal how reliable the car could be and how much it will cost.

How has the car been maintained?

Maintenance records are important when it comes to a used car. They show how well and how frequently the vehicle has been maintained and what work was done to keep the car in good running shape. Maintenance records include details regarding oil changes, coolant refilling, tire rotation, brake pads, spark plugs, transmission fluid and more.

Oil changes

Basic maintenance is essential to a vehicle’s longevity, especially oil changes. “Check the owner’s manual to see what type of oil is recommended and the recommended maintenance schedule” for the specific vehicle, said Mary Melchor, a service adviser in San Antonio.

Rule of thumb: You should change standard oil about every 5,000 to 7,500 miles; synthetic oil every 10,000 to 15,000 miles.

If you’re buying from a private seller, ask for maintenance records or get in touch with the garage where the vehicle was maintained. If you are purchasing a used car from a dealer you have the right to all the maintenance records that the dealership has on hand.

Has it been in an accident?

A simple fender bender may not be cause for concern, but an accident that damaged the chassis could be problematic. Ask whether the car’s been in an accident and, if so, what the damage was. To verify whether a car has been in a significant accident, look up the car’s vehicle history report.

The importance of vehicle history reports

Getting a vehicle history report and closely examining it is a good way to confirm what the seller told you about the car’s accident status. There are different types of vehicle history reports sometimes also referred to as VIN checks, but the most popular version comes from Carfax. These reports could tell you the following, all of which could impact how much the car is worth.

  • Accident history. Whether it was in an accident (and if so, how bad it was). If the car was in a major accident, it might not be trustworthy to keep passengers safe in the next potential accident.
  • Number of owners. If it had five owners in four years, it probably has expensive problems passed on from owner to owner.
  • Vehicle registration locations. If the car was registered and driven in the Northeast or Midwest, it might have rust problems underneath the vehicle as a result of the salt used on roads in those areas.
  • Odometer data. If the VHR says the car had 90,000 miles when it last got an oil change, but the current odometer has 70,000 miles, that’s a red flag. The owner might have fooled with the odometer and rolled miles back to make you think the car is in better shape than it is.
  • Theft and salvage history. If the vehicle is stolen, a vehicle history report will show that. It will also show if the title has been salvaged. When a car has a salvage title, the insurance company considered the vehicle a total loss as a result of previous damage. A salvage vehicle can look perfectly fine from the outside, but is worth much less than an undamaged car. Though you can buy a car with a salvage title, many lenders won’t finance a salvage vehicle, and you might have a hard time finding auto insurance.

Most car dealerships provide a Carfax VHR for free. Private owners may or may not give one, but you could obtain one yourself. Carfax, AutoCheck or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System are places to start. There are differences between the three, so be sure that you choose the right vehicle history report for your needs.

Can I take the car for an independent inspection?

Having an independent auto mechanic tell you whether the car is in good shape could be invaluable for your peace of mind and your wallet. This is one of the best ways to determine if the car is trustworthy and worth the price. If the owner or dealership doesn’t allow it, that’s a red flag and you should reconsider purchasing the vehicle.

What warranty does it have left?

All vehicles eventually need repairs; used vehicles might need them sooner rather than later. It’s important to ask what the existing warranty covers and for how long. Ask if there are authorized repair facilities close to your house and what the common repairs are on the car. Warranty coverage given by automakers can vary not only by brand, but also by vehicle model, and a “lifetime warranty” can be gimmicky.

Check with the seller, or even better, on the automaker’s website, to find out what warranty coverage the used car retains. You do not have to do anything, other than buy the car, to receive any remainder of the car’s warranty. For private sales, any manufacturer warranty still applies and transfers along with the ownership of the vehicle.

New car warranty

All cars come with a new car warranty that lasts for a set period of time and miles. The clock starts the day that the first owner buys it. For example, if a car has a three-year, 36,000-mile basic warranty, and you buy it when it’s two years old with 25,000 miles, then the vehicle still has one year, 11,000 miles of warranty coverage left.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. Automakers Kia and Mitsubishi change warranty coverage beyond the first owner. The person who bought the car as a new vehicle receives a 10-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, but any subsequent owners receive a five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty.

extended warranty

Dealers will most likely try to sell you an extended warranty, so it’s essential to know the warranties that you already have and what any extended warranty offers. Most extended warranties start the moment you buy the car, not when the manufacturer’s warranty ends. You could be paying for an overlap of coverage if you’re not careful. For more information, read this extended car warranty guide.

Can you beat the guidebook price?

This is a quick way to get down to brass tacks when it comes to negotiating the price of a used car. Guidebook pricing is the industry standard pricing. You don’t want to pay more for a new car than what a guidebook says it’s worth. By asking this, you’re telling the seller you know what you’re talking about and you want a deal.

To look up a guidebook price yourself, you could go to NADAguides, Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds.

Does it have all original equipment?

The previous or current owner could have added accessories or have removed things that came with the car. Some accessories, such as sport struts and lift kits, can nullify the car’s warranty unless they are made by the manufacturer and installed by its trained technicians. And it would be good to know if you need to purchase a can of Fix-a-Flat if the previous owner lost the original inflation kit or spare tire.

What else to ask when buying a used car from a private seller

In addition to the questions above, here are a few additional questions to ask when buying a used car from another person versus from a dealership or used car lot, which we’ll talk about later. To get a feel right away for the condition of the car, some buyers ask private sellers if they’d be comfortable driving the car cross-country tomorrow. A firm yes — or a more hesitant one — may tell you a lot. Here’s what else to ask.

Does it have a clear title?

A vehicle’s title or “pink slip” is an official document that tracks the car’s owners and status. If a car doesn’t have a clear title, that could mean that there is still a lien on it or that it suffered major damage. In either case, a used car without a clean title could be problematic to purchase, insure and drive legally.

Do you have the title with you?

The seller can’t sign over the title if they don’t have it, which means you can’t take legal ownership of it. They also can’t legally sign over the title if the car doesn’t officially belong to them. They might still owe money on it, or there’s a different person listed on the title.

TIP: Check the name on the title against the seller’s driver’s license to be sure that they match. If there are two people listed on the title and their names are joined with the word “and,” then you need both people to sign the title over to you. If their names are joined with the word “or,” then only one of the two people on the title needs to sign it.

Why are you selling?

When you buy a used car directly from a private owner, you typically have the advantage of seeing and having a conversation with the person who knows it inside out. This is your opportunity to strike up a good, short relationship as you need honest information and want a cordial negotiation.

Is it simply time for a nicer, newer car? Or is it because this car started having problems? See how the owner answers the question and pay attention to nonverbal cues, too. If the seller is overly nervous, in a hurry or tries to rush you, that’s not a good sign; it may be a scam. (You could read about how to avoid a Craigslist car scam here.) On the flip side, if they’re relaxed, readily answer questions and show pride in the car’s appearance and upkeep, that may speak well of how they have maintained the car.

Questions to ask when buying a used car from a dealer

Here are some additional questions to ask when you buy a used car from a dealership. Dealers may be able to offer incentives, financing and return policies among other things that a private seller typically can’t.

What incentives are available?

There could be incentives on used cars, especially certified pre-owned cars (CPO). For example, as of Spring 2020, Subaru is offering 0.99% financing on its CPO vehicles. Dealers may offer free oil changes and other such deals as well, so it’s always good to ask.

Can you beat my preapproved auto loan rate?

It’s vital to get a preapproved loan before going to a dealer if you need financing. Dealerships that help customers arrange financing are often able to raise loan rates beyond what the lender charges and take the difference as profit. To avoid this trap, get an auto loan offer from a lender directly. Then, ask the dealer to beat that rate.

Is the car ‘as is?’

Ask if the car is “as is” or if it has a warranty. In many states, selling a car “as is” means “buyer beware” — there is no warranty, and the seller is not responsible for problems. Here’s how to avoid buying a lemon car.

What is the return/repair policy?

The dealership may offer a warranty of 30 days in which it might cover a percentage, say 50%, of the cost of repairs. Some online car sellers may offer a return policy. For example, Carvana offers a seven-day return policy on all of its cars. If the business you buy from does offer a return or repair policy, be sure to get it in writing.

Can you hold the car while I decide?

New York City allows you to review a car contract for 48 hours while the dealer reserves the car. In other places, it might simply be up to the dealers. If they’re not willing to reserve the car for a couple of days, they may be willing to hold it while you go to lunch and think it over. In any case, if you’re feeling pressured, it’s almost always good to step away for a minute.

Do you deliver?

If getting your new wheels back home is a hassle, ask if the dealership if it delivers. Some may be willing if you live within a certain radius of the dealership. It may help if you can accept the delivery at a time in which the dealership is not busy.

 

Compare Auto Loan Offers