11 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

Anyone with good financial sense will tell you that buying a used car is smart. Given that a car is essentially just a giant depreciating asset, the case for buying brand-new isn’t a strong one.

This is especially true when you look at the huge savings you can make when buying pre-owned. For example, even just buying last year’s model instead of the current years can save you anywhere from 10-20 percent depending on the model and how it might have depreciated over time.

The problem?

Buying used cars is always riskier than buying new. The older the car is, the more questions we need to rightly ask, but which questions?

That’s the topic of today’s blog. If you remember to ask the following 11 questions, then your pre-owned car purchase will always go more smoothly and more successfully.

1. Why are you selling this car?

You might not get a straight answer, but it’s important to ask. There are many valid and non-worrying reasons that people decide to sell their cars. If the reason they give is related to work or family, then you know the primary drive to sell isn’t because of anything that’s wrong with the vehicle itself.

For example, a seller who has a minivan for sale might be selling it because the oldest child has moved out to college and another teen family member has their own car now and so the minivan is no longer needed. It can work the other way, too, with a seller getting rid of their Mazda MX-5 because they have twins on the way!

Always establish the motivation for selling the car in the first place. Any answer will give you insight into the condition of the vehicle as it is.

2. What’s the mileage on the odometer?

Next is to understand how far the car has traveled up to this point. The way to do that is to get the latest odometer reading. You may have seen a listed odometer reading in any advertisement you saw for the car, but always check up and get the very latest reading.

Why does this matter? Comparing the odometer reading vs. the car’s model year and current age is one of the best ways to gauge the likely mechanical condition of the vehicle without actually seeing the vehicle in person. All vehicles have maintenance milestones, and how far it has gone will tell you what kind of work might have been done.

For example, if the vehicle has done 60,000 miles, then you should expect to see at least 1 flushing and changing of the transmission fluid, and possibly even 2. Cars with more than 100,000 miles on the odometer may have had to have more major work done like a replacement transmission. The general rule, though, is that more mileage in fewer years is bad news, mechanically speaking.

3. How many owners has it had?

Just as the odometer reading gives us insight into its condition, so too does the number of previous owners. This is a number that is best kept as low as possible.

If a car has had 3-4 previous owners and it’s only 5 years old, then that should raise a few eyebrows. The ideal match is a car for which the seller is the current and original owner, but with used cars it can never be a guarantee.

Similar to the odometer reading, don’t just take the number of owners at face value. Be sure to compare it to the age of the vehicle.

4. Has it been in any accidents?

Now we come to the more serious history of the car. You must try to ascertain whether a car has been in any accidents, and you should do so before you even look at it. The vehicle history report from Carfax or AutoCheck should contain this information, but it’s not 100-percent certain.

Why does it even matter? Cars that have been in accidents have undergone more extensive repairs and component replacement. What’s more, they’ve been through “trauma” which might have left some parts of the car irreparably damaged or at least not able to return to 100 percent of its original form. Its accident history may also impact the title (see question 7 for more).

5. Can I take it for a test drive?

If you are buying a new car from a car dealership, or even a pre-owned one, the idea of a test drive is a no-brainer. When buying a car from a private seller, on the other hand, they may resist any request for a test drive, arguing that it will add to the car’s mileage or something similar. They may also insist that you demonstrate you have the money to buy it or that you are seriously interested and will make your purchase contingent on a test drive.

It’s normal to expect a little resistance or at least some conditions like those mentioned above, but steer well clear of any seller of any kind that outright refuses to allow you to test drive a vehicle.

6. Will you allow me to bring an independent inspector to look at the car?

Any reputable dealership will have a licensed mechanic perform their “50-point inspection” or however many points they claim it has to be able to offer you “Certified Pre-Owned” cars. At a dealer you might get certain guarantees based on that, but if you’re buying a used car privately there may be no such peace of mind.

Therefore, you should ask about bringing in an independent mechanic to check all the key areas of the car’s exterior, interior and mechanics. Any seller who disagrees may be trying to conceal damage, or at least is lacking in transparency. They are therefore best avoided. A smart seller will proactively bring up the matter of inspection with you.

7. What’s the car’s title status?

Next we turn to the car’s title status, which is somewhat related to question 4 and accidents. It’s very important to know what kind of title the car has: Clean, Lien, Salvage. The first one is your ideal situation, because that means the car is bought, paid for, and hasn’t been totaled and then repaired in the past.

If a car has a “Lien” title, it means that the seller is not yet the full legal owner of the car. Lien refers to debt still held against the car. The lienholder is likely a finance company connected to whatever dealership sold them the car in the first place. Liens are not necessarily a red flag, but the seller needs to be transparent about being released from the lien or how they intend to cover the financing before they transfer the title over to you the buyer.

Finally, we have “Salvage,” status which for many buyers out there is a red flag. Salvage means that the car has previously been totaled and then written off by the insurance company, probably sent for scrap but then repaired and made roadworthy again by perhaps the current or a previous owner.

Unless you’re very confident with risky cars that may have been heavily modified or built with many aftermarket parts, it’s best to steer clear of salvage titles.

8. Do you have the car’s title in hand?

One more question related to the title is to find out whether they have their title in hand or not. If they don’t have the title, then it could be for a few reasons, all of which need your consideration.

First, they may not have the title because they have lost the original or it was damaged or destroyed. In this case, they need to apply to the DMV for another, which can take many weeks and the same can’t happen without a title in hand.

Second, they may not have the title because it’s a lien title and so the original is in the hands of the lienholder.

Third, they may claim to not have a title but in fact they do but aren’t willing to show it because the information on the title doesn’t match with their own, which should raise a lot of suspicion on everybody’s part.

9. How did you get to the asking price?

There are multiple ways in which car owners arrive at their chosen sticker price. Some go ahead and use the straight-up Kelley Blue Book value or similar, but others might stray wildly (upward) from the KBB price because of modifications made, the condition of the car, the fact they spent hundreds of dollars a month keeping it detailed…the list goes on.

Car asking prices are hard to read and appreciate unless you happen to have all the information already in your mind. Asking the seller how they arrived at the price is a useful way to understand whether the price is reasonable or not. You don’t want to end up with car buyer’s remorse because you overpaid!

10. Do you have all of the vehicle’s service records?

Finally, you should also ask for a full account of the car’s service history. The best way to do that is via receipts for all work done. The maintenance history should include everything that was performed, including oil changes, brake pad replacements and tire or wheel repairs.

An independent inspection should also reveal whether or not an owner is being truthful about the vehicle’s condition and how well the car has been maintained through their ownership.

Most car selling advice pages tell sellers in no uncertain terms to keep any and all receipts for work done to the car. The more paperwork on the car that they have — including the original manual, warranty info, service receipts and more — the safer you are in making your purchase.

11. Are all the car features working as intended?

Determining the condition of the used car and its underlying mechanicals is the obvious priority, but you should ask about the car’s extra features, too. Things like infotainment systems, heated seats or parking sensors are all prone to failure.

By asking the private owner about the state of these features, you don’t risk running into nasty surprises or unexpected costs after the purchase is complete.

Don’t Be Shy: Ask Questions!

You should never feel bad for having a million questions to ask to a car seller. Remember that it’s your prerogative – and a sensible idea, in general – to ask questions and determine the information you need before making a decision as important as whether or not to buy a car.

Take your time, resist seller pressure, and ask enough questions to make you feel comfortable before any exchange of money and keys is made.