Buying a used car can be exciting, but you have to be careful in how you’ll proceed or you’re likely to lose money on the deal. Rather than go into the situation totally blind, we recommend making a list of questions to ask when buying a used car.
When you spot that used car on your computer screen, it’s easy to get carried away. Before you know it, you’re calculating payments, scoping out aftermarket accessories, and getting insurance estimates.
Hold your horses, though! You have to ask the right questions before signing on the dotted line when purchasing a used vehicle.
New cars don’t cause this confusion because they should be identical to every other unit of the same year, make, and model. Used cars have a lot of variations on the other hand.
This is because used cars come with baggage and a past life. They may have been beat on, flooded, rear ended, recalled, and repaired. If the past owners didn’t act right, the car could be trash. How would you know?
You’ll know by asking questions.
We’re bringing you all the important questions to pose when on the fence about buying a used car.
Where to Buy a Used Car?
Perhaps you’re on “day one, step one” regarding the used car purchasing process. If you’re looking to buy a used car, you probably have plenty of questions yourself.
The first concern might be where to start.
The following options are on the table:
- Buy a used car from a dealership
- Pick up a used car from an auto auction
- Cop a used auto from a car rental agency
- Purchase a used vehicle from a private seller
- Inheritance or gift
- On the Internet
Of course, you’ll still be asking questions about the car’s condition and history no matter where you find it.
Used Car Fast Facts
Grab your notebooks and a pen, because before we get to the questions to ask before buying a used car, there are a few details you should have in mind.
Firstly, did you know that a modern car is expected to only last twelve years out on the road? For instance, if you’re trying to buy a 2009 truck, in 2021, you might be pushing your luck.
Additionally, the financial benefits of owning a used car are tricky to identify. You could pay less cash up front or have a much lower car payment, but you won’t have access to factory warranties. Extended warranties aren’t all they’re cracked up to be according to some sources. Late-life car repairs are expensive!
If the car was subject to recall, you’ll have to check to see if those repairs were done. Unfortunately, in some jurisdictions, those recalls expire, and you’ll end up paying for the repair out of pocket.
How Well was the Used Car Maintained?
This is an important question to ask, perhaps the most crucial.
Knowing if the car is in good shape requires a professional opinion. Even if you’re buying from a mechanic or a dealership, you have no real evidence that the work was done. You should ask for records.
Additionally, if you know a mechanic, perhaps bring that person as a buddy when checking out the used vehicle. You don’t have to announce that this person is a mechanic. It may be in your favor not to do so. Play it by ear.
If you’re not friends with a mechanic, you can always contract one for the job. You will have to pay for the inspection, but it’s worth it in the long run. Take careful note that sometimes you can get a better deal by buying a car that needs some repairs, if you have the cash for them.
Additionally, don’t expect used car sellers to give you steep discounts for problems that are starting but far off in terms of urgency. For example, if there is some part that looks like it will need to be repaired a year from now, that’s not the seller’s problem. It is yours.
Has the Vehicle been in any Accidents?
Unethical car salespeople may try to hide the fact that a used car has been in an accident, so it’s an important question to ask when buying a used car.
If the car has suffered extensive damage in a wreck, it should be noted on the car’s history which is visible through services like Carfax.
You should ask to see the report and perhaps the title. If the title has the word SALVAGE on it, it’s been deemed worthy for the junkyard, not the wide open road. If the vehicle’s title has the word REBUILT on it, it was salvage but now is okay.
What Features does the Used Car Offer?
Ask what features are available on the vehicle, and then test them. Sometimes you’ll see items listed as amenities that do not actually work, which is annoying.
If the advertisement reads “CD PLAYER,” bring a CD and throw it in there. You need to know if you’ll be jamming out to your favorite tunes or not.
Test out the AC and the seat warmers. Make sure the sunroof opens and closes as designed (What if it doesn’t, and it rains!?).
There can be a whole slew of “details” in a used car. From broken computer screens to USB outlets that no longer serve their purpose, you might be surprised to see what hacks it and what does not.
How can I Identify if a Used Car is Reliable?
Reading reliability is difficult. If you want to know a good question to ask when buying a used car, consider this one: Can I drive this car across the state tomorrow?
It’s an old trick, but you should tell the private seller you plan on taking this car on a long road trip. Ask if there is any reason why they believe doing so would be a bad idea.
Honest people will give you a straight answer. They may say “this car is more of an around-town car; I wouldn’t drive it to Wisconsin.”
Others may lie, however. This is the bad news about buying a used car. When somebody is pressed to make a sale, they may tell you only what they think you want to hear.
Other Used Car Questions to Put Forward
Here is a shortlist of questions we would also recommend asking if you’re in the process of purchasing a used automobile.
Why are you selling this vehicle?
You might want to hear the story behind the ride. Is the person selling the car because they bought a new one, they’re moving, somebody died, or because the brakes, tires, and engine need an overhaul?
How did you come to this price?
This question may seem awkward, but once it’s out there, you’re bound to get an answer.
Good responses include “Kelley Blue Book Value” or “Similar ads posted the price.”
Extremely honest people may tell you something like, “It’s worth 6,000, but it needs a transmission repair, so I’m selling it for $4,000.”
If you feel off about the deal, don’t move ahead. Remember the gold rule in buying big-ticket items: if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.
Can I Check Out the Car’s Papers?
You’re not a lawyer (or maybe you are), but this doesn’t mean you don’t have a right, if not an obligation, to go over the car’s documents with a fine tooth comb.
Read that title carefully. Is it clean and clear? Does it have signatures where they don’t belong? Is the car correctly identified (check make, year, model, color, VIN, plate, etc.)?
NOTE: Be careful of title jumpers. This is a bad practice where somebody doesn’t put their name on the car. Instead, they give you a car that has the previous owner's name on the paperwork. When you update the title, their name falls off in the process.
Can I take the Car to my Mechanic?
You might consider asking this question, especially if you’re dealing with a private sale, before you check out the car. It isn’t worth it if the person says no.
In fact, if the private seller tells you there’s no need to take the car to the mechanic or tries to convince you that it isn’t necessary, that could be a red flag.
Signs a Used Car is not a Good Deal
If you’re getting a nervous feeling about a used car, you might be noticing subtle signs that the car is no good.
Here is what to look for:
- The seller puts an unnecessary amount of pressure on you. It’s normal for the seller to say “other people are looking at the car.” If they’re really hounding you, though, walk away.
- Dents, dings, and imperfections on the car’s exterior. This doesn’t mean the car won’t get you from the proverbial point A to point B, but it should be considered in the final price of the vehicle.
- Leaks are no good. Don’t let used car salespeople tell you a little antifreeze, oil, brake fluid, or transmission fluid under the car is normal. It’s not. Don’t buy the car if you don’t know what you’re getting into!
- Weird smells are a big no-no. If you’re checking out used cars, and the car smells like burnt oil, sweet exhaust, cigarette smoke, or cat urine, don’t buy the car. The hassle usually isn’t worth it.
- Use your ears, people! Start up that car and listen to the engine. Even if you don’t know a lot about cars, you should be able to tell when an engine has problems. Grinding, clicking, clunking, and ticking all mean disaster is near.
- Lights on the dashboard mean the car is in sorry shape. You need to be aware that in some locales, you won’t be able to pass an emissions test if the check engine light is on.
Granted, these indications don’t automatically mean a used car deal is no good. What you have to consider is your unique situation.
If you’re a mechanic, for example, then perhaps nothing phases you when it comes to cars. If you are willing to get some repairs made on your own, then perhaps old brakes or a broken radio is no big deal.
On the other hand, if you can’t afford random breakdowns, tow trucks, and hefty repair bills, you should think twice about buying a used car in general. Sometimes a used car gets you on the road fast, but the cost of keeping the car running will drown you financially speaking.
Do Your Homework!
When it comes to buying a used car, you have to do some research to find a good deal. You basically need to use a search engine to find out what recalls and repairs are common in the make, model, and year up on the auction block.
If you want to drive a Dodge Neon from 1995, are you ready to replace the head gasket? These cars are already 26 years old. They’re not likely going to make it for the long haul.
If you’ve already bought a used car, and it’s life is in decline, it’s time to start making arrangements.
Again, homework helps!
You can donate the car to a charity, sell it to a mechanic, give it to somebody who doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty underneath the hood, or call a junkyard.
Our recommendation is to call the junkyard. With a title in hand, you can cash out on that used car once and for all. The tow service comes to you, pays you for the vehicle, and that’s it!
You’ll feel good about the decision not only because you are compensated but also because junkyards today act as automobile recyclers, pulling parts to be used in other vehicles or breaking down the materials for scrap.
Buying a used car can be exciting, but it can also be exhausting. As long as you know what questions to ask the seller, and yourself, you’ll be sure to make a wise investment.