5 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

Posted Friday, Mar 25, 2022

You find an ad for a used car that looks great and begin daydreaming about taking it for a spin.

But first, remember: Every used car has a history.

“New cars are all exactly alike since they come directly from the factory,” says Mark Holthoff, an editor for online used-car shopping community Klipnik. “But one used car can be vastly different from another.”

Even two vehicles with identical year, trim, color, and mileage could drive worlds differently. For example, one used truck might have been in an accident while another was untouched. One used SUV might have been serviced regularly while another was neglected.

Doing business with a reputable used car dealer can be the difference between finding a quality used vehicle and one that needs repairs.

Here are the top 5 questions you should ask any dealer before buying one of their vehicles:

How was the car maintained?

“Find out if it was serviced at a dealership, by an independent mechanic or a “shade tree” mechanic — one not affiliated with a garage —” says Josh Sadlier, senior manager of content strategy at Edmunds.com. “Also ask if the maintenance is up-to-date. Some sellers will even suggest you speak to the mechanic who worked on the car.”

Are service records available?

Hopefully, the answer to this question is, “Yes. All the records are in a folder and you’re welcome to look it over.” This tells you the seller probably has serviced the car regularly.

Many vehicles purchased at auction will still have all of the invoices and records of all services provided to the vehicle within them. Some dealers, like ours, will leave this paperwork within the vehicle to show future owners the past of the vehicle when the original owner is not available to discuss it with you.

Has it been in any accidents?

In some cases, accidents are reported on a vehicle history report — but don’t assume these reports catch everything. We’ve had plenty of vehicles that we’ve inspected and found clear signs of accidents, but the reports showed nothing on record.

Take a look at the vehicle and try to find signs of damage around it. If the car was in an accident, try to find out how it was damaged and how it was fixed. We also recommend taking it to get inspected to ensure you know the full extensiveness of any potential damage.

What features don’t work the way they’re supposed to?

Let’s be real, vehicles are machines and machines break down over time. We can’t expect them to last forever like our human bodies do…

Get it? See what we did there??

Used cars nearly always have something that may not be functioning exactly as it should. A lot of the time they can be things that can be overlooked — for example, a malfunctioning CD player.

Maybe we shouldn’t assume. That could be a deal-breaker for some…

But other defects can come as annoying surprises, such as weak air conditioning, blown speakers, or missing pixels in displays. Make sure you check them out thoroughly, especially if you know they’ll be important to you.

Is there any reason you wouldn’t drive the car coast-to-coast tomorrow?

This is a fun question and sometimes throws the seller off balance.

The response they provide you will let you know nearly everything you need to know about the vehicle. If the answer is a resounding “No, there’s nothing wrong with the car,” that’s a nice vote of confidence.

On the other hand, if the answer is, “Well, uh. Well, I think so. I’m sure you’d be fine,” maybe rethink your decision to move forward with the vehicle (or at least have it inspected!).

What is the ownership history?

If the seller doesn’t really have many details about the car, that’s a warning sign.

Typically, this means they are running no form of history report for the vehicle. Every dealer should care enough about their own inventory to know its history, at the very least to be able to protect themselves in case they purchase something with a branded title that was not reported at auction.

Every dealer should be able to tell you how many owners a vehicle has had. If they can’t, move on.

Can I see an inspection report?

Any reputable dealer is going to conduct an inspection on every vehicle prior to selling it. They need to know what needs to be fixed prior to putting it out on the line to make sure they are selling a quality vehicle.

Beware of dealers that simply use the “inspection” from the auction house, as these are very basic and do not cover many aspects of a vehicle’s condition beyond cosmetic ones. While these reports have been getting more in-depth as of late, they are still not enough.

Has the vehicle been in any accidents?

Much like ownership history, a dealer should be able to tell you if a vehicle has been in an accident. Most accidents are reported on that same history report being run, so they should be able to tell you.

This doesn’t mean that all accidents will be reported on a history report, of course, but of the ones that are they should be readily available to you.

Minor accidents certainly shouldn’t be a deal-breaking so long as they were properly repaired. Major accidents, however, should be dug into a little further.

Poor repairs can leave you with a vehicle that does not run properly or wears parts faster than normal. We suggest you have vehicles like this inspected (all vehicles you’re considering purchasing, actually) prior to purchasing them. Make sure they have been repaired properly ahead of time so you are not left with the bill of having to do it yourself.

Does the vehicle have a clean title?

There are dealerships out there that specialize in selling ONLY branded title vehicles. Sometimes you can even get a great vehicle at a fraction of the cost of its unbranded counterpart. However, there are risks involved.

If you’d like more info on that, you can check out our article on the Disadvantages of Purchasing Salvage.

We always suggest you stick to clean title vehicles as it guarantees the value will stay strong on the vehicle, as well as your chance of having problems with your vehicle down the road decrease drastically.

Make sure to ask if the vehicle has a clean title, and if it doesn’t, it is probably best to walk away and try somewhere else.

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