5 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

Posted Friday, Mar 12, 2021

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.” 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.


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. If the car was in an accident, find out how it was damaged and how it was fixed.


What features don’t work the way they’re supposed to? Older used cars nearly always have something wrong with them. It might not be a deal breaker — for example, if it’s a malfunctioning CD player. But other defects can come as annoying surprises, such as weak air conditioning, blown speakers or missing pixels in displays.


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. But if the answer is a resounding “No, there’s nothing wrong with the car,” that’s a nice vote of confidence.

What is the ownership history? If the seller doesn’t really have many details about the car, that’s a warning sign. 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. 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.

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. Minor accidents certainly shouldn’t be a deal breaking so long as they were properly repaired. But major accidents or poor repairs can leave you having to make repairs yourself.

Does the vehicle have a clean title? No dealership that cares about their reputation and vehicle quality will sell cars with salvage or restored titles. It’s simply too risky. 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.