Buying a car is a major financial commitment, with the average auto loan reaching $19,865 in 2020, according to Experian data. If a vehicle is used, there can be some risks involved, especially if it's an as-is sale with no warranty.
As such, it's crucial to understand what you're getting when buying a used car. To help you avoid ending up with a lemon, here are 25 questions to ask to help you get the most bang for your buck.
Here's What You Need to Ask Before Buying a Used Car
Whether you're buying from a dealer or a private individual, here are some questions that can help you ensure the car you're buying is in good enough shape and is worth the price you plan to pay:
- Why are they selling the car? The seller's answer could give you some insight into potential issues with the car—or it could simply be that they want a new ride.
- How old is the car? You'll typically find this information in the advertisement for the vehicle. Older cars are more likely to need more frequent repairs and maintenance.
- What's the mileage? The more a car has been on the road, the more wear and tear it's been subject to. You'll usually get this information from the advertisement, but you may ask the seller how much they drove on the highway versus in the city—highway driving tends to put less stress on a car's brakes and suspension.
- How long have they owned the car? If they bought it new, you can get the full history of the vehicle from the seller. If not, there may be some unknowns.
- How many previous owners? If a car has changed hands frequently, it can be difficult to get a full history of its maintenance, repairs, accidents and other pertinent details.
- Are they selling the car as is, or is it under warranty? If you're buying a used car from a dealer, a warranty can give you some extra peace of mind. That said, you'll want to read the terms of the warranty to see how likely it is that you can use it if something happens.
- What problems are there, and what repairs need to be made? Some problems aren't deal-breakers, but it's still a good idea to know what repairs you'll need to make before you start driving regularly. You may even ask the seller if they're willing to cover those repairs before the sale is complete.
- How are the tires, brakes, oil, fluids and filters? Getting a full rundown of the vehicle's condition can help you understand what you need to do to take care of it. You may involve a third-party mechanic to help you with this part of the process.
- Is there any damage to the car's exterior? Depending on your preferences, it may or may not matter if the car has minor scrapes and dings. However, major damage may be too much to ignore and could be a sign of structural damage, which could cause problems down the road.
- What does the interior of the car look like? Again, preferences can vary when it comes to a vehicle's condition, but you'll want to know about major problems like burns, stains, smells, rips and other things that could impact your driving experience.
- Are there any mechanical problems? The last thing you want is a money pit. If a car has significant or persistent mechanical problems, you could end up paying more in the long run than you would with a newer car.
- Has the car been in any accidents? It doesn't always matter if a car has been in accidents, but if there's been damage to the frame or something else that impacts the vehicle's functionality or the status of its title, it could be a deal-breaker. In addition to asking the seller about this, it's also a good idea to get the vehicle's history report from Carfax or AutoCheck.
- Has the car been exposed to flooding? If the car has experienced flooding, it could cause issues with the vehicle's electrical system and also generate mold and rust, which could be hazardous.
- Is there a vehicle history report available? Again, Carfax and AutoCheck can provide some, though typically not all, of the pertinent details you need to know about accidents, repairs, maintenance and ownership. Ask the seller if they're willing to provide the vehicle's history report. If not, pay the fee to Carfax or AutoCheck to get the detailed report for yourself.
- Where are the maintenance records? If a private seller doesn't have records of their maintenance, you may be able to obtain the records from an authorized dealer for the vehicle's make. If a vehicle hasn't been maintained regularly and on schedule, it could mean higher costs for you in the long run.
- What has been replaced, repaired or updated? You'll want to know if there have been repairs or replacements of important parts of the vehicle and how that might impact you. Also, ask about any after-market upgrades the seller may have made.
- May I take the car for a test drive? A test drive will give you information about how the car handles and could highlight any issues the seller may have left out or overlooked. If a seller refuses a test drive, that's a sign that you should walk away.
- Can I take the car to my mechanic for an independent inspection? As previously mentioned, it's a good idea to have someone who's knowledgeable about cars do an inspection for you. This can cost between $100 and $200 in most cases, but the price is well worth it, especially if the result is avoiding a mistake that would've cost you thousands.
- Does the seller have a clear title in hand? A clear title is free of any disputes or doubts about the ownership of the vehicle. If the seller has it, you can rest assured that someone else won't try to take back the vehicle after you've purchased it. If they don't have the title, you'll need to take extra precautions before putting your money on the line.
- How would this car impact my car insurance premiums? There are many factors that go into calculating your car insurance premiums, one of which is the make and model of the vehicle and its features. Request some quotes from multiple insurance carriers to get an idea of how much the coverage would cost you.
- What is the Kelley Blue Book value, or similar valuation, for the car? Websites like Kelley Blue Book and NADAGuides can give you a range of value for the car you're considering. This information can help you as you negotiate the sales price.
- How did the seller arrive at this price? While you can find a range for the car's fair market value, the seller must still justify their asking price. Get as much information as you can to help you determine whether it's a fair price or if you should negotiate.
- Is financing available? You can often get financing through a dealership, but you may need to contact lenders on your own to get funding to purchase the car. Take your time to shop around and compare interest rates and other terms on a used car loan.
- What other items are included in the sale? Some private sellers may include accessories with the sale of the vehicle, if they choose. And if you're purchasing from a dealer, they may include things like fabric protection, pinstriping and other add-ons. That said, check to see how much extra some of these items and services cost before you agree.
- Is the car returnable within a certain period of time or miles? Some dealerships—or even the lenders they work with—have a buyer's remorse clause in the contract, allowing you to return the vehicle if you've changed your mind. If that's the case, make sure you know the terms. Private sellers typically don't offer this, but it could still be worth it to ask.
The Bottom Line
When you go car shopping, it's important to gather as much information as you can about the vehicle you're planning to buy. If you're thinking about financing the purchase, it's crucial to know where you stand with your credit.
Check your credit score and credit report to gauge the health of your credit history, and if there are some improvements you can make, take the time to address those before you proceed with the car-buying process. This can take time, but the lower interest rate and monthly payment can be worth it.