5 Questions To Ask Before Looking at a Used Car

Save yourself time, hassle, and money by asking these questions before checking out a used vehicle.

Deciding on car in lot Manuel Carrillo IIIManuel Carrillo III/Capital One

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Browsing used-car listings from the comfort of your desk or couch may present you with a plethora of options that could take days or even weeks to check out in person.

A phone call or e-mail to either the private party or the dealership selling a vehicle can help you gauge whether you should see the car in person, or move on to the next one.

Here are the answers to five questions worth asking.

1. Why Are They Selling the Car?

This introductory question may seem obvious if the car is being sold by a dealership — selling cars is their business, after all. But you’ll want to listen closely for the answer from private sellers; they may wind up being more candid than you expect.

For instance, the seller may say that they want a car with better fuel economy. Maybe you’ll want the same. Or they may have had some problems with the car, which you may not want to inherit, either.

2. How Was the Car Maintained?

A well-maintained car is worth its weight in, well, sheet metal! Unless the seller has only owned the car for a short period, they should be able to tell you how it was maintained. Ask about regular maintenance, as well as any major repairs that were performed.

If the seller has service records — receipts from mechanics — that can help tell its history, too.

That said, a dealership may know little about the car’s history before they acquired it. Still, they may have serviced the vehicle in preparation for the sale.

3. Can I Take the Car to a Mechanic for an Inspection?

Even if you’re mechanically savvy, getting a professional opinion on a vehicle is wise. Dealerships and independent repair shops offer what’s commonly called a pre purchase inspection (or PPI) that typically includes a test drive and a visual check underneath the car.

A PPI usually takes a shop an hour or two, which typically costs north of $130. A more thorough inspection of a high-end model may take longer and thus cost even more. However, don’t expect the seller to offer to pay for the inspection.

Asking the car’s seller if you can have an inspection performed is good practice, but a seller unwilling to allow this may be cause for concern.

Even if the car is being sold by a dealership, a PPI by an independent shop can be a good idea to confirm the vehicle’s condition.

4. Do You Have the Title in Hand, and Is It a “Clear” Title?

You will need what is colloquially referred to as a “clear” title to finance the vehicle or to register it.

A “clear” title indicates the vehicle has no financial lien. This, in turn, means the car can be retitled in its new owner’s name.

Things get a bit more complicated if the vehicle’s seller currently has a loan on the car. In most states, a licensed dealership needs to have the title in their possession to be able to sell it, though you should still confirm that they have it in their hands.

In a private party sale, it is not uncommon for a vehicle’s title to be held by a financial institution. The loan will need to be paid off for the lender to release the title. It can then take several weeks for the financial institution to physically send the title to the vehicle’s new owner.

Depending on the state, some may list the borrower as the car's primary owner. Others may require the former borrower to retitle the vehicle in their name before assigning it to the new owner or lienholder.

When in doubt, contact the current lienholder and your local motor vehicle department for any processes specific to your location.

A handful of states, including Arizona, now default to an electronic title. While this saves paper and makes the transfer of ownership within the state easy, a buyer planning to register a vehicle outside of Arizona will need a physical title. The vehicle’s current owner will need to visit a motor vehicle department branch to have a title printed.

There’s also no harm in asking the seller to email or text photos showing both sides of the title and the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the car itself. The back of the title must be free of a buyer’s signature, even one that has been marked out. If the title was signed by someone else (perhaps a different party planned to buy the vehicle, but then backed out), the current owner will need to have a replacement title issued.

5. Is It a “Clean” Title?

What a difference a letter makes. While the lack of a “clear” title usually represents a small, easily surmountable hurdle, a title that isn’t “clean” is likely a major red flag.

Don’t assume that a used car sold by a dealership will have a “clean” title.

In addition to showing ownership, car titles indicate any brands — and we’re not talking about the vehicle’s manufacturer.

A branded title indicates that the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) was alerted to an important event in the car’s history, such as prior damage that may have resulted in an insurance loss from a crash, a fire, or a flood. Even if a car was declared a “total loss” by an insurer, it could still be repaired, inspected by a government official, and issued a branded title.

How each state handles title branding varies. In some states, a “salvage” or “rebuilt” title will be issued on pink paper, while others may look nearly identical.

Buying a car with a branded title opens up a veritable Pandora’s Box of additional questions and considerations. A branded title may make it harder to apply for financing, and some insurers may restrict coverage.

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz has had cars in his blood ever since he gnawed the paint off of a diecast model as a toddler. After growing up in Dallas, Texas, he earned a journalism degree, worked in public relations for two manufacturers, and served as an editor for a luxury-lifestyle print publication and several well-known automotive websites. In his free time, Andrew loves exploring the Rocky Mountains' best back roads—when he’s not browsing ads for his next car purchase.