11 Smart Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

Take a look through these 11 questions to ask when buying a used car, and help leverage yourself into a great deal.

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A vehicle sitting in the classifieds or on a dealership lot may have many stories to tell, as long as you know what questions to ask when buying a used car. Shopping for a used car can seem like a challenge, and you're not alone if you feel this way. Arming yourself with strong questions could help you know what you're getting into.

When shopping around, don't be afraid to grill a salesperson. Off the bat they may lack answers, but that's nothing a little digging on their part can't solve. What about questions to ask when buying a used car from a private party? The good news is that private-party sellers may know more about their cars than dealers do. After all, they've probably been driving the vehicle for a while, and in some cases, they may even have owned it since new.

Here's a look at several important questions to ask when buying a used car from either a dealer or private party.

What Is the Car's History?

While you can't expect a salesperson to know the history of every vehicle on a big lot, it's always worth asking them what they know about the car. Maybe they handled the trade and can provide some hints about how the previous owners used it. Or they can tell you if it was acquired, as so many cars are, at a dealer-only auction.

You'll have better luck with this question in a private-party sale. When inquiring, you're looking to learn about when the seller acquired the car and how they used it. If they were not the vehicle's first owner, they may be able to tell you a little about its past prior to their acquisition. A history of garage storage—as well as whether the car has seen more highway, suburban, or urban use—can be highly desirable.

Are Any Service Records Included?

Asking this question can tell you a lot about how fastidious the previous owner has been. Meticulous maintenance with documentation shows an owner who cared about their vehicle and was willing to spend money to keep it going. While you needn't write off a dealer or seller who is unable to provide receipts, the car may need a little more stringent inspection should you choose to go see it.

Has The Car Been Wrecked or Previously Stolen?

A "yes" to either of these does not have to automatically lead to a "no" from you, but it should open some follow-up questions, such as the severity of damages incurred and extensiveness of repairs. Documentation for these items is critical as it can be hard to take a seller at their word.

If the car was previously wrecked or stolen and recovered, you'll want to inspect the title closely to ensure it is "clean," meaning the car has not been issued a salvage title at the behest of an insurance company.

May I Have a Vehicle History Report?

Two major firms provide vehicle history reports that can detail where a car was registered throughout its life, give you a glimpse into its service history, and tell you if it was ever in a wreck or had its odometer altered. Carfax is costlier and more comprehensive than AutoCheck, but using both in tandem can uncover a lot about a car.

Dealers typically provide one or both, but you may need to request the data. Be wary of a dealer who is unwilling to provide a history report. Don't worry if the Carfax or AutoCheck data makes no mention of service history. Not all shops or dealerships report information to those organizations.

Private-party sellers will sometimes provide a Carfax or AutoCheck history report. If they choose not to do so, the seller can provide you with the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) so you can purchase one yourself. While not a car's biography, such documentation often reveals a lot about a vehicle—and it can tell you if the seller has been truthful.

What Problems Have You Had With the Car?

This really just applies to private-party sales, but there aren't too many used cars in perfect condition, so let this question rip. Odds are the owner has had at least an item or two repaired, which can add to your pre-purchase peace of mind. There's no reason to fear recent major fixes—if anything, evidence of such work can save you thousands in the long run because someone else took care of those gremlins for you.

A follow-up to this question can include asking whether there are any open recalls—that is, recalls up to 15 years old left unaddressed. If the seller is unsure (or you want to be certain for yourself), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains a database of open and completed recalls that you can access using the car's VIN.

Are There Any Current Problems?

Here's where you can start putting your negotiator's hat on. Hopefully, the seller will disclose any issues even before you go to see the car.

If there are smaller issues—especially wear items such as tires or brakes that will eventually need to be replaced on any car—you can do a little research ahead of time to determine the cost of replacement. Armed with that knowledge, you can try to negotiate a lower price.

What Else Is Included With the Car?

A new car comes with more than just a key. A well-kept used car should retain two keys and remote fobs (if applicable), as well as the owner manuals. These items are important to have, but can be expensive to recover if they've gone missing—modern keys can cost upward of $500 to replace.

Additional items to consider include floor mats (both carpeted and winter-ready rubber), roof rack cross bars, luggage covers, or winter wheels and tires. While many dealers will discard service records for privacy reasons, some will provide you with redacted documentation—or at least be able to print out a car's service history if it was maintained in their shop.

Careful private sellers will likely include the owner's manual and extra keys. Additional items can obviously vary by car, but it's better to ask than not for extras. Furthermore, you can ask if the seller has kept the original window sticker—the federally-mandated document that was affixed to the car's window when it was new. This lists out the vehicle's original specification, including major factory-installed options. This can be useful when comparing cars, and again, it shows the owner may have been meticulous with their vehicle.

What Service Did You Perform to Prepare the Car for Sale?

traded-in vehicle is rarely immediately ready to go to a used-car lot, as are many private-party, pre-owned vehicles. Dealerships typically perform at least some servicing, and they will normally be able to provide documentation. The best private sellers do this, too. An oil change and replacement of wiper blades sounds basic, but may save you some money. Bigger work, such as installation of new tires, brake pads and rotors, or even regularly scheduled maintenance, may save you thousands. This kind of work is worth factoring into the price you want to pay for the car.

Is There a Warranty?

There are three kinds of warranties you may find on a used car.

  • The remainder of a factory warranty: A relatively new used car may still have some coverage provided by the manufacturer. A call to the manufacturer's customer service line can verify how much is left.
  • A Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) warranty: On a car that has passed a manufacturer-backed CPO inspection, this warranty can provide similar coverage to the factory warranty for as much as two years depending on the brand.
  • A dealership-provided warranty: Many dealers will include a short-term warranty—typically three or six months—that can cover certain repairs. While not particularly comprehensive, and often served with strings attached, these warranties can offer peace of mind as long as you've read the fine print first.

Can I Have an Independent, Pre-Purchase Inspection Performed?

If you find that you like the car, a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) from a trustworthy mechanic or repair shop can be worth its weight in gold, as it can determine any underlying issues not immediately visible to an untrained eye.

A transparent seller should be willing to have such an inspection performed, though typically it is the potential buyer's responsibility to pay for this.

Can I Return the Car if I Don't Like It?

You might be surprised with the answer to this one. Many dealerships have a policy that will let you return a car within a few days (and a few hundred miles) if for some reason you decide it's not the vehicle for you. That said, you can save yourself the hassle by asking about an extended overnight test drive.

It should go without saying that posing this question to a private seller won't go over so well. In fact, you might be surprised with the answer, but not in a positive way.

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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.