15 smart questions to ask when buying a used car

AKA how to act like a pro even if you have no idea what you’re doing.

Buying a new car is not only expensive, but a new car loses value the moment you take it out of the lot – and it only gets worse from there.

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According to Carfax Data, new cars typically lose more than 10% of their value in the first month…and it keeps dropping.

Buying second-hand is often the most economical solution, but it comes with its own risks – like, what if the car breaks down in two weeks or the engine has been repaired?

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When buying used, you can buy from a physical or online car dealership, a rental car company that sells older rental cars, or buy directly from the seller.

For simplicity, buying directly from the seller may be the best solution, but if you have a car you want to trade in or are interested in buying a certified used car (often more expensive, but it is inspected and usually have a warranty), you will need to go through a dealer.

Because navigating the world of used cars can be complicated (and stressful), I asked Patrick Olsen, editor-in-chief of Carfax, to see if I was on the right track.

Here are some questions that can help you avoid a lemon and get a good deal:


Why are you selling this car?

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This question seems basic, but because it’s so open-ended, Olsen says it might “be more revealing than the sellers want it to be.”

They may say they’re looking for something more reliable (a sign you may not be keen on planning a month-long road trip) or tell you they want to buy a car that handles better on icy roads (a sign you might want to reconsider buying if you live in a snowy area).


What was the car mainly used for?

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It’s a question Olsen suggested asking because the wear and tear on a used car varies depending on how the vehicle has been used. Long trips and driving on unpaved roads will leave a vehicle in worse condition than daily errands or easy trips.


What is the mileage of the car?

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If you’re buying a car online, the mileage should be listed, but if you’re talking to a private seller, you’ll need to ask them how many miles the vehicle has.

To double-check the information provided to you – there is such a thing as an odometer restore, where the odometer is adjusted to increase a car’s value – you can run a vehicle history report (available at from Carfax), where you’ll get clear answers about mileage, number of previous owners, how the car has been used, if it’s been serviced, if it’s been in an accident, and any pending recalls.


How many previous owners were there?

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In general, the fewer previous owners a car has had, the better. Chances are, a car that has been driven by one person or family for their entire life has been better maintained than one that has changed hands three or four times.

Again, a vehicle history report will give you the exact number of previous owners, but it may also be worth asking the seller yourself.


Has the car ever had an accident?

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Most vehicle history reports will notify you of any accidents, but if the accident was minor or was not reported to the insurance company, it may not be listed. Either way, it’s a good question to ask, because you might get more detail than what the vehicle history report provides.

If you are viewing a vehicle history report, look for a “rescue title“, a title used to let buyers know that the car was once considered lost or a total loss by the insurance company. These cars – which can be driven after some repairs – often have hidden problems or a value of very low resale.


Can you provide me with the vehicle history report or give me the VIN number so I can look up the car?

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Olsen strongly suggests looking at a car’s vehicle history report. The seller can provide it to you, or you can look it up using the car’s VIN number (although it will cost you). Olsen says “good sellers will provide them as a sign that they are on the rise and have nothing to hide from buyers.”

A vehicle history report includes mileage, number of previous owners, accident history, car usage, title status, and vehicle recalls, among others.


How was the car stored?

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The elements can be tough on a car – everything from magnetic chloride to severe cold and humidity can affect how a car looks and runs. A vehicle stored in a garage was probably less exposed (and arguably, better maintained) than a car that was left outside all year.

It may not be a deciding factor, but it’s good to know.


What parts have been replaced since you bought the car? In what year were they replaced?

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Depending on the piece, hearing that something has been replaced can be a relief (after all, it means that you shouldn’t have to be replaced) or a hassle (you want to make sure whoever did the job did a good job and used quality parts).

Asking what year the part was replaced can give you an idea of ​​how long the new part will last.


What work needs to be done on the car in the near future? And can I take it to my mechanic to have it checked before buying?

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The current car owner can get an idea of ​​which parts are about to come out (or need to be replaced already). And while in an ideal world salespeople would be upfront and honest, Olsen says that when buying a used car, you should always have a mechanic you know and trust tending the car.

“Mechanics can see things consumers can’t,” he said and suggested that “if the mechanic finds work that needs to be done, use it as a negotiating tool with the salesperson.”


Is the title of the car available?

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Olsen warns that you should “never pay until you have the title in hand,” but notes that the title may still be at the bank or finance company if the car’s current owner has an active lein. on the vehicle.


How has the car been maintained?

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Cars take a lot of time and care to maintain, so asking how the seller maintained the car can be very revealing. To dive deeper, you can ask how often they had the oil changed and if the car was serviced at a dealership or with an independent mechanic.

For proof of care, Olsen says you should “ask for receipts” so you can see for yourself how the car was maintained.


Can I take the car for a spin and test everything to see what works?

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Before buying a used car, especially an older used car, you should ask the seller if there are any features that are not working as they are supposed to. Then take it out for a spin to see how it handles, how you physically feel in it, and to make sure things like the windows, stereo, hazard lights, and seat belts are in good working order. functioning.


What did you like – and what did you hate – about this car?

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Olsen says this question “can be eye-opening” because it taps into the seller’s emotions about their car and can reveal whether it will be right for you.


How does the listing price compare to the Kelley Blue Book value or the value based on Carfax history?

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You can obviously research it yourself, but asking this question may force the salesperson to rethink the price if it’s high or explain why they’re selling the car for less.

You can check the make and model value at Kelley’s Blue Book (you’ll need the year, mileage, and zip code), but to get specific information about the car in question, plug the VIN number or license plate number into the Value based on Carfax history or Kelley Blue Book Value Calculator. This car-specific report will take into account damage, special features and the number of previous owners to give you the exact value of the car.


And finally, is the price negotiable?

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Depending on what you find out about the car, you may be able to negotiate a lower rate (I mean, might as well ask, right?). Things like a lower Kelley or Carfax value, major repairs your mechanic finds, or issues you discover during the test drive are all valid reasons to ask for a lower price.

Do you have any tips that have helped you buy a used car in the past? Share!

And for more stories about life and money, check out the rest of our personal finance posts.

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