What to Look For and Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car


Buying a used vehicle can be a big deal for a lot of people, so it’s important you know what to look for and what questions to ask when you’re buying a used car. What questions to ask also varies depending on whether you’re buying from a dealer or a private seller, so here’s a comprehensive guide to what you need to find out.

Things you need to look for and questions you need to ask when buying a used car include what’s the vehicle’s history, does it have a clear title, and are there any mechanical issues? So, here are the categories we’re going to separate this guide into.

  • Why buying used is different from buying new
  • What to look for with a used car
  • Questions to ask when buying from a private seller
  • Questions to ask when buying from a dealer
  • Warning signs to look out for

Why buying used is different from buying new

If you are too daunted by the extra risk you’re taking by choosing to buy a used vehicle you really should consider buying new instead if your budget runs to it. A new car comes with all the peace of mind you only get from a full manufacturer warranty, which in some cases can be for as long as five or even seven years. There are also additional consumer rights you have when buying brand new that you just don’t get with a used car.

You might think you can’t afford to buy brand new and that’s why you’re going for a used vehicle, but you might be able to afford a new model if you choose to lease instead. If you want to know more about leasing and whether it might be the right choice for you, check out my blog about leasing here.

Buying a used car is just like buying any other item when it’s been owned and used by someone else, except a used car is probably more expensive and it’s also something you might be going to rely on more than something like a pre-owned video game.

A used car will have had at least some degree of wear and tear, and how the vehicle might have been driven by the previous owner(s) will have a big bearing on this. With a new car, you have none of those worries, so you can just concentrate on the model, trim level, features, equipment and deal you want.

If you want to know more about the difference between buying a new and buying used then check out this article on the subject here.

What to look for with a used car

It’s going to be a good idea to check out specific information about the exact vehicle you’re interested in by looking online. There are some fantastic resources that go into minute detail about exactly what problems to look out for with every generation of the Mustang, Chevy Corvette and just about every vehicle you can imagine. It’s especially important to consult these expert guides if you are buying something that falls into the realm of classic cars, such as something like a C3 Corvette, a 1970s Mach 1 Ford Mustang or models that are even older.

Here are some more general things to look out for if you’re buying a used vehicle.

Condition

It stands to reason that you look at the condition of any used vehicle you’re thinking of buying, but there’s more to it than just looking for the obvious stuff. For example, although a vehicle might not have any obvious serious damage, a number of smaller issues could lead you to believe there has been serious damage in the past that’s been repaired.

Even if the cosmetic issues are commensurate with the age and mileage of the vehicle in question, if they’re all in a particular area it could mean there are potential structural issues you can’t see. Uneven wear on tires can also be an indicator of problems you might need to investigate further.

It’s also important to look for signs of wear and tear that could suggest the miles on the odometer might not be 100% reliable. Mileage fraud is easier and more common than you might think, even with very modern and very technologically advanced vehicles. All it takes to alter the odometer reading is a laptop and the right software, so as well as checking the vehicle’s history for anomalies, you have to look for exceptional wear.

What I mean are things like a heavily worn steering wheel, shift knob or pedals. If a vehicle has something like 25,000 miles on the dash but the gas pedal is worn away on one side or there are severe wear marks on the steering wheel where a driver’s hands have been a lot of the time, it really should start alarm bells ringing.

History

The first thing you should do when you go to check out a used vehicle for sale is to check out the history. If you’re serious about a used vehicle being sold by a private seller you should go online and pay for a history check yourself. There are many companies that offer this service, but one of the more affordable ones is VinAudit, and you can follow my affiliate link here to check out their services.

There’s more than just an online vehicle check you can do though, and any genuine seller will be only too pleased to show you any and all the documents they have relating to the vehicle’s history. This can and should include the service history stamped by the shops or dealers that have looked after it, but it can also include receipts and invoices in addition to the scheduled service history.

Questions to ask when buying from a private seller

Here are some important questions you should think about asking before you agree to buy a car or any used vehicle from a private seller before you even agree to go and take a look at it in the flesh and take it for a test drive. I’m not going to bother telling you to ask about how many miles are on the odometer, how many owners has the vehicle had or if the tires are bald? If you don’t know to ask those things you probably need to think about getting someone else to help you buy a car. These are things that give you an idea of if it’s worth taking your inquiry further and if the buyer is genuine.

Why are you selling? This is a bit of an obvious one, but what they reply with could give you an idea if they are genuine or not. If they are calm and casual and just say they are buying something else then that’s fine, but beware of them telling you more unusual things like they are emigrating abroad and no longer need the car. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that one, and so far, nobody who ever told me that had left the country when I check a couple of months later.

Are there any issues you need to tell me about? If someone is trying to sell you a lemon they’re going to lie if you ask them this, and there’s little you can do about that. However, it’s still worth asking because a lot of really genuine sellers will tell you about little faults before you go to check out the car. After all, why would they want to waste their time and yours by not telling you about a squeaking fan belt or a blowing exhaust? They could tell you about something that’s not a concern for you, but it helps give you the confidence you’re buying from someone genuine.

Where can I come and see the car? This is a big one, and the wrong answer should tell you to forget about going any further. If you are buying from a genuine private seller they will give you their home address, but if they ask to meet you somewhere else you should thank them for their time and say goodbye. Even if they give you a residential address, you still need to make sure you see them go into or come out of the property. Some scammers will give an address and wait for you outside a home they have no connection with. You have been warned.

Does the car have a clear title? – Don’t go any further if there’s no clear title available unless you are made fully aware of why and put procedures in place to make sure you are safe. If they tell you the vehicle is on finance and they are going to pay it off when they sell then that’s fine, but you need to make sure they don’t get your money until the finance has been cleared and the title is available. My article about selling a vehicle that hasn’t been paid off yet will give you an idea of how to navigate this situation and you can check it out right here.

Are you willing to negotiate the price? – Although nobody in their right mind is going to tell you their very best price before you go to see the car, they might tell you if they are open to negotiation on the asking price or not. This is important if you’ve seen a vehicle you like but it’s a little more than you want to pay or a little more than other very similar vehicles. Some sellers will be absolutely firm on their price, especially if they know they are selling at a low price to sell the vehicle fast. They may as well tell you this if it’s the case because there’s no point wasting your time and theirs.

Questions to ask when buying from a dealer

When I say a dealer, I’m referring to a credible business with a site and a sizeable inventory to choose from. I don’t mean someone who flips vehicles for an additional income or a trader that doesn’t have a lot.

What guarantee is there? – Any decent dealer is going to include some sort of guarantee or warranty with a used vehicle they sell, so it’s important to know the details. There can be a very big difference between what you might get from an independent used dealer and a franchise dealer with similar vehicles of similar ages and miles. The older the vehicle and the more miles it has on the odometer, the more important it is to know full details of how much warranty you are being offered.

Where has the vehicle come from? – A dealer isn’t forced to tell you where the vehicle came from or who the previous owner was, but why wouldn’t they if there’s nothing to hide? If it’s a trade-in from another customer or it’s a relatively young car from a closed auction there’s no issue. However, if it has come from a rental company or some other source it could and should have a bearing on your decision to buy or the price you are prepared to pay.

Can I have an AAA inspection carried out? – Now, I’m not going to suggest you actually need to have an AAA inspection carried out on a used car from a franchise dealer, but it’s worth asking the question just to get a “yes” so you know there’s nothing to hide.

What is your returns policy? – This is an important one, especially in the US where the retail consumer laws are not necessarily as strong as they are in some other countries around the world. Some dealers have things like 30-day return policy where you can return the vehicle within that period if there’s something wrong or you just don’t get on with it. The terms can and will vary massively, so it’s important to know where you stand. If all you have are your general legal rights and whatever warranty the vehicle comes with, you might want to weigh up the risks.

Can I see a history report? – All proper dealers will carry out a history check on every vehicle they take in to resell, so there should be no problem with them showing it to you. Some dealers will even display them in the window of each vehicle, so there’s no need to ask in those circumstances. This is obviously cheaper than carrying out checks yourself at your expense and it’s another reason to buy from a reputable dealer.

When is the next service due? – If you’re buying a relatively affordable vehicle the next service could be pretty expensive. The 48-month/60,000-mile service can be seriously expensive, so you need to know if the next service is due anytime soon. The next service could cost many hundreds of dollars, and if it’s due in a month or two you might want to look at another vehicle, ask for a reduction in price or to have the service carried out early.

Can something be fixed? – You might find something you’re not happy about with a used vehicle, but it might not be enough to put you off it entirely. For example, one of the tires might be quite worn but still legal, so would they be prepared to fit a new one to get the sale? The same goes for any issues with the bodywork, the interior, or any funny noises. It’s definitely worth asking, and all part of the negotiation process.

Don’t be afraid to ask

Remember, there really is no such thing as a stupid question, and the ones I’ve listed here and the things I’ve said to look out for with a used vehicle are by no means an exhaustive list. Always think about what’s important to you and what you want to know, and do as much research as you can before you inquire about buying any used vehicle.

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and now an automotive writer and journalist for the last 7 years

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