used car checklist

Questions to Ask before Looking at a Car

If you’re considering buying a used car from a private seller, there are several important questions you should ask before you even go see the car. By asking these questions first, you can eliminate cars you’d never consider and save yourself plenty of time and frustration.

Why are you selling the car?

  • This question can reveal a lot about both the car and the seller. Does the seller fix salvaged cars and sell them? Did the seller just buy a new car or is he selling on behalf of a relative? Knowing why the seller is getting rid of the car can help you negotiate a fair price and think through the risks.

Has this car been in an accident?

  • A collision should be a major red flag when buying a used car. Cars that have been in accidents may be fixed up to look like new on the outside, but still require major work under the hood. Of course, not all accidents are deal breakers, but you should try to get as much information as you can about any past collisions.

I see you have the vehicle listed at $XXXX. Would it still be worth my time to see the car if I could only go up to $XXXX?

  • Most of the time, the seller will answer “yes” to this question. This is important, because the price you threw out is now the new top price point for the vehicle, and you can start your negotiations from your price rather than the listed price.

Can I have this vehicle inspected by my mechanic?

  • If the seller says anything besides “yes,” walk away immediately. You don’t need to deal with someone who isn’t willing to have a car inspected by an expert.

Do you have service records for the car?

  • In the uncertain world of used car sales, documentation and service records are like gold. If you discover a car has been taken care of with regular oil changes and routine maintenance, you can expect it to last much longer than a car that goes 10,000 miles between oil changes and skips preventative maintenance work.

What is the car’s VIN?

  • A car’s VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number, is its own unique 17-character number. This number should be listed on the driver’s side of the dashboard by the windshield. After you discover a car’s VIN, you can use it to check the vehicle’s history through services like Carfax. This history can be invaluable for discovering inconsistencies in the seller’s story and turning up red flags like accidents and odometer rollbacks.

Can I take this for a test drive?

  • No matter how much you trust the seller, never agree to purchase a vehicle without first taking it for a test drive. Test drives can turn up a number of problems that a mechanic could never discover through a visual inspection. Plus, how can you know if a car handles to your preferences if you never drive it?

When were the brakes/tires replaced?

  • Brakes and tires are two components that need to be replaced every few years. If they are worn by the time you buy the car, you’ll have to replace them, adding to the cost of the vehicle. Feel free to use worn brakes or tires as a negotiation tool.

How long have you owned the car?

  • Short ownership is a red flag that should spur follow-up questions. The most ideal situation is buying a car from the original owner who took great care of it.

Any outstanding loans or liens on the car?

  • A lien on a car can turn into a messy situation. Save yourself the hassle of scheduling an appointment to look at a car with a lien on it.

How many miles are on the car?

  • If it’s not listed in the ad, make sure you ask how many miles are on the car. This number can be just as important as the vehicle’s year.

Has it been smoked in?

  • Cigarette odor is notoriously difficult to remove. If you’re a non-smoker, make sure you ask if a car has been smoked in, or you could be in for a nasty surprise when the seller’s air freshener wears out.

Ask about features that are important to you.

  • Is cruise control important to you? Can you live without power windows or an iPod connection? Can you drive stick shift? Make sure you ask if a vehicle is equipped with features are important to you and if these features work.

Is there anything that I should know about the car?

Finally, simply ask if there is anything else you should know about the car. The seller may not offer up anything, but many times, they’ll bring up repairs that are needed or features that weren’t discussed before.