Buying a used car: what questions should you ask?

Buying a used car is often a fun and exciting process, but it’s important to realize that this excitement can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s easy (if you’re like me) to find yourself giddy at the prospect of picking up a new car, but on the other hand, it’s just as easy to let that excitement cloud your judgement, and allow you to rush into something that might not actually be all that great of a buy.

This article though, is intended to help prevent that from happening to you, by offering a list questions that you should absolutely be asking the seller of the car. So, even in the midst of your car-buying frenzy of excitement, check back here to make sure you’re asking the questions that you should be, and not letting things slide unnoticed just because you’re itching to get into a new-to-you car. 

A quick disclaimer before we get started: one thing that I want to avoid in compiling this list of must-ask questions is listing questions that are basically givens (or that most other online publications that I’ve seen will tell you to ask). By that I mean, I’m not going to tell you to ask what the mileage is, or what kind of shape the car is in, if the title is clean, or if the car has been in an accident.

These are all questions that should either be a part of the listing, or available on a CarFax report, which you should run on any used car you’re serious about buying. So, with that out of the way, let’s get into the less obvious questions that you need to be asking when buying a used car. 

Do you owe any money on the car? 

buying a used car—money, keys, and bank

One question you should always be asking is whether the seller owes any money on the car. If they do, it will complicate the buying process slightly, because you now have to work with the current owner’s lender, not just the owner themselves. This is no reason to shy away from buying a car. But it is an important piece of information to know, so that you don’t pay someone who doesn’t actually own the car. And the buying process might be a bit more intricate than if the seller owned the car outright. Another way to pose this question is to simply ask: “Do you have the title in-hand?” 

Have you done any work on the car yourself?

buying a used car—man working on white VW bug in garage.

While a CarFax report will show any work done at dealers or independent mechanics, it likely won’t show any work done by the seller themselves (unless they personally update the CarFax report). This means that the CarFax report might indicate that the vehicle has been maintained less carefully than it actually has.

So if you come across a CarFax report that shows that the car has been sparsely serviced, ask the seller if they do maintenance themselves, as this would explain any gaps in service history. Additionally, this question will give you an idea of how the previous owner treated the car. If they have the presumed mechanical know-how required to maintain or repair a car themselves, chances are they treated it with some mechanical sympathy too, which can be a plus when buying a used car. 

Do you keep any service records personally?

While a CarFax report will show you when, where, and what services were performed, nothing beats having hard copies of the actual service records in your hand (bonus points if they’re neatly organized in a binder!). This is because actual dealer or shop service records will give you more detailed reports regarding service and repairs. Additionally, if something was replaced, service records will often include the exact part numbers of what was replaced. For example, where CarFax might say something like “Cooling system serviced” a service record would say “Radiator hose PN: 123-456-789 replaced, coolant flushed.” This sort of detailed information is only available on service records, and it’s valuable information, at that. 

Has the car ever been modified? 

It’s always important to know if a car that you’re buying has been modified at all, as modifications can indicate a number of different things, depending on what has been modified. If the seller simply replaced the wheels, or made other cosmetic augmentations, I wouldn’t be worried.

In fact, this can in many cases indicate that the seller had a passion for the car and likely treated it more gently than people who just use their cars as an appliance. However, if the engine, engine computer or suspension has been upgraded, that means that the car is performing at a level above which it was intended to perform. Which means it’s likely the seller drove the car more aggressively than someone who doesn’t modify their car.

Again, this may not be a bad thing: most people that modify their cars do so because they love them, and they probably take better care of the car than someone who leaves their car stock (generally speaking). However, if you’re not into the aftermarket modification scene yourself, you’d probably be better suited to buy a car that hasn’t been modified. Regardless of the answer, knowing if the car has been modified will give you an idea of how the seller treated the car. 

Is there anything else that I should know about this car?

While this seems like a very straightforward question, it’s a great way to make sure that you’re covering all of your bases. If you ask this question to honest seller, you’ll get an answer to every question on this list as well as many other questions that you probably wouldn’t even think to ask.

More often than not, the answer to this question will probably be yes, and that you’ll learn something new about the car. Again, if the seller is honest, they’ll take a minute to think before replying, and probably come up with something that you should know that hasn’t been mentioned yet. Whether it be that a certain small thing doesn’t work, or that the seller recently had the front bumper re-sprayed, the more information that you can get on the car, the better! 

Bonus: one question that you shouldn’t ask

Now that we’ve gone over some of the most important, less-obvious questions that you should be asking the seller of a used car, I want to take a moment to bring your attention one question that you shouldn’t be asking, even though it’s probably the number one most common question that sellers are asked. That question is “Why are you selling the car?” I’ll give you an answer right here that is universally true: none of your business! If the seller doesn’t offer this information up themselves, it’s none of your business why they’re selling it. It really doesn’t matter to you as a buyer anyway. I say this because often car sales are a matter of personal finance decisions, or personal life decisions. Neither of those are the business of the buyer. 

Final thoughts

If there’s one thing to takeaway here, let it be this: information is king when buying a used car. Ask all of the above questions as well as the more basic ones, and read the listing carefully. Take your time getting to know the seller and the car. Buying a car is a major investment, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t like the answers!  

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