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12 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

12 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car
Nancy Bilyeau
Nancy BilyeauUpdated February 17, 2023
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With the used-vehicle market finally starting to cool off, 2023 could be a better time to buy a used car. Consumers may not be able to exert the buying power of 2019–before COVID and the pandemic shutdown strangled supply and sent prices soaring–but conditions are more in the buyer’s favor.When will used car prices drop even further? The market saw a 12-month drop of 8.8% in December 2022 readings. Experts say we could see more price decreases in buying used cars because new car inventory is roaring back. The decline in used car prices is helping to take a little pressure off of inflation.However, some used cars need to be financed, and higher interest rates present their own challenge. Another thing to watch out for is a drop in the quality of trade-ins. Some of these problems are not obvious. It’s never been more important to get the best possible vehicle for your money. Here’s what to look for when buying a used car.

When Buying a Used Car, the Questions Matter

This is not the time for shyness. Bring a friend with you to make sure you stick with your questions. These 12 will help you make a decision.

1. Why Are They Selling the Car?

Listen carefully to the answer and let the prospective seller talk as long as possible. Within the explanation could be important clues as to why they’re offloading this vehicle besides a desire for a new set of wheels.

2. What Is the Value of The Car By the Book? 

Don’t rely on the car owner for this answer. You need independent information to help with negotiating. Go to websites like Kelley Blue Book to get a range of value for the car. This is also a prime opportunity to ask how they arrived at the asking price.

3. What Is the Mileage?

Everyone knows that years cause automobile wear and tear. Americans drive an average of 14,263 miles a year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Do the multiplication. Does the number they give you make sense considering how old the car is?Recommended: Financing a Used Car with Over 100K Miles

4. How Many Owners Has the Car Had?

Is the car’s current owner the first one? If not, does the seller know how many people have owned it previously? How long has the seller owned the vehicle? If someone is trying to sell a car after owning it for a year or even less time, there might be some big problems.

5. Do They Have the Title in Hand? 

A longtime owner might not be sure of the location of the title. The problem is, a seller might not have the title because there’s an outstanding loan from the bank. A clear title is free of any doubts about the ownership of the vehicle. If the seller has it, you can be certain that someone won't appear to try to take back the vehicle after you've paid for it.Recommended: What to Do if You Lost Your Car Title

6. Do They Have Service/Maintenance Records?

 If the seller doesn't have records of maintenance for the car, all is not lost. You might be able to obtain the records from an authorized dealer for the vehicle's make. The bottom line: Cars need regular tune-ups and oil changes. If a vehicle hasn't been maintained regularly, it could mean you will end up with costly repairs.Recommended: Guide to Car Depreciation

7. Has the Car Been in Any Accidents?

A dented bumper isn’t a tragedy. But if the car has been in a big accident and needed bodywork or even a new engine, you really need to know that. The repairs might have left lingering problems. 

8. Is the Vehicle Under Warranty? 

A private seller may possibly not know this. But a dealership will certainly have access to warranty status. If a car is still covered, it could save you money. If you’re working with a dealer, you may be able to buy an extended warranty.

9. Has the Car Ever Been in a Flood?

If the car has been exposed to flooding, it could cause problems with the electrical system. Look out for mold and rust, too. To find out if there is rest, you may need to look at the car’s underbody with a flashlight.

10. How Would the Purchase Affect Your Car Insurance Premiums?

Your insurance premiums may go up with this purchase. Insurers look at the age of the car as well as make and model. Get in touch with an independent insurance agent before you close the deal to hear the numbers.

11. Can You Take the Car for a Test Drive? 

Being able to sit in the car and drive it is crucial. A test drive is the only way to find out how the car handles. Plus it will reveal any issues the seller may not be aware of (or is hiding). If a seller refuses to allow a test drive, that's a bad sign.

12. Can You Take the Car to a Mechanic for an Independent Inspection? 

You should only ask this if you’re serious about buying a used car. But if you are, then you should ask–and if you get any pushback, that, too, is a bad sign.

The Takeaway

With used car prices dropping, it could be time for you to make a move–but you need to arm yourself with smart and perceptive questions that drill down on the car’s quality and condition. And it’s essential you listen closely to the answers and proceed with prudence in making your decision.Sometimes you need a car loan to afford a vehicle, used or new. Refinancing your auto loan has pros and cons. If you’re interested in refinancing a car loan, you might want to shop around and compare refinancing offers from multiple lenders. Lantern by SoFi ‘s online lending tool can help you compare lenders to ensure you’re getting the most competitive rate for refinancing a car loan and the best terms.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much mileage is too much for a used car?
Is it ever a good idea to buy a used car?
When will used car prices drop?
Photo credit: iStock/cthoemke

About the Author

Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau writes about student loans, mortgages, car insurance, medical debt and many other finance topics for Lantern. A veteran of the magazine business, she has edited stories on personal finance for Good Housekeeping and DuJour magazines and has written articles for The Wall Street Journal, Readers' Digest, Parade, Town & Country and Lifetime/A&E, among others. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan.
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