How to ensure you’re not driving away in a lemon.
Finding the perfect used car can take days or even weeks — and once you’ve found it, it can be tempting to grab the deal before it’s gone. But you’ll want to question the seller or dealership to ensure the car isn’t going to fall apart within a few months of owning it.
1. Do you currently have the title?
When you buy from a dealership, it should be able to show you the title in the dealership’s name. But if you buy from a private seller, make sure they have a physical copy of the title and that it’s in their name. The title could still be in the lender’s name if they haven’t fully paid off their car loan.
If this is the case, ask about when they plan on paying it off. Otherwise, you won’t be able to legally buy the car. If the seller is unable or unwilling to provide proof of title, go somewhere else.
2. How was this car maintained?
This question is especially critical for older cars, but every used car has a maintenance history you should be aware of. Ask if it was serviced by a dealership or an independent mechanic, and make sure maintenance is up to date — the owner’s manual should have a schedule. If you have any questions the seller is unable to answer, ask to speak with the mechanic who most recently serviced the car.
3. Are there any service records available?
Ask if the dealership or seller has service records for you to browse. Not only does this show that the car has been serviced and maintained — critical for the longevity of any vehicle — but you’ll also be able to note if there have been any mechanical issues in the past.
However, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker if the car doesn’t have a detailed service history available. After all, a dealership may not have received these upon purchasing the vehicle, and a private seller may not have kept detailed records even if they did regularly service their car.
4. What is this car’s accident history?
Similar to service records, you’ll want to ask for a vehicle history report. This should list any accidents the vehicle has been in and any repairs that have been made. But don’t stop there. Not every minor ding and scrape winds up on a vehicle history report. Ask the owner about any minor accidents the car may have been involved in that weren’t reported — even something as small as backing into a mailbox.
5. What is the ownership history?
Ownership history can vary widely between vehicles, but a good rule of thumb is that you want to find a car where the owner maintained it for several years before selling it. A long ownership history is preferable — it indicates the car has lasted and that there are likely no major mechanical problems that may be hidden. If the car has changed hands multiple times, you may want to reconsider buying it.
6. Is it still under warranty?
If you’re picking up a newer used car, ask the seller if it’s still under warranty. Some manufacturers will allow you to transfer a warranty to a new owner. And if you’re buying a certified preowned (CPO) car, it will come with its own warranty. You should also ask about any recalls the model may have had in the past.
7. Are there any features that don’t work?
It may not be the thing that stops you from buying a car, but you should still be aware of any broken or defective features. Things like a CD player that doesn’t work, a blown speaker or a faulty AC system can all impact your driving experience.
8. Will I be able to take a test-drive?
If the seller is unwilling to let you test-drive the car, don’t buy it. The test-drive is one of the most critical components of buying any car, so you’ll want to be thorough when you do take it for a spin.
Note the car’s performance, any components that don’t seem to be working properly and how you feel driving it. Starting the drive with a checklist of items you want to test is an easy way to stay on track — and potentially add more questions before you buy the car.
9. Can I have the car checked by a mechanic?
It can be a red flag if a private seller or dealership isn’t willing to let you get the car inspected by your own mechanic. This is true even for a dealership that has its own in-house mechanic. Ask if you can bring a mechanic to look at the car, visit a local auto repair shop as part of your test-drive or use a mobile inspection service. If you’re unable to get the car looked over before you buy it, you might want to find a more flexible seller.
10. Why are you selling this car?
This question is best for private sales. Some owners may have the answer ready — and it may be something along the lines of wanting to upgrade — but you should still go with your gut. If the story seems fake or too complex, consider the seller’s answers to the other questions on this page before you buy.
11. Why did you choose this price?
Finally, ask why the seller chose a certain price for the car. Did they do their research using Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds? If it’s below market value, is there a reason? If it’s above market value, does it have any special features or add-ons? Do your due diligence and check with pricing guides yourself — it can mean the difference between getting a fair deal during negotiations and getting stuck with a used car that doesn’t hold its value.
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Buying a used car that’s not a lemon takes more than just luck. Knowing the right questions to ask can ensure you’re getting a car that meets your needs and that the price is fair. You can find even more tips with our guide to buying a used car. Or if you’re ready to make a purchase, compare used car loan providers to find a competitive deal.
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