The information you get from a seller about a used car (or, in some cases, lack thereof) can be just as valuable as any findings that arise from an inspection or a test drive. In fact, you should diligently interview the seller about the vehicle before you even go see it.
Any question that yields insight into the history and functionality of a used car is a question worth asking, but we've listed some important ones to help you initiate the conversation whether you’re buying from a dealer or private seller:
1. Do You Have the Title or Proof of Ownership?
If you’re buying from a dealership, the title should be in its name. If you’re buying from a private seller, the title may be in their name or in a lienholder’s name if they financed the vehicle and have yet to pay off the loan balance. The conversation should be over if the answer to this question is “no.”
2. Why Are You Selling the Car?
Listen to both the answer the seller gives and the way it’s given. A vague answer or unsure tone could be cause for concern that the vehicle isn’t in good condition or hasn’t been properly maintained.
3. How Many Miles Has the Car Been Driven?
Mileage will help you determine the used car’s value, and you can get an estimate using a car pricing guide. Walk away if the number the seller gives you and the number on the odometer don’t match up. Also, follow up with the seller for an explanation if the average annual mileage is drastically high or low – roughly 12,000 miles per year is considered normal.
4. Can You Describe the Vehicle’s Condition?
Decide whether any imperfections affect your interest in the car or a potential offer. Don’t be afraid to press the seller about specific aspects of the vehicle’s condition, such as its mechanical functionality. Be wary if the seller is evasive about this question or if the description appears to be dishonest when you see the car.
5. How Has the Car Been Maintained?
Insight into how well the car has been cared for is important in assessing its value and remaining lifespan. Self-admitted negligence should be a red flag. Validate the information you’re given for this question as you inspect the car if you proceed to see it in person.
6. Do You Have Service Records?
If sellers proclaim that they’ve carefully maintained the vehicle, see if they have the service records to support it.
7. Are You the Original Owner?
Dealing with single-owner vehicles is ideal for learning as much as possible about a vehicle. A seller isn’t who isn’t the original owner may not have full insight into its history.
8. Has the Vehicle Been in an Accident?
Cars that have been involved in accidents tend to have problems more frequently and, as a result, are lower in value. If the seller tells you the vehicle is accident free, but your inspection proves otherwise, don’t be afraid to walk away.
9. Can I Have a Certified Mechanic Perform an Inspection?
If you’ve seen the car, test-driven it and are serious about buying it, you should have a trusted mechanic inspect it. Be skeptical of sellers who are unsure about fulfilling this request, especially if you’ve offered to include them in the process -- accompanying you to the inspection and sharing the finalized report with them. They might have something to hide.
10. How Much Are You Asking for the Car?
Ask this question in a way that allows leeway for negotiating the price. Find out how the seller formulated the asking price and compare it with the car-pricing-guide value you calculated earlier to help you shape an offer.