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New cars are all alike. They come directly from the factory. But every used car has a history.
For example, one might have been in an accident while another was untouched. One might have been parked on the street while another was garaged. One might have been serviced regularly while another was neglected.
It's up to you to find any possible problem areas before you buy.
When buying a used car from a dealer, you won't have the benefit of much information. The dealer either took the car as a trade-in or bought it at an auction. In these cases, running a vehicle history report and having a mechanic inspect it is probably the best you can do.
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Buying a used car from a private seller is another story, because he or she has owned and driven the vehicle. You'll still want to review the vehicle history report if you're serious about buying it. But first you should ask a few questions about the car’s ownership history and its current condition.
Buying a used car from a private seller? Finance with a private party loan
How was the car maintained? Find out if it was serviced at a dealership, by an independent mechanic or a "shade tree" mechanic — one not affiliated with a garage. Also ask if the maintenance is up-to-date. Some sellers will even suggest you speak to the mechanic who worked on the car.
Are service records available? Hopefully, the answer to this question is, “Yes. All the records are in a folder and you’re welcome to look it over.” This tells you the seller probably has serviced the car regularly.
Has it been in any accidents? In some cases, accidents are reported on a vehicle history report — but don’t assume these reports catch everything. If the car was in an accident, find out how it was damaged and how it was fixed.
What features don't work the way they're supposed to? Older used cars nearly always have something wrong with them. It might not be a deal breaker — for example, if it's a malfunctioning CD player. But other defects can come as annoying surprises, such as weak air conditioning, blown speakers or missing pixels in displays.
Is there any reason you wouldn’t drive the car coast-to-coast tomorrow? This is a fun question and sometimes throws the seller off balance. But if the answer is a resounding “No, there’s nothing wrong with the car,” that’s a nice vote of confidence.
What is the ownership history? Is the current owner the first? If not, does the seller know how many people owned it before? How long has the seller owned the vehicle? A short period could indicate trouble. Consider using keywords like “original owner” or “service records” or even “garaged” to find cars without a checkered past.
Why are you selling the car? The answer is usually predictable, but the answer may help you decide whether to trust the seller.
How did you arrive at this price? If you’ve asked all the above questions, and you’re getting serious about buying the car, find out how the seller priced it. Many people simply pick a figure out of the air. If the seller says he or she used a pricing guide, you can double check to see if the price is accurate.
Can I take the car to a mechanic for an inspection? Again, ask this only if you’re serious about buying. Most reputable sellers won’t balk at this request. If there’s hesitation or pushback, that’s a warning sign.
Do you have the title in hand? A longtime owner might not know where the title is hiding. Or a seller might not have the title if there’s an outstanding loan from the bank. There are ways to work around both these problems, but knowing the status of the title early on will help you decide if the car is worth the extra time and hassle.