You find an ad for a used car that looks great and begin daydreaming about taking it for a spin. But first, remember: Every used car has a history.
“New cars are all exactly alike, since they come directly from the factory,” says Mark Holthoff, an editor for online used-car shopping community Klipnik. “But one used car can be vastly different from another.” 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.
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.
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 — says Josh Sadlier, senior manager of content strategy at Edmunds.com. 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? “If the seller doesn’t really have many details about the car or only owned it a short time, that’s a warning sign,” Holthoff says. “I’m looking for a seller who really cared for the car for several years or more.” When searching for good used cars, he recommends using keywords like “original owner” or “service records” or even “garaged.”
Why are you selling the car? “This is very predictable, since many sellers will have a convenient story at the ready,” Sadlier says. But he recommends relying on your "spidey senses" when deciding whether to trust the answer — and 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.