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10 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

Last updated 03/15/2024 by

Jessica Walrack
So, you’re thinking about buying a used car? It’s a wise idea considering new cars depreciate by 10% the minute you drive off the lot and an additional 10% during the first year of ownership.
When you buy a used vehicle, you let someone else absorb that initial loss. But what’s the catch? Well, you take on more risk as the condition of the car will depend on how well the previous owner cared for it. To help you find a reliable used car that will help you save, be sure to ask these 10 questions to ask when buying a used car.
Customers should compare the value of the car to the sales price to know if it is a good deal.

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#1 What is the vehicle’s value?

Jim Landy, CEO of SpringboardAuto, says this is one of the top questions to ask when buying a used car. He explains, “Customers should compare the value of the car to the sales price to know if it is a good deal.”
Many websitessuch as Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, AutoTrader, and CarFax—help you figure out the value of a vehicle. You can enter your zip code and the details about a car to get an accurate estimate.
Once you know the true value, you will be able to negotiate a fair sale price or walk away.
heck if the title is branded and clear of all liens,”

#2 Is the title clean and clear?

The next step is to “check if the title is branded and clear of all liens,” suggests Landy. A car with a clean (branded) title hasn’t been deemed a total loss by an insurance company.
And a car with a clear title doesn’t have any levies or liens from creditors. This ensures there are no legal questions regarding ownership.
Landy recommends asking to see the Carfax report to check the title along with:
  • Past owners.
  • Flood damage.
  • Accident history.
  • Airbag deployments.
  • Vehicle maintenance.
  • Faulty odometer settings.
  • If the car is a lemon.
Note: In most states, a car qualifies as a lemon if it has a substantial defect covered under the warranty and remains unfixed after numerous attempts.
The Carfax report will tell you if the title is clean and clear. It will also give you insight into the overall condition and history of the car.

#3 Are there any recalls on the car?

A recall is issued when a car fails to meet minimum safety requirements or presents an unreasonable safety risk as reported by either the manufacturer or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
As a result, manufacturers must announce the defects and remedy them. NHTSA provides a search tool you can use to check the recall and repair status on any vehicle.
Visit the page, enter a VIN, and it will search the past 15 years of recall history.

#4 Does the make and model have any common problems?

Once you’ve narrowed down the vehicles you want to buy, look up the common problems that owners experience with them.
For example, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee has transmission problems after 30,000 miles. And the 2016 Jeep Cherokee has an engine problem that occurs after about 25,000 miles.
Here is a list of the top 10 vehicles to avoid based on automotive complaints.
Once you’ve seen the problems, look up how much they will cost to fix. You don’t want to invest in a car that is due for an expensive problem soon (i.e., problems with the drivetrain or powertrain).

SuperMoney may receive compensation from some or all of the companies featured, and the order of results are influenced by advertising bids, with exception for mortgage and home lending related products. Learn more

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#5 Has the vehicle undergone the proper maintenance?

Check the records of the vehicle to find out if the previous owners kept up with the proper maintenance schedule. Additionally, pay attention to where the maintenance was performed.
Was it a dealership, an independent mechanic, or a solo contractor? Dealerships have the most credibility as they have to adhere to certain standards, whereas individuals are more unpredictable.
Based on industry standards here are the routine car maintenance recommendations:
The above are general recommendations. Be sure to check the owner’s manual of the car you are interested in to see the specific routine auto maintenance schedule.

#6 What problems/defects does the car have?

Most cars have their faults or defects, and some cause more concern than others. So make sure to find out everything that is wrong with your car of interest.
Defects may be due to an accident, user error, negligence, etc. For example, look at the tires. Turn the steering wheel all the way in one direction and run your hand over the tires to see if they have even wear.
If they are feathered, that’s a red flag. The car could have bad alignment, worn out parts, or it could’ve been in an accident.
Are there any strange sounds when you drive it? Does the steering wheel shake? What about rust or corrosion?
Check the door panels—are they all uniform? Do all the seat belts work? How about the airbags? The air conditioner? Locks? Handles? Seat controls? Windshield wipers? Sunroof?
Cars have many parts and features, and you’ll want to find out about any defects. Not only will these impact your experience with the car and the cost to keep it running, but they should be factored into the sale price as well.
Do a once-over, ask the person about any and all defects, and take the car to a mechanic of your choice for an inspection.
Once you have a full understanding of the car’s condition, analyze what you can live with and what you need to repair. Then, calculate the costs of the repairs to see if it’s worth it.

#7 How many miles does the car have?

Mileage is an important factor when buying a car.
The Federal Highway Administration states that the average annual mileage in the U.S. is 13,476. The average vehicle on the road is over 11 years old, as reported in a recent IHS Markit report.
And, according to Consumer Reports, most cars today can make it to 200,000 miles or more!
Of course, some vehicles will not last that long, while others will make it beyond 200,000 miles. It all depends on the reliability of the vehicle and how well the owners maintain it.
So, remember to check the mileage to figure out if it will be a good fit for your needs.
By doing so, you can figure out:
  1. How much the car is worth
  2. How long it will likely continue to operate
  3. Potential repairs/maintenance you will need to perform
  4. How much maintenance should have been performed up to this point

#8 When did the car last go through safety and emissions testing?

Many state and local governments require vehicles to undergo regular inspections to ensure they’re compliant with safety and emission requirements. So, you’ll want to see the latest certificate and to make sure it’s valid.
In California, for example, sellers must provide buyers with a smog inspection certificate at the time of sale, which is good for 90 days from the time of issuance.
Check the requirements for your state below:
Note: See your state laws for details and additional requirements. Cars often do not need to undergo these inspections if they are new, although it varies by state.

#9 Is the car under warranty?

Next, is the car under warranty? A warranty can save you money when something that’s covered goes wrong with the car. Instead of paying out-of pocket, you can just take it in to get fixed.
So be sure to find out if any warranty comes with the car and how long it lasts. Further, factor the warranty into the value of the car.
Should you buy an extended warranty if your car doesn’t have one? Read more about the pros and cons of an extended warranty here.

#10 What is the best way to finance the car?

After you’ve done your due diligence to determine that a car is reliable and a good investment, you’ll need to decide how to pay for it.
Is it better to buy a car with cash or a loan?
Well, if you have the cash on hand, that’s usually the best way because you won’t have to pay any interest or fees. But, what if you don’t have several thousand dollars lying around?
Then, it’s time to look into your financing options.
Many lenders provide loans for used cars whether you are buying from a dealer or private party. The trick is finding the one that will offer you the best deal.
Resist the temptation to go straight to the dealer for a loan. Instead, shop around with at least three other finance companies.
The truth is, auto loans are more accessible than ever with online companies competing for your business.
And you can find out what multiple companies will offer you in minutes using SuperMoney’s auto loan engine. It’s quick and won’t have any effect on your credit score!
Find your best rates here.

SuperMoney may receive compensation from some or all of the companies featured, and the order of results are influenced by advertising bids, with exception for mortgage and home lending related products. Learn more

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Jessica Walrack

Jessica Walrack is a personal finance writer at SuperMoney, The Simple Dollar,, Commonbond, Bankrate, NextAdvisor, Guardian, and many others. She specializes in taking personal finance topics like loans, credit cards, and budgeting, and making them accessible and fun.

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