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Buying a Used Car: What Questions Should You Ask a Private Seller?

There are a number of questions you’ll likely have when it comes time to buy a used car. What follows is a rundown of what to ask a seller before you’ve seen the vehicle, once you’ve looked at it and when you’re ready to make an offer or take ownership.

The Basics

These are questions worth asking even before you’ve traveled to see the car, as they can help rule out cars with a questionable history or looming, costly maintenance.

Why Are You Selling the Car?

This one seems so obvious, and yet it is rarely asked. If you’re buying from a private party, it is more than acceptable to ask why a car is being sold. In some cases, you may learn something applicable to you — perhaps the car is too small for the seller’s growing family, which may also give you pause, or perhaps costly maintenance is looming.

If you’re at a dealership, you can tailor the query to ask if they know why the car was traded in. There’s a chance that the salesperson is the one who took the car in on trade, and they may be able to provide some hints about its past.

How Long Have You Had the Car?

If the seller recently acquired the car and is trying to sell it, that may be cause for concern. Most people keep cars for at least a few years, though there are plenty of justifiable reasons for selling a car. No matter what, it’s good to know the car’s history.

Where Did You Get the Car?

The seller may have bought the car new, or they may have bought it from another private party. Neither is a red flag, but they may open up more questions — such as what do they know about the car’s history under previous ownership.

Is a Vehicle History Report Available?

Two major services offer vehicle history reports that pull information from state DMVs as well as dealerships and service centers. Carfax is the 800-pound gorilla, and its reports are the most comprehensive, though the AutoCheck service offered by Experian can also help fill in some gaps.

Don’t consider buying a used car without a vehicle history report. Most car dealerships include one or even both in their online listings, while savvy sellers will sometimes provide their own. If you’re very interested in a car, the comfort a vehicle history report provides is more than worth the cost.

Has the Car Been Wrecked, and, if So, What Was Repaired?

The vehicle history report may indicate that the car was in an accident, or there may be some telltale signs such as paint that doesn’t quite match up or wavy body panels. Even if you don’t see any indications of prior damage, however, it’s always a good idea to ask if the car was wrecked and what was repaired.

Ask for photos showing the wreck — many private owners will have taken these — and especially for receipts from when the repairs were performed.

What Maintenance Have You Done?

Even the simplest cars with the best reputation for reliability still need to be kept up. Ask both about basic maintenance — oil changes, tire rotations and the like — and also about bigger, costlier services that car owners are more likely to neglect.

Additionally, do a little research about major service intervals for the car you’re shopping, and ask the seller if these have been performed. For instance, a tune-up or a belt replacement recommended by the manufacturer may be looming, and these services on modern cars can cost hundreds or thousands. Knowing that these services are due may give you some bargaining power, or they may convince you to look for a better-maintained vehicle.

Has Anything Major Been Replaced?

You’re looking for both typical wear items — think tires, brakes, shocks and even wiper blades — as well as uncommon items that may suggest a car has had a checkered past. Newer brakes and tires will save you hundreds of dollars in maintenance, though it’s good to have service records to back this up, especially for items hard to see like brake pads.

Other replacement items such as suspension components for only one side of the vehicle or glass may hint at prior damage.

Does Everything Work?

You may be surprised at how many sellers leave big-ticket items out of their listing, so it’s worth asking if everything is working before you spend time and effort testing out the car.

Are Service Records Included?

Not everyone keeps their service receipts, but they really should. A folder full of regular service receipts suggests a more meticulous owner, and these items are good to have for a number of reasons.

For one, they’ll increase the value of the car when you go to sell it. Also, service records can help you or your mechanic pinpoint what work has been performed and what the car might need next.

Does the Car Pass the Emissions Test?

In some areas, emissions testing is the responsibility of the seller, who should hand you a recently passed test that you will need to register the car.

If testing isn’t their responsibility, it’s still a good idea to ask them if they’ve had the car tested recently. If they have had trouble getting the car to pass testing, that means you might face the same hurdles. Emissions testing can also reveal potential problems with the way a car is running.

Is There a Warranty?

Private sellers won’t offer you a warranty, but the car they are selling may still be eligible for transfer of either the manufacturer’s or a third party’s warranty. A manufacturer’s warranty is a good bet since any franchised dealer is obligated to honor it. But find out the name of the third-party warranty provider and contact them to ensure the warranty can be used at your preferred mechanic or dealership and that coverage is indeed transferable.

Many car dealerships will provide a short warranty on a used car, though these are usually limited in scope. Read the fine print carefully.

Do You Take Trade-Ins?

A private party won’t take your car in trade, but most dealerships will. Not all, however. Some dealers are small and may specialize in a certain brand or type of car, and so it’s good to ask ahead of time just in case the value of your trade-in is a major factor.

Before, During and After the Test Drive

The seller has answered the questions above to your satisfaction, so it’s time to go check out the car. You’ll likely have a few questions for the seller before you’ve even driven the car, and there are a few you should ask afterward.

How Does This or That Work?

Don’t be afraid to ask the seller how certain functions on the car work. Nobody knows the car better than a private owner, and dealers tend to be familiar enough with a wide range of used cars that they can help explain more complex functions, such as seat adjustments or menus on a touchscreen.

Are There Any Modifications?

Some modifications will be obvious — fancy wheels or an upgraded stereo interface, for instance. Others may not be so visible, so you should ask the seller if they have altered the car.

Don’t be put off by modifications, though you should ask the seller when and how the modifications were performed. A remote-start system, for instance, is a nice feature in summer or winter. Others, such as a poorly installed aftermarket audio system, may cause problems down the road, or they may void the warranty.

Can I Have an Independent Pre-Purchase Inspection Performed?

Mechanics and dealerships will typically charge a modest fee to go over a car in detail for an hour or two and perform a test drive. These experts have experience with dozens, if not hundreds, of nearly identical cars, and their knowledge is invaluable.

Specialists will be able to hook specialized hardware to a car to read for any fault codes, so ask the shop before you agree to take the car there. Some higher-performance cars also store even more data that can point to how the car was driven, which is valuable information to have.

Typically, buyers pay for a pre-purchase inspection. If a seller balks at having their car inspected, they may have something to hide.

May I Test Drive the Car?

Of course, you will want to test the car out. Don’t be afraid to take it on roads with which you are familiar. A car is a big purchase, and you’ll want more than just a ride around the block to see if everything is functioning correctly and if you really like the vehicle.

A dealership may even allow you to take the car out for a few hours or even overnight on your own, so don’t be afraid to ask for an extended drive.

If a seller refuses a test drive, there had better be a good reason!

Will You Fix This Problem or Perform This Service Before I Buy the Car?

If you’ve found something that’s not right about the car, you don’t necessarily need to keep shopping. Many dealerships — and even some private sellers — will work with you to make a car right. In some cases, the dealer or seller may not even be aware that an item is inoperative, so consider giving them the benefit of the doubt first.

If they do agree to fix the fault or perform a service, make sure they provide you with a record.

You’re Ready to Make the Deal

The car has passed muster, and you’re ready to make an offer. Hold your horses! You still have a few important things to ask about.

May I See the Title?

Don’t exchange money without visually inspecting the title, a crucial piece of paper you’ll need to transfer to your name. When you look at the title, make sure the name listed is the person actually selling you the car. Don’t be afraid to ask the seller for their identification if you’re suspicious. If the person selling the car isn’t the person on the title, they’re likely engaging in title jumping, which is a felony in most states. Title jumping occurs when someone buys a car and then tries to resell it without titling it in their name, and it’s a common practice among "car flippers" looking to make a buck or two.

If the names match, look to see if the title is "branded." A branded title will show terms such as "rebuilt from salvage" or "flood," though exact terminology varies by state. Knowing you’re buying a car with a branded title is another topic entirely, but most car buyers will want a "clean" title that has never been totaled by insurance as a result of a crash or natural disaster.

Next, look at the mileage section. Does the number shown make sense given how long the seller has had the car and what figure is shown on the odometer? Many states replace a mileage number with the word "exempt" after a certain number of years, so don’t be concerned if that’s what you see. But if the number is higher on the title than it is on the odometer, that’s a strong indicator of odometer fraud.

Finally, flip the title over and make sure there are no signatures. If someone else has signed the section reserved for the buyer, you will not be able to transfer the title to your name. The seller will need to replace the title with one before they can legally sell the car.

When in doubt, contact your local DMV with any questions as titles are not standardized across all states, and some states don’t even require a title on an older vehicle.

If there is a lien on the car, you’ll want to contact the financial institution with which the car is financed to find out how and when you’ll receive your copy of the title.

What Other Items Are Included With the Sale?

A car usually comes with more than just a key. Ask the seller what extras are included. You may be surprised to find that a seller has valuable items they’ve either forgotten to disclose or may have forgotten about entirely. At the very least, you’ll want every key the seller has plus the owner’s manual, but you may also find that a seller has tucked a cargo cover, extra floor mats, CD changer cartridges and even seasonal wheels and tires.

If only one key fob is included or the seller has lost the manual, you can use those as bargaining points since you’ll likely want to replace them anyway. Consider finding the retail price of common items such as keys, manuals, roof rack crossbars and cargo covers ahead of time just in case.

Dealerships will generally have everything in the car, though it’s still worth asking them if there’s anything missing that they’ve tucked away.

Is the Car Returnable?

Private parties are unlikely to let you return the car if, after a few days, you don’t like it, but some dealerships now offer returns. Ask for details on any such program first, of course, and don’t treat it like a three-day free rental car. But if there’s something you really don’t like about the car, a dealership that offers returns can save you a lot of money and headaches.

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