When you’re ready to start searching for a used car, you’ve hopefully narrowed down your search to the make and model of a car you like, searched for makes and models that are known to last longer, don’t have obvious defects during certain model years, and are within your price range.
When you walk onto the used car lot, the dealer will show you either a car you’ve identified online, or will show you other cars they think you might like based on your budget and needs. When you’ve found a car that fits your needs, have your list of questions in hand.
Questions to ask when buying a used car:
1. What’s the car’s safety rating?
You can look this up yourself ahead of time by going to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website. If this is your first time encountering this make and model, however, ask the dealership for the car’s safety rating. They can look it up on the spot if they don’t know offhand.
2. What safety features are included?
Cars of the same make and model but in different years may have different safety features included. Older cars may not have backup cameras but may have anti-lock brakes. Ask for a rundown for this specific vehicle.
3. Is the car certified pre-owned (CPO)?
All certified pre-owned cars are used, but not all used cars are certified pre-owned. A certified pre-owned car means that a mechanic has inspected it thoroughly and made necessary repairs to sell. It won’t have fewer problems in the future than other similar cars, but having that certification sometimes comes with a warranty, and certainly comes with peace of mind that the car is in good shape at the time of sale.
4. How many miles does the car have?
This is a basic question that the dealer may answer before you even ask. The mileage gives you the chance to assume things about how the car was used or not used. If the car is 5 years old and has over 100,000 miles on it, then it may need some significant repairs due to heavy use, even though it’s a relatively new car.
5. Can you show me a Carfax report on the car?
Similar to mileage, a carfax report can tell you about the car’s history. How many accidents the car has been in, how many major repairs it underwent, etc. For instance, if a car is in a major accident and then repaired, there may still be weak spots in the interior that could lead to more frequent future repairs. A carfax report would show this.
6. Does the car have aftermarket parts?
When you ask about aftermarket parts you’re really asking about the car’s original warranty. If the car is only a couple of years old it may still have its manufacturer’s warranty on it, which could mean future repairs are covered. But some warranties are voided if there are aftermarket parts installed.
7. Has the car recently been serviced?
If you were buying a house you would want to know how long it had been since the roof was replaced, so you can calculate when you’ll need to replace the roof next. Asking about the car’s recent service will let you know which big items have been done so that you don’t have to, and what items will need to be done in the future.
8. Can I take this car for an independent inspection?
For cars that are older, or for cars that have a history of accidents, you may want your trusted mechanic (who will be the one doing repairs to the vehicle in the future) to take a look at it. They’ll give you an unbiased opinion and help you anticipate problems before they happen. Talk with your mechanic ahead of time about how it works.
9. Does the used car dealership offer a warranty? Or does the car come with one?
Ask about warranties you might be able to take advantage of. Used cars won’t have the same length of warranty as a new car. But it’s not unheard of for a dealership to extend a warranty to a car for the first month or so of ownership. Ask what this dealership can offer you to help you feel secure with the car from the beginning.
10. What is the car’s MSRP?
MSRP is the Manufacturer’s suggested retail price. This price is calculated to include profit margins for the manufacturer, the dealer, and other people involved in the making and selling of this car. It’s the same as a sticker price or window price.
11. Are you open to negotiation?
Negotiation is an art form, but you can dip your toes in by having your ducks in order before you even get to the table. Research prices of similar cars from other dealers nearby. Look up the Kelly Blue Book or J.D. Power value of the car. Make sure you know your budget and your max price. The key to negotiation is your ability to walk away if the other party still asks for too high a price.
12. Can I trade in my current vehicle?
If you’re at the negotiating table, trading in your current car will allow you to put that price into lowering the cost of the car you’re about to purchase.
13. What incentives or rebates are you offering?
The dealer may tell you about these incentives before you ask. Used cars may have fewer rebates available than newer cars, but they could lower the price of the car to make it affordable.
14. Do you offer financing?
You may be able to negotiate a more favorable financing plan with a lower interest rate based on your credit score, the amount of down payment you’re willing to pay, the length of the term of the financing, etc.
15. What other fees will I need to pay?
Make sure you ask about all the fees you’ll need to pay while calculating the cost of the car. If you go out to lunch, you know that a ten-dollar sandwich will actually end up being $10.60 with tax, and if it’s a delivery there will be a delivery fee and driver tip, and soon your $10 sandwich is actually $15. Would you have bought the sandwich if it was advertised as $15 from the start?
Taxes and fees add up. Make sure they enter your price calculations early and often.
At the end of the day...
Millions of people buy used every year. It's a great and affordable way to go if you'd like a vehicle. If this is your first time, or if you want to make sure you’re going to get a safe, reliable car for a good price, be sure to remember these questions to ask when buying a used car.