When it comes to negotiations, the person with the most knowledge wins. That’s especially true when you’re shopping around for a car!
So if you’re thinking about buying a Honda Civic, you need to learn everything you can about—you guessed it—Honda Civics. And what’s the fastest way to learn about a car? You ask questions! Ask your buddy at work who owns a Civic. Ask the car salesman who’s trying to sell you one. And don’t forget about good ole Google!
But there are some things Google can’t answer—like why a seller is selling this particular car or what’s happening under the hood. Sometimes the best thing you can do is show up, ask the seller your questions, and then be quiet and let them talk.
What kind of questions? We’re glad you asked! Here’s a list you can pose to the seller (and yourself) before you decide whether or not to buy their used car. Then, you can drive off the lot knowing you’ve found a reliable set of wheels instead of a lemon.
1. Why are they selling the car?
This is a good way to get to know the seller and understand the reason behind their desire to sell the car. Maybe the family just gave birth to their first child and they need an SUV instead of that two-door coupe—in which case their loss is your gain!
Dave's easiest money-saving tip: See if you're over paying for car insurance.
But if they break out in a sweat or quickly change the subject, little red flags should start waving frantically in your head. They might be trying to cut their losses with a car that’s been giving them headaches.
2. How old is the car?
Thanks to depreciation, most new cars lose 60% of their value after five years.1 You can use the car’s age—and how that particular make and model loses value over time—to your advantage when you’re negotiating for a better price.
So do your homework before you drive up to the dealership or meet with that seller from Craigslist. That way, you’ll know if their sticker price is legit.
3. What’s the car’s mileage?
Mileage matters. According to Ramsey Solutions Research, the average millionaire buys a four-year-old car with 41,000 miles on it—with cash. That way, someone else takes on the brunt of depreciation over the first few years of the car’s life.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that the average person drives 13,476 miles each year.2 So once you know how old the car is and how many miles are on it, you can figure out pretty quickly if the seller’s been pushing their set of wheels too hard.
4. How long have they owned the car?
The longer someone owns a car, the more they can tell you about it. If someone’s been driving their car for a while without many problems, it might be a sign that the car is pretty reliable! But if someone is trying to sell a car after owning it for only a year or less, they’re probably not happy with the car for some reason.
That’s not always the case, but you need to dig a little deeper to make sure the seller isn’t just trying to unload their clunker on you.
5. Are they selling the car as is, or is it under warranty?
When a dealership or private seller is selling a vehicle “as is,” that just means there’s no warranty on the car. Once you drive it off the lot, you’re responsible for dealing with any flaws or defects that need fixing.
But some used cars are still under the manufacturer’s warranty. That means the manufacturer or dealer is still on the hook for at least some of the repairs and replacement parts your car might need. Either way, you’ll want to know what you’re getting yourself into
6. Is there any damage to the exterior of the car?
We know looks aren’t everything, but they still count for something! Here are a few things to keep an eye out for:
- Body work, paint job, car frame: Look out for scratches, dents and rust on the surface of the car.
- Windshield, lights, rearview and sideview mirrors: Are there cracks on the windshield? Do the headlights seem foggy or discolored? Are the rearview and sideview mirrors clear and working correctly?
- Wheels and tires: Check each wheel for dents, and make sure they’re not bent. Take a look at the tires, too, to make sure they don’t need to be replaced before you buy the car.
While it’s much more important to buy a car that’s mechanically sound, serious problems on the outside—like a rear bumper held together by duct tape or massive rust stains on the car door—can tell you a lot about how the owner treated the car.
7. What does the interior of the car look like?
Now it’s time to climb in and take a look around. After all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time behind the wheel! Are there rips and tears from the family dog or coffee stains on the seats? Does it smell like a giant ash tray? Are there burger wrappers littering the floor? These are all things to think about and will tell you how well (or poorly) the car has been maintained.
8. Are there any mechanical problems?
Let’s take a look under the hood, shall we? The engine is the main thing you want to look at. Check the engine compartment to make sure it’s clean with no leaking fluids (yikes). You’ll also want to make sure the car will pass a smog and safety inspection that many states require.
9. Has the car been in any accidents?
A fender bender here or there or some dings from that narrow parking spot at the grocery store isn’t the end of the world. But if the car has been involved in a major wreck that required a new engine or significant body work, you might want to proceed with caution.
Sometimes cars that’ve been through major repairs will still experience problems—long after the car’s been “fixed.” You’ll want to have the car looked at by a trusted mechanic before moving forward (more on that later).
10. Is there a vehicle history report available?
A vehicle history report will give you some need-to-know info that’ll help you decide whether this car is for you—including accidents, open recalls, the car’s previous owners and service history.
You can look up a report online in a matter of minutes, or get one for free from most used-car dealers—all you need is the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) or license plate number.
11. Can I take the car to my mechanic for an independent inspection?
If you do one thing before buying a used car, it should be this: Take the car to a trusted mechanic to make sure everything checks out. Having a mechanic look for any problems before they’re yours to deal with will give you peace of mind about the car.
And if the seller is reluctant—or just flat out refuses—to let your mechanic do an inspection, chances are they’re trying to hide something pretty serious. Drive away from that deal as fast as you can!
12. Do they have the title in hand?
Whether you’re buying from a private seller or a dealership, never drive off the lot or pay a single dime without having the car’s title in hand. No title, no deal! Now, sellers who took out a car loan and still owe money on it probably won’t have the title—but the bank probably does. It’s a small inconvenience, but you can have the bank to directly transfer the title to you if you buy the car.
Be sure to actually inspect the title, too, before agreeing to buy the car. It’ll show if the car has been in an accident and declared a total loss (aka a “salvage” vehicle). If that’s the case, you can ask for a price to reflect that.
13. How would this car impact my car insurance premiums?
When you change cars, don’t overlook how it might impact your car insurance bill! If you’re turning in your hooptie for a much newer model, your insurance premiums will probably go up. Ask the seller if they’re willing to share how much they’re paying for car insurance so you can get a general idea of how much it’ll cost to insure the car.
But the best way to get an accurate estimate is to get in touch with an independent insurance agent before buying a used car. Our insurance Endorsed Local Providers (ELPs) can shop tons of companies to help you find the best deal on insurance for your new-to-you wheels.