8 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

Thinking about buying a car? Instead of signing up for years of payments and interest on a new car, consider buying used instead. Despite the stigma, there is nothing wrong with buying a used car. As a matter of fact, as soon as a new car is driven off the lot, it’s considered a used car–according to Edmunds, that first drive home depreciates a new car in value by 10%. By the time the new car you paid tens of thousands of dollars for is five years old, it has depreciated in value by as much as 65%.

The only exception to this rule might be an investment, like an antique car or a sports car that is likely to hold its value due to demand. If this type of car is well maintained, it will typically increase in value thanks to its rarity.

For standard used car purchases, however, buyer beware. Oftentimes, the older the car, the higher the mileage and the potential for expensive mechanical problems. Do you know if a seller is taking advantage of you? To avoid getting scammed when buying a used car, ask these eight questions:

  1. Are you the original owner? If the seller is the original owner, they’ll know every detail about the car–and they should have maintenance records for you along with a recommendation to the mechanic who’s been working on it. Be cautious of sellers who claim original ownership but avoid providing information you need to guide your decision. This may also aid in accountability if something goes wrong after a purchase and legal action is required.
  2. Has the car ever been wrecked? Some people or car lots buy wrecked cars, repair them, and then sell them for a big profit. If a car has been in a significant accident, it has a lower market value than the exact same car in equal condition that hasn’t been damaged. A wrecked car may look fine on the outside, but serious issues that you can’t see can lurk below the paint job. Know what you’re getting into and don’t hesitate to consult a mechanic to check a car over before you buy it. You should always run the vehicle identification number (VIN) through one or more database services designed to tell potential buyers its accident history. Options include fee-based services such as Carfax or free services like VinFreeCheck.
  3. Do you have the maintenance records? If a car has been well-maintained, then the chances of you having problems with it are lessened. Whether a mechanic worked on the car or the owner performed repairs, there should be a paper trail. Be especially mindful of records for warrantied work or parts. If your brakes have a lifetime warranty, you won’t be able to take advantage of the replacements without proof of purchase. This could end up saving you ton of money on future labor. Buying a car is already a large investment in the first place, so save a dollar where you can.
  4. Can I look under the hood? Just looking at a car from the outside doesn’t tell you what’s under the hood. If you are not mechanically inclined, take someone with you who is. If you don’t know anyone, ask if the car can be taken to be inspected by a mechanic that you trust. Beware of tell-tale signs: fresh oil changes may be an attempt to hide a problem, odd odors often belie serious leaks, and strange noises are never “nothing to worry about.”
  5. Is that the original paint? If a car has been repainted, then there could be rust hidden by a little Bondo and paint that could come back with a vengeance. Vehicles that have been in flooded areas are routinely taken far away and resold as a “too-good-to-be-true deal.” Often, those flooded out cars come with engine issues and rust issues down the line.
  6. Why are you selling the car? Sometimes people sell off a car that has become too much of a problem. They may attempt to hide some issues, like covering up bad valve seals that smoke by using an oil additive to make it stop smoking long enough to sell it. Beware. Take the answer to this question with a grain of salt and be sure to get the car checked out.
  7. Have you had any transmission issues? The transmission is just as important as the engine. It’s often just as expensive, if not more, to rebuild or replace. Check the fluid, or have your mechanic check it. Some deceitful sellers may put friction-increasing substances like sawdust in the transmission to make it work long enough to sell the car.
  8. Can I test drive the car? You can’t just look at a used car–you have to drive it. Driving it will tell you a lot about it. There are many issues a car can have that you can’t see or hear when it is sitting in a driveway. Better yet, during your test drive, drive to a trusted mechanic if you didn’t bring one with you. Typically, it’s easier to assess an engine warm after it’s had a chance to run for a while. And never, ever take it to a mechanic suggested by the seller.

Buying a car used is a great way to save money, but cheaper is not always better. Be smart and take these tips into consideration so that you’re truly getting what you’re paying for. Otherwise, you may find that buying a used car is more expensive in the long run than if you bought one brand new.