Young Car Salesman Showing A Customer The Tires Of A Grey Car

Critical Questions To Ask When Buying A Used Car

Hanna Kielar4-minute read
UPDATED: December 12, 2022


You’ve done your research on the type of car to buy. Now, you see one that is advertised for sale that checks all the boxes, and you want to see it in person. Before you take that next step, however, it’s important to know what to check and all the questions to ask when buying a used car.

With a vehicle identification number (VIN), you can pull the vehicle history report, which will offer a cursory service, ownership and accident history. Equipped with that information, you can ask the seller all the right car questions to get more context and background info on the vehicle.

What To Ask When Buying A Used Car: Checklist Of Questions

Dealerships and private sellers alike should be able to answer all of the following questions. We can guide you on what to make of their responses, but you ultimately decide what’s a “make-it-or-break-it” answer.

1.   Do you have the title in hand?

This should be one of your first questions. If you’re in a rush to buy a car, buying from someone who is waiting for a replacement title or the lender’s name on the title could add weeks to your timeline. Don’t completely discount sellers without a title if you’re not in a rush, however.

2.   How many miles are on the odometer?

Generally, good mileage for a used car depends on the car’s age and how the previous owners drove the vehicle. It’s hard to say exactly how many miles are good for a used car without additional information. There’s an old adage that says, “it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” A 2-year-old car with 50,000 miles on it is “older” than a 2-year-old car with just 25,000 miles.

3.   Of those miles, how many are highway and city miles?

Tracking miles on the odometer is the best way to estimate the car’s wear and tear. But the type of miles is also important. As a rule of thumb, look for cars with more highway miles (those on open roads, at higher speeds) than city miles (those with a lot of starting and stopping). Highway miles will be more indicative of the car’s condition and less likely to have damage from a fender bender.

4.   Was the car ever used for deliveries or ride-shares?

If the car has been used for a ride-sharing service, the owner likely kept both the interior and exterior clean. That said, it could have more wear and tear and may have a higher number of city miles, which can cause brake pads and the suspension to deteriorate.

5.   How long have you owned the car?

The longer someone has owned the car, the more they can tell you about its history. However, if the car has had multiple owners, don’t expect to learn much about how previous owners used the car.

6.   Why are you selling the car?

If the owner hasn’t owned the car for long, this should raise more questions. It could be that their circumstances have changed and they simply want a more appropriate vehicle. But this question could prompt them to share any troubles or dissatisfaction with the car.

7.   What do you know about how previous owners used the car?

If the vehicle you’re considering is an older car, you should ask more questions about how it’s been used. There’s a reason a car’s value decreases with each change of ownership you simply won’t have the full scope of its history.

8.   How has the car been maintained?

The owner should be able to tell you about the service history. Have they had the car serviced at every warning light, or did they delay maintenance? If the seller has the service records handy, that’s a sign that they took care of the vehicle. Even the most recent maintenance record that lists what needs replacing can be useful.

9.   Has it been in any accidents?

Don’t be alarmed if the owner tells you about an accident that isn’t on the vehicle history report. It may have been minor, and the fact that they’re disclosing this is a good sign that you’re getting all the information.

10. Does the car come with any warranties?

If the car in question has 100,000 miles or more, it likely won’t be under warranty. Warranties differ with each manufacturer, but the basic warranties are of two types. A bumper-to-bumper warranty covers almost anything on the car and typically lasts 3 years or 36,000 miles, whichever comes first. These cars can also have a separate powertrain warranty that protects major engine components and transmission — these can cover a range of about the first 60,000 to 100,000 miles and anywhere from 6 to 10 years. All warranties come with official certification, so you must ask to see the paperwork.

11. How did you determine the price?

If you want the best deal on a used car, it’s wise to show up with the Kelley Blue Book value in mind. The seller can explain why their sticker price varies lower to account for subpar air conditioning, for example, or higher for added safety features like a backup camera.

12. Do you still have the spare tire?

Tires are expensive. If the car doesn’t have the spare, consider negotiating the price lower to account for the added expense.

13. Can I test drive it?

Always, always test drive a car before buying. It’s the best way to get a feel for any minor annoyances, noises or quirks the owner has learned to live with and perhaps forgotten to mention.

14. Is there any reason you wouldn’t take the car on a road trip tomorrow?

Gauge the seller’s reaction to this question. If there’s any hesitation, there could be more to the story. Use this as a gut check.

The Bottom Line: Come Prepared, Make A Confident Decision

Buying a pre-owned vehicle is an excellent way to save money while equipping yourself with reliable transportation. Don’t be shy about asking the owner questions they should be happy to answer them for you. A car is only a good investment if it works properly.

For complete peace of mind, you should always request an independent inspection. This requires just finding a mechanic who offers prepurchase inspections and leaving the car at their shop for a couple of hours. Let the professionals who know how to check a second-hand car before buying give their final stamp of approval.

If the social aspect of this car buying process isn’t for you, consider emailing the owner with your questions. It’s worth noting that buying a car online has become the most convenient, haggle-free option.

Hanna Kielar

Hanna Kielar is a Section Editor for Rocket Auto℠, RocketHQ℠, and Rocket Loans® with a focus on personal finance, automotive, and personal loans. She has a B.A. in Professional Writing from Michigan State University.