Buying a Used Car: What Questions Should You Ask?

Buying a used car can be fun, but it’s important to realize this excitement can be a double-edged sword. It’s natural to find yourself giddy at the prospect of picking up a new-to-you car, but on the other hand it’s just as easy to let that excitement cloud your judgment.

In the midst of your car-buying frenzy, step back and consider asking the seller some vital questions, rather than letting things slide unnoticed.

I’m not going to suggest asking what the mileage is, what kind of shape the car is in, if the title is clean, or if the car has been in an accident.

These all are questions that should either be a part of the listing, or available on a CarFax report, which you should run on any used car you’re serious about buying. Here are the less-obvious questions worth asking:

Do you owe any money on the car?

If they owe money, it will complicate the buying process, because you now have to work not only with the owner but also with the current owner’s lender. This is no reason to shy away from buying a car. But it’s important to know, so you don’t pay someone who doesn’t actually own the car. Another way to pose this question is, “Do you have the title in-hand?”

Have you done any work on the car yourself?

While a CarFax report will show any work done at dealers or independent mechanics, it likely won’t show any work done by the seller themselves.

If you come across a CarFax report showing the car has been sparsely serviced, ask the seller if they did maintenance themselves, as this could explain any gaps in service history.

Answered truthfully, this question will give you an idea of how the seller has treated the car. If they have the mechanical know-how required to repair a car themselves, chances are they treated it well, too.

Do you keep any service records personally?

While a CarFax report will show you when, where and what services were performed, nothing beats having hard copies of the actual service records. Additionally, if something was replaced, service records often will include the relevant part numbers. For example, where CarFax might say “Cooling system serviced,” a service record would say “Radiator hose PN: 123-456-789 replaced, coolant flushed.” This valuable information is only available on service records.

Has the car ever been modified?

Modifications can indicate a number of things. If the seller replaced the wheels, it’s worth knowing if those new rims and tires are compatible with the car.

If the engine, engine controller or suspension have been upgraded, that means the car is performing at a level above which it was intended to perform. It’s likely the seller drove more aggressively, which can mean more wear and tear.

Most people modify their cars because they love them. If you’re not into the aftermarket modification scene, you’re probably better off buying a car that hasn’t been modified.

What else should I know about this car?

While this seems like a straightforward question, it’s a great way to make sure you’re covering all of your bases.

More often than not, the answer to this question will tell you something new. If the seller is honest, they’ll take a minute to think before replying, and probably come up with something useful. The more information that you can get on the car, the better!

Grant Feek (pictured above, left) is CEO of Tred (, which connects consumers with buyers and sellers of pre-owned cars for private-party, person-to-person transactions.

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