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14 Questions to Ask When Buying a Car: New & Used

There’s more to buying a car than kicking the tires and taking the first price that comes along. You need time to ask questions, but perhaps aren’t sure where to start. Here are questions that cut to the chase of what’s important when looking for a car — new or used.

Questions to ask when buying a new car
Questions to ask when buying a used car
Questions to ask when buying a used car in a private sale
The bottom line

Questions to ask when buying a new car

Things to pay attention to include miles, total price, rebates and accessories. Ask the salesperson these questions upfront to avoid surprises later on, both in the finance office and years down the road.

1. How many miles does it have?

The odometer most likely won’t be zero. The car should have at least a couple miles on it from when the dealership did a safety inspection. It may have several miles from other people taking test drives. It should not have more than 100 miles. If it does, you could use that to negotiate the price down.

2. What level of warranty covers it and for how long?

It’s important to ask not just how long a warranty is, but what it covers during that time. A “lifetime warranty” typically lasts for as long as you have the car, but usually covers only the powertrain of the vehicle, not the things most likely to break. Things more likely to break, such as electronics, are covered for less time. You may have to start paying for repairs three years into your car ownership, rather than never. Every brand has a different warranty and every warranty has limitations on what it covers and what it doesn’t. For more information on warranties, you can read this warranty guide.

Extended warranties. Another reason it’s important to ask about included warranties is that the dealership will most likely try to sell you an extended warranty. If your Ford Mustang already has a three-year/36,000 mile “bumper-to-bumper” warranty, do not get a four-year/48,000 mile warranty because that only adds one year/12,000 miles to what you already have. Extended warranties on new cars start the moment you buy the car, not when the manufacturer’s warranty ends.

3. What is the out-the-door price?

The “out-the-door price” includes fees and taxes. It is what the car would cost you if you bought it for cash. This price doesn’t include APR, but it does include all fees and taxes. This way, you won’t be surprised by unexpected fees — and it allows you time to look up the fees to see if they are legit and negotiate them before you get to the finance office.

4. Do I qualify for any rebates?

Any rebates should be included in your out-the-door price, but it’s a good idea to ask the dealer about them specifically. Go down the list of available rebates. The dealership won’t necessarily think to ask if you or anyone in your household graduated from a college or trade school within the last two years, in which case you might qualify for $500 off.

Rebates come from the manufacturer, not the dealership, so it’s not like the dealership will play coy in telling you what’s out there. What helps you helps them make a deal. You can check out this guide for more information on how rebates work.

5. Can you beat this APR?

An auto loan preapproval could help you a lot. If you already have a loan offer, you can ask the dealership to beat it instead of depending on the dealership to tell you what your interest rate will be. Consider applying to your bank, credit union or online lender to get a preapproval. And at LendingTree, you could get up to five potential auto loan offers from lenders by filling out one online form.

6. What accessories come with it?

Some car models do not come with a spare tire as a way to save money and space. If a particular thing is important to you and you don’t see it, ask about it. Floor mats? Roof rack? Cargo cover? Navigation chip? It could be that some of the features, such as the floor mats, are just in the trunk, or that small, expensive things, such as the navigation chip, are kept under lock and key until someone buys the car. But it could also be that something very important to you doesn’t come with that trim level or car model. You might have to buy accessories separately, negotiate them into your car deal or switch to a different model.

Questions to ask when buying a used car

Questions you should ask when buying a used car differ from those for a new car. For a used car, the focus is on potential problems and the vehicle’s history, which will tell you if the vehicle is likely to have problems down the road.

1. Is the car “as is?” What is the return/repair policy?

Ask if the car is “as is” and for a copy of the return/repair policy in writing. In many states, selling a car “as is” means there is no warranty on it and the seller is not responsible for any problems that may arise. So if you get a lemon car, you may not be able to do anything about it, depending on your state.

Different states have various consumer protection laws. Some states, such as New York, have a three day “cooling off” period that could allow you to cancel a contract and return a vehicle. Other states such as  Colorado and Alaska not only do not have a “cooling off period,” their lemon laws don’t cover used cars.

You can check on the vehicle manufacturer’s website to see if the car is still under some type of warranty, read up on how to find the best extended car warranty and read more on how to avoid buying a lemon car. You could also look up your state’s lemon laws on your state’s department of motor vehicles or attorney general websites.

2. How was the vehicle maintained?

Basic maintenance is essential to a vehicle’s longevity. Regular oil changes are the best way to keep an engine in working order, according to Mary Melchor, a service adviser in San Antonio. “Check the owner’s manual to see what type of oil is recommended and the recommended maintenance schedule,” Melchor said. By comparing that answer with the salesperson’s — or, even better, a maintenance log — you can get a good idea of how the car has been maintained. The rule of thumb on oil changes is you should change standard oil about every 5,000 to 7,500 miles; synthetic oil every 10,000 to 15,000 miles. If the owner doesn’t have maintenance logs, check the vehicle history report, which we discuss more below.

3. Any reason I couldn’t drive the car coast to coast tomorrow?

This is a nice way to ask if the vehicle has any problems. The owner or salesperson might recommend you get new tires before you go. Whatever they tell you, look up the cost of fixing or replacing that thing and see if they’ll deduct that from the price.

4. Do you have a vehicle history report (VHR)?

A VHR could tell you how often the car was maintained: oil changes, tuneups, in addition to the following, all of which could impact how much the car is worth and whether it’s trustworthy.

  • Accident history. Whether it was in an accident (and if so, how bad it was). If the car was in a major accident, it might not be trustworthy to keep passengers safe in the next potential accident.
  • Number of owners. If it had five owners in four years, it probably has expensive problems passed on from owner to owner.
  • Vehicle locations. If it was used in Alaska for 11 years, it might have rust problems underneath the car you wouldn’t normally see.
  • Odometer data. If the VHR says the car had 90,000 miles the last time it got an oil change two months ago, but the current odometer has 70,000 miles, the owner might have fooled with the odometer and rolled miles back to make you think the car is in better shape than it is.
  • Theft and salvage history. If it’s stolen, that would obviously be good to know, and if it is considered salvage, that means the insurance company considers the vehicle a total loss. A salvage vehicle can look perfectly fine but is worth much less than an undamaged car. Many lenders won’t finance a salvage vehicle and you might have a hard time finding auto insurance.

Most car dealerships provide a CarFax VHR for free. Private owners may or may not give one, but you could obtain one yourself from CarFax, AutoCheck or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

5. Can I take the car for an independent inspection?

Having an independent auto mechanic tell you whether the car is in good shape could be invaluable for your peace of mind and your wallet. This is one of the best ways to determine if the car is worth the price and whether it will be trustworthy. If the owner or dealership doesn’t allow it, that’s a red flag.

Questions to ask when buying a used car in a private sale

In addition to the questions above, here are a few questions to ask when buying a used car from another person (versus from a dealership or used car lot).

Why are you selling the vehicle?

When you buy a used car directly from a private owner, you typically have the advantage of seeing and having a conversation with the person who knows it inside out. This is your opportunity to strike up a good, short relationship as you need honest information and want a cordial negotiation.

A key piece of information is why they’re selling the car. Is it simply time for a nicer, newer car? Or is it because this car started having problems? See how they answer the question and pay attention to nonverbal cues, too. If the seller is overly nervous, in a hurry or tries to rush you, that’s not a good sign; it may be a scam. (You could read about how to avoid a Craigslist car scam here.) On the flip side, if they’re relaxed, readily answer questions and show pride in the car’s appearance and upkeep, that may speak well of how they have maintained the car.

How did you arrive at this price?

By asking this, you’re asking the seller to justify the price they set. It also gives you information you could use to negotiate. They might say they just made the price up, thought it sounded fair or that this exact price covers their bills. If they present any of these reasons, you could counter them with legitimate research such as what similar cars are selling for in the area or what an industry guide like National Automobile Dealers Association or Kelley Blue Book gave as vehicle worth. NADAguides and KBB are free online tools often used by lenders to determine vehicle values.

If the seller says they based the price on an industry guide, you can counter and say the guide assumes the car is in good condition, not needing repairs, and then explain how much repairs would cost as reasons for lowering the price.

Do you have the clear title with you?

The seller can’t sign over the title if they don’t have it. And they can’t legally sign over the title if the car doesn’t officially belong to them — they might still owe money on it, or there’s a different person listed on the title. (Good rule of thumb: Check the name on the title against the seller’s driver’s license). If there are two people listed on the title and their names are joined with the word “and,” you need both people to sign the title over to you. If their names are joined with the word “or,” then only one of the two people on the title needs to sign it.

The bottom line

Trust your instincts. Don’t be afraid to ask “dumb” questions to dig and get to what you want to know. Focus on questions that can get you answers that will reveal how reliable the car will be and how much it will cost in total.


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