CARS.COM — As the price of new cars has climbed, used cars have become more popular than ever. They’re also more expensive than ever, inflation aside. But thanks to engineering strides, vehicles have never been more durable and maintenance-free, and previously owned vehicles are no less a value.
Related: Should I Buy a New or Used Car?
Because new vehicles lose such a high percentage of their value as soon as they’re driven off a dealer’s lot, used cars have always appealed to practical buyers. But there’s always a concern about buying someone else’s problems. With the introduction of certified pre-owned vehicle programs, the advantages of buying a new car seem to be dwindling. If brand-new car features like warranty or maximum fuel economy are important to you, dive into our Buying Guides, sharpen your negotiating skills in Negotiating With Car Dealers and get ready to inhale that inimitable new-car smell.
However, if value is your goal, explore this used-car resource, learn how not to get burned and then turn the key on our Used Cars for Sale listings.
As a first step, you might consider test-driving some sellers. Are we serious? You bet. Whether it’s a sedan or an SUV, car shopping taxes your energy and time. If you hire a mechanic to inspect a prospective purchase — as Cars.com strongly recommends — it can also tax your savings. With the number of used cars on the market, you’d best narrow your search and concentrate only on the ones with the most promise. Two great methods are questioning the seller and inspecting the car before the test drive — ruling out sellers that aren’t worth a visit as well as cars that aren’t worth a professional inspection.
Another way to describe this process would be “test-driving the seller.” By that we mean two things:
- Find out as much as possible about an advertised car before you go to see it.
- Get an early read on the seller, whether it’s an individual or a dealership, to try and reduce your chances of buying someone else’s problems.
To test-drive a seller, you’ll need to answer the questions below. If you’re working off a classified advertisement, call the phone number listed and — rather than ask if you can see the vehicle — ask these questions.
The interview accomplishes a few things. It helps you rule out some cars without leaving your home, and it gives you perspective on the vehicle before you see it and perhaps get distracted by some overwhelmingly positive or negative aspect of it (or of the seller!). It also gives you a record of the seller’s responses. If you go to see and test-drive the car, and something conflicts with what the seller told you on the phone, it’s a good sign that you don’t want to do business with that person.
Note that most of these questions are legitimate for used-car dealers as well. The more documentation they have on the car, the better. You can ask for a phone number of the previous owner if the dealer doesn’t have many details. How the dealer reacts to this request may be of interest to you.
Why are you selling the vehicle?
If the seller answers, “Because it’s a piece of junk!” then the interview may be over (unless junk is your thing). But the seller may say something else so odd, or say it so nervously, that you can tell he or she thinks it’s a piece of junk and are trying not to say so — or they don’t have the good sense to make up an alternate reason ahead of time. If the person doesn’t have the sense to do that, they probably don’t have the sense to keep oil in the engine or to roll up the windows when it rains.
How many miles are on the odometer?
A used vehicle’s mileage helps determine its value, which will be important during negotiations. You can research values in our used car-pricing tool before meeting the seller. Also, if you eventually see the car and the odometer reads significantly higher (or appears to be stuck on a number when you drive it), it’s time to leave.
What’s the condition of the vehicle?
Note that the wording of the question is neutral. See how the seller responds. You know what kind of problems you can live with and how they affect your offer. Be sure to follow up by specifically asking about both its structural and mechanical condition in case the seller didn’t address either one. Again, if you see the vehicle and find that the seller could have been more honest about its condition and reliability, take it as a sign.
Does it have any special features?
How a car is equipped also affects its value. Are the seats upholstered in leather? Are there any fancy gadgets or driving aids? Is it equipped with Bluetooth technology?
Are you the original owner?
In general, single-owner vehicles are preferable. This also helps with the next few questions. If the seller isn’t the original owner, he or she might not have the answers. The more you know about the vehicle, the higher your comfort level will be.
Was the vehicle ever involved in an accident?
This is a crucial question. Vehicles that have been in collisions are prone to more problems and auto repairs, so they’re worth less. If the seller says “no” to this question on the phone and then you determine that it’s been damaged and repaired, you’ll know that the seller is untrustworthy or, at best, not as familiar with the vehicle as you would hope. Whatever their reason for getting it wrong, it may be time to walk away.
Do you have service records for it?
An owner who was meticulous enough to keep service records was probably meticulous enough to take good care of the vehicle — and fortunately, you can find out.
How much are you asking for it?
Again, the wording is important. It suggests that the price the seller quotes should be negotiable.
Take along the Used-Car-Buyer’s Checklist
This handy list includes things you want to know about a used car but might forget to ask.
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