Questions to Ask a Car Seller

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Cars.com photo by Kelsey Mays

CARS.COM — Another way to describe this process would be "test-driving the seller." By that we mean two things:

  • Finding out as much as possible about an advertised vehicle before you go to see it.
  • Getting 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 following questions. If you're working off a classified advertisement, call the phone number listed and, rather than ask if you can see the vehicle, ask the questions below.

This accomplishes a few things. It helps you rule out some cars without having to leave your home. It gives you perspective on the car 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 test-drive the vehicle and something conflicts with what the seller told you on the phone, it's likely a good sign that you should move along.

Note that most of these questions are legitimate for used-car dealers as well as private sellers. 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.

1. 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 is trying not to say so, or doesn'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, he or she probably doesn't have the sense to keep oil in the engine or to roll up the windows when it rains.

2. How many miles are on the odometer?
A used car's mileage helps determine its value, which will be important during negotiations. Also, if you eventually see the vehicle and the odometer reads significantly higher (or appears to be stuck on a number when you drive it), it's time to leave.

3. 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, take it as a sign.

4. Does it have any special features?
Are the seats upholstered in leather? Are there any fancy gadgets? Is it equipped with air conditioning?

5. 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.

6. Was the vehicle ever involved in an accident?
A crucial question. Vehicles that have been in collisions are prone to more problems and are 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.

7. 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. Fortunately, you can find out.

8. How much are you asking for it?
Again, the wording is important. It suggests that the price the seller quotes should be negotiable.

Advice Car Buying

Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a Cars.com launch veteran, leads the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE.  Email Joe