Ask Before You Drive
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14 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Used Car

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Ask Before You Drive
Sakkawokkie/istockphoto

Ask Before You Drive

Used cars are cheaper than new cars — but buying one comes with a whole bunch of questions that you don’t need to ask when you drive off the lot with a brand new car. Before you buy a used car from a dealer or a private seller, ask these questions to make sure that you don’t ride off with buyer’s remorse. (When you do shop, beware of these 12 Signs The Car Dealership Is Ripping You Off.)

What’s the Vehicle’s History?
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What’s the Vehicle’s History?

First things first. Where did the car come from? How many people have owned it? Has it been in any accidents or sustained other significant damage from flooding or anything else? How many miles are on it? You can answer all these questions and more with a simple vehicle history report like the kind popularized by Carfax, which the seller should offer you anyway. You still, however, should ask, because that simple question can help you discover if you’re dealing with an unscrupulous person. If the seller won’t show you a history report or answers questions differently than what you know from the Carfax you already got, walk away.

Know Your Vehicle’s Maintenance Schedule
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Can I See Maintenance History Reports?

A Carfax will only tell you about maintenance and service that was reported, which means it might not include regular service like oil changes that went unreported. The seller should keep maintenance history records that can independently verify whether or not the car has been maintained to meet manufacturer recommendations. This shouldn’t necessarily be a dealbreaker, but if a seller was methodical enough to keep detailed maintenance records, it likely means they were methodical about servicing the car on schedule.

Where’s the Title?
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Where’s the Title?

The vehicle’s title shows that the person selling the car actually owns it, that it’s not stolen, that they have the right to sell it, and that the real owner isn’t going to come around in a few days asking for his car back. The title also shows that the vehicle identification number (VIN) matches. Perhaps most importantly, it will let you know whether or not it’s been so damaged that it's been deemed a salvage vehicle. That information should be on your Carfax, but the title is the official document. Never buy a used car without leaving with the title in hand. If the dealer or individual says they’ll mail it to you, it’s a thanks, but no thanks situation.

Can I Get It Inspected?
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Can I Get It Inspected?

A third-party inspection is always worth the money whether you buy from a private seller or a dealer, even if that dealer promises that the car underwent a 101-point inspection, or whatever the claim. Sellers have every incentive to conceal known defects, and even the reputable ones — and there are many — who wouldn’t intentionally do that might have gotten it inspected by a mechanic who missed something. Ask if they mind you getting it inspected. If they say no — because they’re afraid you’ll drive off with the car or whatever other reason — that’s a red flag you shouldn’t ignore.

Did Anyone Regularly Smoke in the Car?
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Did Anyone Regularly Smoke in the Car?

It’s no secret that smoking is equal parts deadly and gross — and it’s about as good for cars as it is for human bodies. The obvious degradation to a smoker’s car is smell, but smoking damage goes beyond foul odors. Cigarette smoke is sticky and resinous, clinging to the upholstery, vinyl, rubber, and even the glass. It has a yellowing effect on the surfaces it contaminates, it leaves poisonous chemicals behind, and leaves burn marks and ash stains.

Was It Used to Transport Pets?
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Was It Used to Transport Pets?

Unlike cigarettes, pets are adorable and loveable. Like cigarettes, however, they’re  horrible for resale value and for good reason. Hair, dander, claws, and bodily functions have much of the same effects on a car as smoking — interior damage, bad smells, and a general sense of grossness that manages to linger even after car washes. The reason is the same as tobacco. Over time, like smoking, pet refuse works its way into the car’s granular nooks and crannies and becomes impossible to fully remove.

Are There Any Recalls Pending?
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Are There Any Recalls Pending?

Believe it or not, sellers aren’t obligated to tell you if the car they’re buying is under recall — even dealers, and even if they’re aware of the recall — but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Recalls could involve anything from faulty airbags to explosion-prone gas tanks. It’s up to you to check, which you can do by entering the car’s VIN into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) tool designed just for that purpose.

Is It Still Under Warranty?
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Is It Still Under Warranty?

When you buy a used car, you buy it’s warranty — in most cases and if it’s still under warranty, that is. When you buy from a dealer, they must provide you with information about the warranty, and any agreements you make override any provisions that applied to the previous owner, according to the FTC. “As-is” cars have no warranty protection. Warranties that do exist can be full or limited. State laws guarantee “implied warranties,” but there are several variations of “implied.” In short, ask for a full explanation complete with paperwork.

When Was Its Last Emissions Test?
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When Was Its Last Emissions Test?

Emissions regulations vary from state to state, and in many areas you’ll need an emissions test before you can register your car. So it’s good to ask when the car most recently underwent and passed an emissions test anyway to prevent surprises after you buy and before you register. Ask for the related documentation.

Car Lashes
CarLashes

Have There Been Any Aftermarket Modifications?

Changes made to your car with parts made by anyone but the manufacturer are called aftermarket modifications — and it’s important to know whether the car you’re considering has any. They could be purely cosmetic, like a spoiler, but they could also affect the car’s performance, like a raised suspension. Some aftermarket modifications, like window tints or changes to the exhaust, could affect the car’s legal status. Those that affect performance could be dangerous if they were done with low-quality parts or if they weren’t installed correctly.

Related: 50 Car Products That Are a Complete Waste of Money

Has It Ever Been Repainted?
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Has It Ever Been Repainted?

Some sellers repaint their cars for reasons that are perfectly innocuous, like to increase the resale value or simply because they like the looks of it. Others, however, use a new paint job to hide accident damage or metal-gobbling rust. Ask if the car has been repainted, and then have a mechanic check for new paint during the inspection.

Related: The Most Expensive Car Problems and How to Avoid Them

What's Your Return Policy?
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What’s Your Return Policy?

When you buy from a private seller, make sure you’re sure, because once the money changes hands, it’s yours. If you buy from a dealer, however, ask about a grace period or return policy. Many dealers allow a window of time for you to decide that you really like it or to make sure nothing is wrong that was missed by a mechanical inspection.

Why Are You Selling It?
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Why Are You Selling It?

If you're dealing with a private seller, you'll want to know why they're getting rid of it. Possibilities include looking to get a newer vehicle, wanting to pare down, not being able to afford its monthly payments, and so on. But bear in mind, you might not get an entirely truthful answer.

Does It Come With a Spare and a Jack?
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Does It Come With a Spare and a Jack?

Consider a spare tire and a jack to be standard safety equipment. If you wouldn’t buy a car without seatbelts, don’t buy one without a spare and the device needed to install it in the nearly inevitable case of a flat. While jacks are fairly standard, spares are not universal. Make sure the used car has a spare in good working order that’s specific to your make and model.