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Ask the right questions

Last updated: May 2013

When you’ve found one or more vehicles you’re interested in—whether being sold by a dealership or private party—you can begin sizing up their condition and history over the phone. Ask some basic questions. The answers can help you determine whether it’s worth a trip to take a closer look. That’s especially true when you’re buying from a private party. You might break the ice with soft questions such as the car’s color, but then get specific about its condition, features, and history. Any strange or far-fetched answers should put you on guard.

“How many miles has it been driven?”
If the mileage is higher than, say, 20,000 per year or lower than 5,000, ask why. If a car has high mileage because the owner had a long highway commute, that’s better than if the car was used for a lot of short trips, stop-and-go driving, or a delivery route. Still, take any claim that “these were all highway miles” with a grain of salt. Low mileage is preferable, but a low odometer reading is no guaran­tee of gentle care.

“How is it equipped?”
Whether they’re listed in the ad or not, ask about key features: number of doors; trans­mission type; A/C; antilock brakes; air bags; sound system; power windows, locks, seats, or mirrors; cruise control; sunroof; upholstery material; and so forth. Double-checking on those could produce some telling comments.

“What is the car’s condition?”
Start with this broad question and see where the seller takes it. He or she could bring up something you wouldn’t have thought to ask about.

“How about the body and interior?”
If these areas weren’t covered in the discussion above, ask about them specifically.

“Has it been in an accident?”
If yes, ask about the extent of the damage, the cost of repairs, and the shop that did the work. Don’t worry too much about minor scrapes, but think twice about a car that has been in a serious crash.

“Do you have service records?”
You want a car that has been well cared for. That means it should have had recommended maintenance performed at regular intervals suggested by the manufacturer. If the owner says he did the main­tenance himself but can’t produce any receipts for parts, be skeptical. Ask for receipts for any new muffler, brakes, tires, or other “wear” parts that have been replaced. Repair-shop receipts normally note the car’s odometer reading, helping you verify the car’s history.

“Has the car been recalled?”
Ask if any safety-recall work was performed or, more important, still needs to be done. Dealerships keep records of that. Note the mileage when work was performed. See page 235 for more information about recalls and technical service bulletins.

Questions for private sellers

“Have you owned it since it was new?”
You want to be able to piece together as much of the car’s service history as you can. Be wary about a car that has changed hands several times in a few years.

“Are you the person who drove it the most?”
Ideally, you want to meet the car’s principal driver or drivers to see if they strike you as responsible people.

“Why are you selling the car?”
Look for a plausible explanation rather than an interesting story. If the answer sounds evasive, be wary. Ask to see service records and other evidence that the car was maintained properly.



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