12 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

Avoid getting a faulty car by asking the seller the right questions. We've put together the 12 most important used car questions to protect your purchase when buying privately.
Let’s get to it!

One: Why are You Selling The Car?

You want to figure out the seller's motivation for offloading the car. Listen carefully to their reasoning and try to pick up on any red flags.

1. You want to hear that they are selling for a benign reason, like getting a new car or moving somewhere they won't need it. These show the car has value to the owner.
2. Watch for concerning answers like the car needing major repairs or having recurring issues. If they were in an accident or have unresolved mechanical problems, proceed with extreme caution. Even if the vehicle has been fixed, things might just be cosmetically concealed.
3. If you’re getting a response indicating that it's giving them too many headaches, you should pass on it.

Two: How Long Have You Owned the Vehicle?

You want to hear that they've owned it for a couple of years and are only parting with it because they're upgrading or moving. That's a good sign that they valued the car and took care of it.

Watch out if they owned the car for a short time. Ask why they're parting with it so quickly. Listen for hints of mechanical issues or requested repairs.

Frequent turnover or flips between owners in a short period of time is a big red flag. It likely means ongoing problems that made multiple people ditch the car.

The longer they owned and drove it with no major issues, the more confidence you can have. Long-term owners know the car's history inside and out.

Three: What is the Mileage and General Condition?

Mileage and overall condition offer critical insights into how well the car was cared for and how much use it has seen. This helps you gauge a fair price.

Ask the seller to disclose the current odometer reading. Verify that it matches what the listing claims. Significant discrepancies are concerning and may indicate odometer fraud.
Inspect the car thoroughly yourself, even if the seller describes its condition to you. Note any body damage like dents, rust or mismatched paint that could indicate accidents.
Check the interior and upholstery for stains, damage and wear. Are the seats cracked or sagging? Test all functions, like the radio and climate control.
Evaluate the engine bay and undercarriage. Are there any leaks or debris buildups? Do all the components look clean and well-maintained?
Observe tire tread depth and wear consistency across the set. Mismatched brands or uneven tread can hint at suspension issues.
Consider both cosmetic flaws and mechanical issues. Documentation from a prepurchase inspection can identify any needed repairs.

Four: Has the Car Been in any Accidents?

A used car's accident history can reveal a lot about potential problems or safety issues. Be direct in asking the seller if the car has ever been in a crash.

They should say no. But don't rely solely on their word—PrivateAuto provides a vehicle history report for all premium listings. Make sure to check for yourself.

A vehicle history report gives you peace of mind. You know how well the car has been cared for, which gives you visibility into any accidents or insurance claims. The report should include service records, major repairs, and other work.

If the seller discloses a previous accident, find out the specifics.

1. Was it a major collision or just a minor fender bender?
2. Where on the vehicle was the impact?
3. Ask if repairs were done professionally at a licensed body shop.

Wrecks can cause delayed problems like electrical shorts, leaks, and alignment issues. Be wary of cars with an accident history unless the repairs were done properly.

Five: What is the Maintenance History?

The maintenance history reveals how well the previous owner cared for the car. Regular service is vital to longevity and performance.

Ask the seller to provide maintenance records, which should consist of:

Oil changes
Fluid flushes
Belt and hose replacements

Gaps in the maintenance timeline or vagueness about service details are concerning. At a minimum, critical tasks like oil and filter changes should happen annually, or every 5-10k miles.

Watch for inconsistencies between claimed maintenance and the car's apparent condition. A freshly detailed engine bay can mask a lack of care or neglect.

An inspection should focus on fluid levels and the condition of belts, hoses, tires, brakes and suspension components, then compare observed results to maintenance records.

Six: Are There Any Mechanical Issues?

Don't be shy—directly ask the seller if they are aware of any mechanical defects or problems with the vehicle. You want full transparency.

Push for specifics if they admit to any repairs needed or ongoing issues. Schedule a test drive in advance through PrivateAuto's seamless in-app scheduling. Listen and feel for problems as you drive.

Have your mechanic do a comprehensive inspection. They can catch undisclosed issues missed by sellers.

Vetting a used car properly before purchase helps avoid expensive surprises down the road. Identify any problems to inform negotiations.

Asking the seller about mechanical issues and verifying yourself sets you up for confidence in your used car purchase.

Even if you buy a car remotely, you can hire a professional inspector to test drive and inspect the car on your behalf and act as your agent. Once they give you the green light, you can sign our handy in-app bill of sale and send payment, after which the inspector can take possession of the car and title on your behalf.

Seven: Is the Title Clean and Lien-Free?

Confirming the title status is crucial before buying from a private seller. You want a title that is clean and lien-free.

Here is what you want to see:

A clean title. This means no salvage history, major damage or other red flags that affect value. Ensure it matches the vehicle identification number (VIN).
A lien-free title. No creditors hold loans or leases on the car. There are no outstanding security interests.
Make sure the seller has the actual physical title, not just a photocopy. Verify that it is in the seller's name.
Read the vehicle history report carefully.

Here is what to watch out for:

1. Sellers who "lost" the title and promise that they will give you a replacement title. This can signal title washing to hide issues.
2. Discrepancies between the title and VIN, or other details on the actual car.
3. Any indication of prior salvage, flood, or rebuilt status.

Eight: Who Was the Main Driver of the Vehicle, and What Were Their Driving Habits?

Understanding how a used car was driven gives you insight into its mechanical condition. Ask about the previous primary driver and their driving style.

You want to hear that the car was lightly used for commuting and errands. Lots of gentle highway miles are better than aggressive stop-and-go driving.

Beware if the previous driver had a lead foot and drove aggressively. Frequent hard acceleration and braking wear components faster.
Excessive revving, burning rubber, and racing suggest neglectful driving habits. The engine and drivetrain likely endured added stress.
Ask if the car was mainly used for short trips or long commutes. Short trips prevent the engine from fully warming up and can impede longevity.
A car driven calmly and carefully is likely to be in better shape. One owner with good habits is ideal. Multiple drivers introduce more variables.

Driving habits provide clues to how well a car is maintained. The right previous driver can give you peace of mind that you’re not getting a car that was mistreated.

Nine: What Sorts of Driving Conditions Was the Car Mostly Driven In?

Ask the seller what types of roads and environments the car handled.

1. Highway miles are ideal: steadier speeds, minimal stops and turns, and smooth, straight roads. This light use causes less strain and friction.
2. Stop-and-go traffic, frequent short trips, and two-lane backroads induce more wear.
3. Gravel roads kick up debris that can damage the undercarriage.
4. Inclement weather like snow and ice, especially if not driven carefully, can be taxing. Ensure proper maintenance was done after winter driving.
5. Ask if the car was ever taken off-roading through mud or over rocky terrain. This can accelerate wear and tear on components and joints.

Ideal conditions are highway commutes in temperate, sunny climates. If the car endured rougher use, budget for earlier part replacements.

Ten: When Not Being Driven, Where Was the Car Parked?

A vehicle’s parked conditions can have a bearing on its longevity. Ask the seller where they typically kept the car overnight and when at home.

Ideally, you’ll hear that the car was kept in a garage. This protects the it from weather and temperature extremes.

Parking outside exposes the car to rain, snow, heat, cold, and sun damage; these take a toll over time.

If the car was parked near the ocean, trees, or areas with pollution, these factors could accelerate corrosion. Bird droppings also damage paint.

Eleven: Is the Car Under Warranty?

Most used cars are sold “as-is” without any warranty coverage. But it's worth asking the seller if the vehicle is still covered by the original factory warranty or an extended protection plan.

Factory warranties typically provide 3 years, or 36,000 miles, of comprehensive bumper-to-bumper coverage from when the car was new. It's rare to find used cars still within this coverage period.

Aftermarket extended warranties can provide additional years and miles of protection beyond the factory's coverage. Ask the seller if they purchased any additional plans.

If the car is still under warranty, verify details like the mileage/time limits and which components are covered. Transferability to a new owner is not guaranteed with extended plans.

While unlikely, a valid factory or extended warranty gives peace of mind.

Twelve: What is Your Preferred Payment Method?

Asking the seller how they prefer to be paid for the vehicle. There aren’t a lot of great ways to pay for a car, and you want to get this detail nailed down. The seller may initially say cash or check. You can then explain the benefits of using PrivateAuto Pay, and why it is far preferable to any other payment method.

What is PrivateAuto Pay?

PrivateAuto Pay is pure magic. There’s nothing else like it.

Fee-free payments and transfers up to $1M.
Instantaneous transfers enable real-time deals—no waiting or coordination. Close the deal when you meet for the test drive.
Instant payments work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. No coordinating around the banker’s hours.
Easily move money from your bank account to PrivateAuto Pay and vice versa. A balance transfer can be done 24/7/365.
No exchange of contact information or banking info—your sensitive info stays safe, protecting you from scammers.
Encrypted data protects you from hackers.
Self-service escrow-like safeguards eliminate the need for an escrow service.
You can even sell or buy a car remotely with our escrow-like safeguards.

OK, so PrivateAuto Pay is great and all, but it’s a service for users of PrivateAuto’s transactional marketplace. What if you're buying a car on another website, such as eBay Motors?

Enter our DealNow fast-track solution, created to give you access to PrivateAuto’s extraordinary transaction capabilities. Even if—especially if—you didn't find your car on PrivateAuto.

DealNow Is the Answer

PrivateAuto allows you to search for used cars, communicate with sellers, complete purchases, and handle financing all in one place. But we know you may find a great car listed for sale elsewhere, like on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist.

That’s why we created DealNow. You get to skip the listing process altogether and go straight to closing the transaction with the power of PrivateAuto Pay. Here’s how it works:

1. Invite the seller to DealNow via a custom link.
2. Enjoy identity verification, in-app messaging, and our test drive scheduling feature (none of which require you to exchange contact info).
3. Meet the seller, and drive the car.
4. You and the seller go together through a step-by-step transaction process in which you each confirm relevant details right in the PrivateAuto mobile app. From mileage to the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to the condition of the vehicle, we help you both prevent any errors.
5. You and the seller each electronically sign an official bill of sale. This is stored in your PrivateAuto account as a legal record you can refer to down the road.
6. You will then be prompted to initiate payment.
7. The seller will get a notification of funds received and confirm receipt of payment.
8. The seller signs over the car title and hands over the keys.

DealNow is so smooth, so safe, and so fast that you’ll never want to buy a car without it. No matter where you find your seller—from Autotrader to the friend of a friend—DealNow will help you get the deal done.

How to Buy a Car Through PrivateAuto

You’ll love how smooth and secure the car buying process is when you use the PrivateAuto mobile app.

1. Browse used cars for sale by owner. Filter by location, vehicle type, or other criteria.
2. Make offers on vehicles you like (PrivateAuto lets you offer less than the asking price).
3. Message the seller with any questions without giving your contact info.
4. Schedule the test drive while keeping your personal details private.
5. Electronically sign the bill of sale along with the seller.
6. Instantly send payment and take ownership of the car when the seller signs the title and gives you the keys.

Would You Like to Sell Your Car on PrivateAuto?

Ready to sell your car? It's easy. Here’s how the PrivateAuto selling process works:

1. You create an account on PrivateAuto.
2. You list your car with our easy, step-by-step guided process.
3. You set your pricing and terms and screen would-be buyers.
4. You vet incoming offers and choose a buyer.
5. You meet the buyer for a test drive.
5. You and the buyer e-sign documents from your PrivateAuto mobile app.
6. You get paid instantly.

So easy.
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Car Buying FAQ

What is the safest way to transfer money when buying a vehicle privately?

The safest method of payment when buying a new vehicle privately is PrivateAuto Pay. Cash and cashier’s checks are inconvenient and potentially risky. PrivateAuto Pay is the only way to send instantaneous transfers over $5,000 with no exchange of personal or financial information.

Since the payment is available to the seller as soon as you send it, you’ll be able to take possession of the vehicle when you meet for the test drive.

What is the best place to buy a car from a private seller?

When I buy a car from a private owner, can I drive it home?

How many miles should you look for on a used car?

How to transfer a vehicle title?