Buying a used car: Questions to ask a private seller or a dealer, negotiating tips

Updated: October 2018

Questions to ask a private seller

- When did you buy the car? How many previous owners? Current mileage? Who is the Owner? Any liens? Answers like 'This is a friend of mine's car', or 'I bought this car a couple of months ago' should put you on guard. You need to deal with the actual vehicle owner and he/she has to sign the bill of sale. If a car is sold just a few months since its purchase, this may indicate that this car has a problem or the seller is in the 'curbsider' business.
- Any previous accidents? Major repairs? Any repairs needed now?
- What's the mechanical condition? Any concerns? Any smoke when the engine is started? Is the transmission shifts without issues? General condition? Interior? Exterior? Any rust? Scratches? Dents? Chips on the windshield? Any other damages? Where and how regularly the car has been serviced? Are the service records available? What is the reason for selling?
When was the last emission test done?
Don't expect the seller to provide you with all the information. He/she may be unaware about previous accidents or other problems. Refer to the vehicle history report and the result of mechanical inspection.
- Is the car drivable now? The car may not have valid license plates or insurance or have some mechanical problem, so you won't be able to test-drive it.

Questions to ask a dealer

- Is the car still available? A few times, we have witnessed the situation, when over the phone a sales person tells you that a car is available, but when you come, you find out that the car has already been sold. So, ask to confirm.
- Confirm the mileage, price, color and that it has the options that you want.
- Ask about any additional fees. Some dealers may set the advertised price low, but add additional 'administration' or some other fees later.
- Ask if any warranty coverage left. The warranty starts from the in-service day when the car was originally sold.
- Find out if the remaining original warranty will be transferred into your name. Different manufacturers have different warranty policies about this.
- Ask if the car had any accidents or major repairs.
- Ask if service records available. A car might have been originally sold from the same dealer and they may have its service records. It's nice to know if the car has been maintained regularly.
- Ask if the price is negotiable.
For example, if the car is advertized for $14,000, ask if it's worth to come if you only want to pay $13,000. Usually, dealers are more willing to discuss the price when they feel that you are the real buyer.
- Ask if the dealer can arrange the car be brought for an inspection to your mechanic.
- If it looks like this is the car you want, ask for the VIN number, so you can check the history records.

Negotiating the deal

If you use a smart negotiation strategy, you can get a reasonable discount. Here are a few tips:
1. Start negotiating from the beginning. See if you can get a discount from the very first time you phone about the car. If a car is advertised for $15,000, ask if it's worth to come if the $14,000 is your bottom line, considering that you are the real buyer. Usually they won't say no, which means that when you come, you can start negotiating down from $14,000, not from $15,000
2. Negotiate the total price. Dealers like to add some additional fees on the top of the sticker price. Ask to calculate a total price "on the road" and use it for a negotiation.
3. Don't be afraid to make a lower offer. If they are asking $15,000, offer $13,000. A sales person will take your offer to the sales manager. If the sales manager believes you are serious about buying the car, he/she might go down in price and maybe you will then get the car for $13,800 or so.
4. Be ready to leave if you feel any pressure or if you have any reservations about the car or the deal, there are so many other cars available. You don't have to decide immediately. Do not give a deposit or sign anything until you are absolutely satisfied with the car and the conditions of the deal. Take a break to think the deal through.
5. Nothing works better than competition. Let's say you have two cars on your list that you're interested in. Show it to the salesperson and say you will buy a car from whoever gives you the better price. For example, if one of the salespersons offers you a $500 discount, phone to another dealer on your list and ask them if they can match it.
6. Whatever is promised by a dealer, ask to confirm in writing. Negotiate all the details of the deal. If the dealer promises to install new tires, make sure you agree on what kind of tires - cheapest available or of a reputable brand like Michelin or Goodyear. If there is some kind of warranty that comes with the car, make sure you understand all terms and condition. If the dealer promises to show you all service records, make sure you check them before paying for a car.