Questions To Ask When Buying a Car

With a little pre-work, you can take control of the process.

Couple talking to car salesperson in a showroom iStock

Buying a car should be an exciting milestone. However, as car prices for new and used vehicles have increased and car culture has evolved, determining when, where and how to buy can seem like a complex decision.

To help streamline the purchasing process, a little planning can go a long way. A great strategy is to arrive at the dealership with a list of questions to ask the dealer, or to keep in mind as you shop online. And even if you don’t purchase a vehicle right then, you can leave with information that can help you make a decision later.

What you ask will vary based on whether you’re buying a new or used car. Use the questions below according to your shopping needs.

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Questions about used cars

1. Can I see the vehicle history report?

When you identify your potential purchase, ask to see the vehicle history report, which is a document detailing the following:

  • Ownership history
  • Accident and flood history
  • Status as a salvage title
  • Records of repairs
  • Mileage

If the dealer or seller is unable to provide the report, ask for the vehicle identification number (VIN). With a VIN, you can do your own research.

Some companies provide information for free, though your results may be limited. Paid services such as Carfax charge a fee, but the cost may be worth it if it helps you avoid buying the wrong vehicle.

You have the vehicle history, now what?

If you find the vehicle is a branded title (a label applied when a vehicle has been damaged), then it’s likely that the car has little financial value. Branded titles most commonly refer to cars that have been in an accident, have been vandalized, had parts stolen, were used by a taxi service or law enforcement, were flooded, had the odometer turned back, were bought back by its manufacturer or were deemed a total loss.

Because of the damage that’s likely been done to the vehicle, it’s recommended that you not buy a branded title for safety reasons.

Although a vehicle history report may tell you a lot about a vehicle, it doesn’t offer information about wear and tear and isn’t a substitute for a thorough inspection. A vehicle history report will only let you know about reported crashes, but an expert set of eyes might be able to find and assess damage from an unreported incident.

To get an expert opinion, take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic for an inspection.

2. What can you tell me about the previous owner?

This question is more relevant if you’re buying from a private seller, rather than a dealership. Since a dealership won’t disclose any of the past owner’s info for privacy reasons, you’re more likely to get info from an individual seller who is, for example, flipping the car.

Questions you might ask about the previous owner:

  • How often did you have preventive maintenance work done?    
  • Did you smoke in the vehicle?
  • What is the average annual mileage?
  • Did someone own the vehicle before you?
  • What was the climate like where the car was driven? (For example: Is there any salt damage from the roads in icy regions?)
Car dealer showing customer car engine iStock

3. What problems are there, and what repairs need to be made?

Ask about any repairs that might not be documented in the vehicle history report. Also take into account any of these warning signs before seriously considering a purchase.

Open recalls should also give you pause, depending on what they are. If you’re purchasing the vehicle as is, get any recalls addressed with the manufacturer or dealer as soon as possible. The replacement parts will be honored, even if you’re not the original buyer.

There are also some simple things you can examine on your own, without the help of a mechanic:

  • Peek under the vehicle. If there are puddles of coolant or gasoline beneath the car, there’s probably a leak in the undercarriage.
  • Inspect the fluids. If the fluids look fresh and new, the car is more likely to have been kept in working order.
  • Check for warning lights. If any warning lights are activated, consult with the dealer or seller on these issues.
  • Smell the interior. If the interior of the car smells musty, that could be a sign of water damage.
  • Look at the glass. If there are cracks in the windshield, consider including windshield repair in your negotiations.

Be sure to take the vehicle for a test drive and listen for these sounds. The dealer or seller might offer a tuneup based on what you find. Another option is to ask your AAA Car Care location to do a pre-purchase vehicle inspection.

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Questions about new cars

1. What incentives and trade-in deals are you offering?

Depending on the time of year, you may be able to take advantage of an annual promotion. Or you may be able to get a good deal if you’re buying during the last days of the month or quarter. Sales associates are often eager to increase their numbers before the end of these cycles and may be more willing to offer lower prices.

What many shoppers don’t know is that there are other incentives beyond price reduction. Options may include low-interest financing, service perks and vehicle equipment upgrades.

Service perks are any bonuses the dealer can include to help you save on maintenance. These might include discounts for regularly scheduled services, such as oil changes, tire rotation or even car washes.

Pull quote saying, “Dealers may also offer equipment upgrades. Ask about options for upholstery, sound systems or floor mats. Exterior options may include roof racks or bike racks.”

Dealers may also offer equipment upgrades to the vehicle. Ask about options for upholstery, sound systems or floor mats. Exterior options may include roof racks or bike racks. 

2. What warranty and extended warranty deals are available?

Most vehicle manufacturers offer factory warranties on new cars. Also called a bumper-to-bumper warranty, this coverage expires after a specified number of months. So, be sure to ask how long the factory warranty will last for the make and model in question, what it covers and where you can get your vehicle repaired under the warranty.

You can continue coverage by purchasing an extended warranty. You may be able to find an extended warranty deal through the dealership, but there are several things you’ll want to know. Ask the same questions as you’d ask about a factory warranty, such as:

  • Is there a waiting period before the extended warranty goes into effect
  • Is cause and effect covered (e.g., if your water pump causes your engine to overheat, causing further damage to the engine)?
  • Does the coverage require a deductible? (If a deductible is required, you’ll want to ask how much out-of-pocket money you’ll have to spend on repairs.)
Couple signing a contract to buy a car in a showroom with salesman iStock

3. What will my monthly payment be?

Before you arrive at the dealership, explore auto loan options. You may find a better loan and interest rate than what the dealer offers.

And before you step into the dealership, know exactly what your monthly budget is as well as how much you’ll have for a down payment. A loan calculator can be a valuable tool in determining those numbers.

Don’t forget car insurance for your new vehicle.

With any car purchase, you’ll also need to consider how the vehicle will impact your auto insurance rates. Here are three factors to consider:

  • Sticker price. If a car has a luxury price tag, so will the repairs.
  • Type of car. If your ride has the top speed of a racecar, coverage will cost more.
  • Safety features. If a car has features like automatic emergency braking or lane-departure warning systems, coverage may cost less.

With any vehicle purchase, the more you know, the fewer speed bumps you’ll encounter. Conduct your research, explore your options and come prepared so you’ll have a smooth ride.

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