Between a global chip shortage and a dwindling inventory of new and used cars, it is harder than ever to find a good used vehicle, reasonably priced.

Over the past 37 years, I bought a total of 8 cars.

That’s not very many, because I’m a firm believer in buying the right car and driving it for as many years as possible, until repairing it is more expensive than it’s worth.

Of the eight cars, I bought the first four used and the last four new.

Of the four cars I bought used, I had almost immediate problems with two, both purchased from a private party. The others came from my brother-in-law or a dealer, and both served me well for many years.

Financially and ecologically speaking, if you don’t have to buy a car, don’t. This is one of the largest budget items for most people, so if you can do without, take advantage of that fact .

If you do have to buy a car, it usually makes more financial sense to buy a car new instead of used. That said, here are the important questions to ask first when considering a used vehicle purchase.

7 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Used Car

1) How many owners has the car been through, how long have you owned it, and why are you selling it?

If the car is on a used-car lot, this is somewhat less relevant. However, when buying from a private party, all three parts of the responses could be revealing.

Ideally, you want to hear that the seller was the original owner, has owned the car for years, and is selling to upgrade to a newer car.

Even if the seller bought the car used, that’s not a deal-breaker if the person she bought it from was the original owner. Especially if either seller has owned the car for years and wants to get a newer model or is moving into the city and won’t need a car there.

However, if the seller bought the car a few months ago, that’s usually a red flag that it may have lots of problems. Unfortunately, not all sellers will be forthcoming and honest, so you need to pay attention to non-verbal cues to assess if you’re being sold a bill of goods.

2) Has the car been in a major accident or flooded? If so, how was it damaged and how was it repaired?

If a car was flooded (think Hurricane Katrina), don’t touch it with the proverbial 10-foot pole. It will almost certainly have big corrosion and electrical problems.

If it went through a major accident that affected its chassis, that’s another headache you’ll want to avoid. One of the two problem cars I bought came from a seller who lied to me about this. I was lucky enough to be able to make him take it back and refund the full purchase price, but I wouldn’t rely on that happening.

3) How many miles are on the odometer, and is it the original odometer?

Driving about 12,000 miles a year is considered standard, although many people drive at least 15,000 a year. If the car has significantly more miles than that, the price should drop accordingly.

Generally, $0.20 for each excess mile is typical – so if the car should have 60,000 miles and has 70,000, the price should be about $2000 lower. On the other hand, having extremely low mileage will likely mean less wear and tear on many of the car’s systems.

Some cars have had their odometer switched out. I’ve had to replace one of my cars’ odometers, in fact. When a reputable shop does this, they’ll put a sticker stating the number of miles the old odometer had on it, possibly on the side of the driver’s door or on its frame. If this happened to a car you’re considering, add the old odometer’s reading to the new one to know the correct number of miles.

4) Where was the car usually driven, and where was it parked?

All things being equal, it’s better if a car was regularly driven longer distances than short ones. Thus, if the car was used for a 60-mile highway commute and has 40,000 miles, that’s better than a 15-mile surface-road commute with the same 40,000 miles.

Also, cars driven primarily in northern states where there’s a lot of snow each year will tend to have more corrosion problems than in states where roads are rarely salted.

Cars parked in a garage most of the time will likely be better preserved than those parked mostly on streets and outdoor parking lots.

5) Was it regularly maintained, and if so, can I see the service records?

It’s possible the car was maintained by someone the owner knows, or by the owner personally. That doesn’t automatically make it a bad purchase, but it’s riskier than if you get a full set of maintenance records from a shop specializing in that make.

Just listening to how the seller answers may give you a sense of whether everything is on the up and up. Are they hemming and hawing about those records? If yes, the car may not have been regularly maintained, which means it may have many issues.

6) What’s not working properly and can I take it for inspection by my mechanic?

Ideally, you want to hear that all the major systems are working well and that anything that isn’t working is either inexpensive to fix, or the price is lower than market value to account for the necessary repairs. It’s also best if it’s something you can live without – like maybe the passenger-side seat heater if you’re single.

If the seller is hesitant or unwilling to let your mechanic inspect the car, that’s a major red flag. However, in some states, like Maryland, a used car being sold has to go through a state inspection (paid by the seller) before it can be sold, in which case the state inspection should catch most problems.

7) If you had to drive the car today to (insert name of a city a few states away), would you do it?

You can skip this question if you’re buying a real clunker that you’ll never drive farther than the next town over.

However, if you need to be able to drive longer distances, you want to make sure it’s reliable enough to go the extra miles and even 10× the distance you’ll be driving regularly. Again, please pay attention to what the seller says and how he says it. If you sense any hesitation or shiftiness, let alone if the seller answers, “No,” you probably want to skip this car.

The Bottom Line

To recap, if you don’t have to buy a car, don’t, and in most cases, you’re better served to buy a new one and drive it for ten years or longer.

But if buying a used car is the path for you, ask sellers these questions. You’ll want to pay close attention to the content of the answers and the non-verbal cues you pick up when the seller answers.

The last and most obvious point is that you want to ensure that the price you’re expected to pay makes sense for the car, its age, mileage, and its condition. Edmunds.com is a great free resource that can help you determine that.

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This article was produced by Wealthtender and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Featured Image Credit: Unsplash.


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