Aside from buying a home, a vehicle is likely the largest purchase most people will ever make. It’s a big deal, and it’s a decision you don’t want to jump into without first doing research. Whether you’re shopping for a new or used car, one that’s privately owned or from a dealership, there are important questions to ask when buying a car.
In the long run, being prepared with the right things to ask when buying a car can save you money and hassle.
What to ask when buying a car
Some questions only apply to used car purchases, while others are only for buying new. Your queries will differ if you’re buying privately or if you’re buying from a dealership. Regardless of which car you’re shopping for or where you intend to buy, below are the best questions to ask when buying a car—any car.
1. What is the warranty?
The average car repair costs between $500 and $600. If a car has a warranty in effect, you can avoid much of the pain of car repairs. For new cars, bumper-to-bumper warranties are usually between three years/36,000 miles and five years/60,000 miles from when the vehicle was brand new. For used cars, you’ll likely get the remaining portion unless the vehicle has a branded title (e.g., a salvage or flood damage title).
2. Can I take a test drive?
A car doesn’t help you much if it isn’t comfortable to drive, and you never know what’s lurking beneath the surface if you don’t try the car out first. A test drive is one of the most important ways that may help you buy a car without any major doubts in your mind.
If possible, take a good, long test drive—15 minutes or more, if possible. Get a feel for the car. If it doesn’t feel quite right, don’t buy it.
3. Will you take my car on trade?
Nearly one-quarter of car deals include a trade-in, but dealers aren’t always interested in taking your car on trade. Maybe it looks worse for the wear or it’s too old to get financing. But if you currently have a car—especially if you’re still making payments—you don’t want to own two cars at the same time. A trade-in makes buying a car easier by switching vehicles without having to privately list yours.
If a dealer isn’t interested in taking your trade, try somewhere else. If you’re privately buying a car, though, you can still ask if the seller will take your car on trade. It may be a long shot, but it’s worth asking.
4. Are you willing to negotiate?
The name of the car-buying game is keeping as much money in your pocket while getting the most car possible. It pays to negotiate, which is a way to lower your payments without extending your loan length. If you’re assertive but personable, there’s a great chance you’ll find some wiggle room in the sale price, whether at a dealership or buying from someone on Craigslist. Be prepared with some comparable pricing to support your offer when you negotiate.
5. Can I afford this car?
One of the questions to ask when buying a car is actually one you should ask yourself: Can I afford to buy a car? Shopping for a vehicle can be exciting, but jumping into a purchase you’ll regret later is a bad decision. Before buying a car, determine if the cost of your payments, insurance, parking and maintenance fit into your budget.
Questions to ask when buying a new car
There’s a certain amount of confidence you can have in buying a car from a licensed, franchised car dealer. It comes with a full warranty and no one else has had a chance to break in the vehicle yet. But you should still cautiously approach a new car purchase—there are plenty of ways you can be taken advantage of or get into financial hot water.
1. What are the financing terms?
Maybe you negotiated an amazing price, or so it seems. But it’s less about the sticker price and more about affordability when you finance it. In the United States, more than 85% of car shoppers finance a car, so odds are you aren’t paying that amazing price you negotiated outright. Ask what interest rate you qualify for and over how many months. Compare that to your budget.
Be aware of any cash rebates available, too. For many people, paying in “cash” really means securing a loan with a slightly higher interest rate from a bank and handing the dealer a check. But even at a higher interest rate, it’s possible the cash rebate saves you money in the long run.
2. Can I get an individual feature, or do I have to buy the package?
Of all the questions to ask when buying a new car, this one may get overlooked. Carmakers group common features in packages to make cars easier to sell, which usually means you’re buying a car with features you don’t care about just to get the one thing you really want. Take heated seats, for example. Heated seats often come in a package with a heated steering wheel, upgraded sound system and sunroof. But you might be able to buy a car just the way you want it rather than taking all the extras.
Ask if you can get only the feature you want. That may mean placing a factory order and waiting months for the car to arrive, but it could literally save you thousands of dollars in unnecessary spending.
3. Do I qualify for any rebates or incentives?
At different times of the year, carmakers offer incentives that can lower your overall price on a new car. Frontline workers, veterans, recent grads and other professions often get recognized with an extra discount or rebate, but only if you ask for it. On the other hand, some incentives are contingent upon buying existing vehicle stock, financing through the dealer or paying in cash. Either way, it’s up to you to do your homework and research the conditions for each rebate or discount.
Before signing on the dotted line, ask about any rebates or incentives that are offered to see if you qualify for better pricing.
4. Can you deliver the car to me?
Shop-at-home options have finally come to dealerships in many cities, letting you stay safe at home when you shop for a car. Not all dealers participate, though. If you don’t have the time to spend hopping from showroom to showroom, ask if you can have your new car delivered to you.
It’s less intimidating than you might think. Most carmakers offer a hassle-free, seven-day return policy if the car doesn’t work for you.
5. What is the documentation fee?
Almost all dealerships nationwide charge a documentation fee or doc fee on all purchases. The fee is usually not included in the negotiation process, so you’ll find out about it when you’re about to sign the deal. It’s a fee set by the dealership that’s in addition to the vehicle cost and taxes. Explanations of a documentation fee often say it pays for the non-sales staff members who file the paperwork and handle financing.
You’re probably not going to get out of paying a documentation fee, but you should definitely know how much it is. It typically ranges from $100 to $400, though it can sometimes be more. You could even shop different dealers to find the lowest documentation fee and use it to your advantage in negotiations.
6. Do I really need a brand new car?
Buying new is great. The new car smell, being the first to drive the car, a fresh, comprehensive warranty—there are good reasons to shop new. But depreciation affects new cars the most. As soon as you drive a car off the lot, it loses around 10% of its value. In the first year, you can expect depreciation to be between 30% and 40% of what you paid.
Ask yourself if you really need a new car or if buying used would suffice. Assuming you find a vehicle with good mileage within a couple model years of the new one, the material differences between them may be almost nonexistent. And remember: at the end of the day, it’s still new to you.
Questions to ask when buying a used car
Like a new car, there’s a level of security in buying a used car from a dealer. You’re apt to pay more at a dealership than buying privately, but there are benefits, such as on-the-spot financing and accountability as a business. The things to ask when buying a pre-owned car are a little different, though, because one or more owners have put a bunch of miles on it.
1. Can I see the vehicle history report?
A vehicle history report goes into detail about a car’s previous ownership, maintenance, warranty, repair records, accidents, insurance claims and more. It’s an invaluable tool to help you decide if a car is worth buying. Any worthwhile dealer will be happy to show you a vehicle history report. If they don’t, you should wonder what they might be hiding. It may be worth trying to obtain one yourself with a VIN lookup.
2. What is the title status?
A car could look perfect—shiny paint, runs well, new tires and so on. If it’s been in a severe accident and declared a total loss, that beautiful exterior could be hiding nightmares inside. When you’re shopping for a used car, it’s best not to consider cars with a branded title. The title status should be clear. Branded cars may not be eligible for financing, their warranty is probably void and they could be unreliable.
3. Is the maintenance up to date?
Routine maintenance needs to be performed on every vehicle. When you buy a used car, you don’t want to start out your ownership with a bunch of extra costs. Ask if the maintenance is up to date, including fluid changes and a timing belt replacement. Also, inspect that the tires have enough tread to get you through a couple of years before you need to replace them. If the maintenance isn’t up to date, make that part of the stipulations should you want to buy the car.
4. Is the car certified and ready to register?
Some states and counties have strict emissions standards and you can’t register a car that hasn’t passed a smog test. Others also require a safety inspection before you can register your car. The dealership should have these certifications completed and ready to go so all you have to do is hit up the DMV afterward.
If the car isn’t certified, find out why. It could be that the car just came in on trade and the certification hasn’t been done yet. But if the dealer is trying to sell the car “as-is,” be a little wary—it may be a sign the vehicle can’t be certified without costly repairs they’re unwilling to take on.
5. Are there any outstanding issues?
In many jurisdictions, dealers have to disclose if a car has preexisting conditions when they sell it. It’s punishable by law if they don’t. Because many car problems can be related to safety concerns, cost you money in repairs or may diminish the resale value, it’s good to directly ask the salesperson: Are there any outstanding problems or preexisting issues? Get it in writing if you can.
6. Can I get my mechanic to look at it?
Just because you’re buying from a dealership doesn’t mean a car is perfect. There may be things the mechanic missed in the dealer’s service department, such as a minor oil leak—it doesn’t affect safety, but it could present a huge cost to you down the road.
Ask the salesperson if you can bring the car to a third-party mechanic to inspect for your peace of mind. This should be something every dealer is willing to oblige.
What to ask when buying from a private seller
Buying privately is a completely different experience than shopping at a dealership. If you don’t know what questions to ask when privately buying a car, you can get into a lot of trouble that costs you financially and emotionally. Be sure to ask these questions.
1. Why are you selling?
People have all sorts of reasons for selling a car. It could be that they want to upgrade to something new and fancy or to accommodate a lifestyle change. But there could also be another, less innocuous reason. Asking a seller for their motivation for getting rid of their car could expose frequent visits to the repair shop or a branded-title car that has been repaired for the purpose of resale.
2. How long have you owned the car?
Although length of ownership really doesn’t make much of a difference on its own, it can give a glimpse into how a car was used. If someone bought a truck simply to tow a travel trailer for summer holidays, it can make sense that they’re selling it after only six months. Long-term ownership usually indicates satisfaction with a vehicle, which may help you decide in favor of the purchase.
3. Do you have a vehicle history report?
Unlike buying a used car from a dealer, it’s not guaranteed that a seller will have a vehicle history report on hand. It’s certainly worth asking, though, because a seller who has one is likely to be more transparent, have their car’s maintenance up to date and feel more trustworthy.
If they don’t have a vehicle history report, invest in one before you put a deposit on the car.
4. Do you have maintenance records?
Like a vehicle history report, someone who has maintenance records for the car they’re selling may help you feel more comfortable making a purchase. If they don’t have maintenance records on hand, that isn’t always an indication that the vehicle hasn’t been well cared for—they might be a very capable backyard mechanic who does it all themselves. As the buyer, it’s important to find out as much about a car’s condition as you can, so a lack of maintenance records could be a great reason to negotiate a better price.
5. Do you have the title?
Any car you buy needs to come with a title. That’s the only way to transfer ownership into your name—at least, the only guaranteed way. The seller should have the title on hand, proving that the car has a clear title status and is free of any liens. Also, if there is more than one name on the title, each party will need to sign it before it becomes legal.
No matter what type of car you’re shopping for or if you’re buying at a dealership or privately, err on the side of caution. Ask questions and ask for clarification on anything you don’t fully understand. After all, it’s your money that you’re spending and your family who will be riding in the car.