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posted on March 13th, 2017

Warren Clarke is a consumer advocate and automotive journalist for CARFAX. He prides himself on sharing advice on car buying and driving safety. To piggyback on our previous post about how to buy a used car, here he shares his top five questions to ask when buying from a private seller.

The major benefit of buying a used car is an obvious one: used cars are a lot more affordable than new cars. Cars lose as much as 19 percent of their value to depreciation after just one year of ownership, so even a relatively new used car can bring tremendous cost savings.

On the other hand, used cars come with the risk of pre-existing damage and wear and tear. To improve your odds of selecting a model you’ll be happy with, you’ll need to thoroughly vet your purchase. If you’re purchasing from a private-party seller, begin the vetting process by calling the seller before looking at the car in person.

If you ask the right questions, you’ll quickly weed out subpar candidates, and this will help you save lots of time in the purchasing process. Below are five questions to ask a private-party seller before scheduling a visit to look at and test drive a used car.

What’s the car’s mileage and equipment level?

Ask how many miles are on the car’s odometer. The lower the mileage, the better, and highway miles cause less wear and tear than miles spent in stop-and-go city traffic. In addition, certain optional features, such as a sunroof and alloy wheels, can add value to a car, so request a full list of the vehicle’s optional equipment to get a better sense of what the car is worth.

Do you have service records?

A car that’s received careful and attentive maintenance is likely to deliver better reliability and performance over the long term (for both your sake and for your potential guests’ sake). You can’t always believe what sellers tell you, and some simply may not remember the car’s maintenance history. It’s much easier for both buyer and seller to account for regular maintenance with physical records. Service records give you a clear idea of the type of maintenance a car has received, and therefore, the health of the vehicle.

Do you hold the title?

It’s important to find out if the seller holds the car’s title. If the seller financed the car and still owes money on the loan, the lender will hold the title, not the seller. There are ways of working around this, but it’s a situation that adds a level of complexity to the purchase, so it’s useful to be aware of it early in the process.  

Can I take the car to my mechanic?

There are many horror stories about people who buy used cars only to learn just a few months later that expensive repairs are required. You can avoid these situations by having your mechanic thoroughly evaluate the vehicle before purchase. The mechanic will let you know if the car has problems that will cost you money in the near future. If your request to have a mechanic inspect the car is denied, the seller may have something to hide.

What’s the car’s vehicle identification number?

A vehicle history report can be extremely valuable in verifying the value of a used car. You’ll need the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) to acquire this report from a third-party provider, such as CARFAX. This report will tell you if the car has been in any major accidents, and it will indicate whether the car has been in a fire or flood. A vehicle history report will also let you know how many people have owned the car, including whether the car has ever been used for commercial purposes. Lastly, the VIN number will also allow you to check if the vehicle has an unfixed recall so you can request that it be repaired before purchase.

A used car can provide affordable and reliable transportation, and a private sale can be a cost-effective way of purchasing a vehicle. Simplify the purchase process by asking informed questions so you can be confident about your potential investment.

Warren Clarke is a consumer advocate and automotive journalist for CARFAX. He prides himself in sharing advice on car buying and driving safety, which is especially important in winter.