How to buy or sell a car

Ask the right questions

When you've located one or more vehicles you're interested in--whether being sold by a dealership or private party--you can begin sizing up their condition and history over the phone. Ask some basic questions about the vehicles. The answers you get can help you determine whether it's worth a trip to take a closer look. That's especially true when you're buying from a private party. Break the ice with soft questions such as the car's color, but then get specific about its condition, features, and history. Any strange or far-fetched answers should put you on guard.

"How many miles has it been driven?" If the mileage is higher than, say, 20,000 per year or lower than 5,000, ask why. If a car has high mileage because the owner had a long highway commute, that's better than if the car was used for a lot of short trips, stop-and-go driving, or a delivery route. Low mileage is preferable, but a low odometer reading is no guarantee of gentle care.

"How is it equipped?" Whether they're listed in the ad or not, ask about key features: number of doors; transmission type; air conditioning; antilock brakes; air bags; sound system; power windows, locks, seats, or mirrors; cruise control; sunroof; upholstery material; and so forth. Double-checking on these could produce some telling comments.

"What is the car's condition?" Start with this broad question and see where the seller takes it. He or she could bring up something you wouldn't have thought to ask about.

"How about the body and upholstery?" If these areas weren't covered in the discussion above, ask about them specifically.

"Has it been in an accident?" Ask about the extent of damage, cost of repairs, and the shop that did the work. Don't worry too much about minor scrapes, but think twice about a car that has been in a serious accident.

"Do you have service records?" You want a car that has been well cared for. That means that it should have had recommended maintenance performed at the manufacturer's specified service intervals. If the owner says he did the maintenance himself but can't produce any receipts for parts, be skeptical. Ask for receipts for any new muffler, brakes, tires, or other "wear" parts that have been replaced. Repair-shop receipts normally note the car's odometer reading, helping you verify the car's history.

"Has the car been recalled?"
"Has the problem been corrected?"
Ask if any safety-recall work was performed or, more important, needs to be done. Dealerships keep records of that. Note the mileage when work was performed.


"Have you owned it since it was new?" You want to be able to piece together as much of the car's service history as you can. Be wary about a car that has changed hands several times in a few years.

"Are you the person who drove it the most?" Ideally, you want to meet the car's principal driver or drivers to see if they strike you as responsible people.

"Why are you selling the car?" Look for a plausible explanation rather than an interesting story. If the answer sounds evasive, be wary. Ask to see service records and other evidence that the car was maintained properly.