Buying a used vehicle can be fraught with ambiguity, hesitation, and plenty of questions. How was that second-hand vehicle treated? What’s its history? How well was it maintained? How long will it last? Is it a good deal? Is it concealing any issues or problems that the seller is trying to pass off?
Below, we hope to help you quell as much uncertainty around your upcoming used vehicle purchase as possible, with a look at a list of questions you should ask before you buy.
Some of the following questions should be asked of the seller – whether a private individual or dealer. Others are questions you should ask yourself before forking over your hard-earned cash.
Questions to Ask Yourself
Can I really afford this vehicle?
Our advice: Buying the vehicle is one part of the equation – but once you do, you’ll have to fuel it, insure it, maintain it, and keep it ticking for the duration of your ownership. Don’t stress your budget: seek a vehicle you can afford to purchase, and to keep running properly, without emptying your wallet.
Before you buy, be sure you know what grade of fuel the vehicle needs, how much it will drink, what the insurance will cost, and the price to replace wearable items, like brakes and tires. Some online research, or a call to your local dealer can go a long way, to understanding the ongoing costs.
Many shoppers are caught off guard by the operational costs of vehicles after the fact, especially relating to the replacement cost of tires on vehicles with big-diameter wheels, or the cost to properly maintain certain luxury or performance machines. Do your homework and know the costs before you buy.
Is the vehicle sized and equipped perfectly for me and my family?
Our advice: Have your kids sit in the back seat. Bring a child car seat to confirm it fits properly and leaves enough room for other passengers and gear. Bring your dog kennel, and make sure it fits in the cargo area. Haul your favourite ladder along for the test drive for the same reason.
Are there enough power outlets to charge everyone’s mobile devices? Are the seats easily set into a comfortable driving position? Does the car have all the features you need, like Bluetooth and heated leather?
Be triple-sure to check that the vehicle fully meets your needs before you buy, noting that limited rear-seat legroom and ride quality are two of many areas that see most shoppers quickly fall out of love with their new-to-them rides shortly after purchase.
Do I need the extended warranty?
Our advice: Many used car lots and dealerships offer extra-cost warranty coverage that can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Do your homework, find out what the warranty covers (and doesn’t), and make a decision ahead of time – ideally before the day of purchase, so you have time to fully research your options and don’t act rashly while your wallet is open.
Some shoppers find the peace of mind of added warranty coverage worth the price, while others prefer to stick the cost of the warranty in their bank account, so they have the funds available if a repair is needed – and if it’s not.
Questions to Ask the Seller/Dealer
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Can I have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic of my choosing before I agree to buy?
Our advice: Having a used vehicle you’re considering inspected by a professional technician (whether privately, or at a dealer) is literally your single best defence against buying someone else’s headaches. For between $100 and $200, a professional pre-purchase inspection (PPI) takes about an hour, and provides a detailed assessment of the condition of major vehicle components and systems by a qualified professional.
Smart second-hand shoppers typically consider this PPI to be mandatory. A seller may let you take the vehicle to the mechanic of your choosing on your own or may be able to meet you there. Set up an appointment ahead of time with a shop or service centre you trust. Note that reputable used car lots and dealers can often arrange to have the vehicle delivered and retrieved for the PPI appointment, on your behalf, upon request.
Where was the vehicle serviced, and are all service records available?
Our advice: Buying a vehicle without full service records can be a gamble since proper, timely, and continual maintenance have an immense impact on the long-term reliability and trouble-free operation of a vehicle.
On newer vehicles still covered by warranty, obtaining proof that all maintenance requirements are up to date is even more important since warranty coverage may be voided, in part or full, if any factory-prescribed maintenance is skipped or prolonged. Even a missed oil change can void the vehicle’s warranty.
Your best bet for peace of mind? Seek out a vehicle with full service records available, and ideally one that’s been exclusively serviced by a single dealer or repair shop, who will likely be able to retrieve all service records at the owner’s request if they don’t have a copy.
Was the vehicle ever in an accident?
Our advice: Accidents vary, and while a minor fender bender in the vehicle’s past may be no cause for alarm, a more serious accident, or a poor-quality repair of any kind, can cause serious problems. Used-car dealers are typically prohibited by law from not disclosing an accident in a vehicle’s history, but as a shopper, you’ve got to be on the lookout.
Obtain a vehicle history report, which will reveal past accidents, provided they’ve been reported to the insurance company. A professional inspection by a technician, perhaps as part of the earlier-mentioned PPI, can also reveal poor-quality post-accident repairs, which can cause reliability problems, void remaining warranty coverage, and more.
Do your best to make sure the vehicle you’re considering has never been involved in a serious accident and ask a professional for help if you have any doubts.
Is the vehicle “safetied” or certified?
Our advice: In most cases, used vehicles need to be certified or “safetied” by an automotive technician before they can be sold. Some vehicles are sold with this certification already complete, and others are not. If that’s the case, it may be up to you to have the certification inspection completed on your dime. If the vehicle requires any repairs or work to meet certification requirements, your cost goes up.
Ask if the vehicle is being sold certified, and if it’s not, determine who will pay for the inspection and any required repairs. Call this into your pricing negotiations as needed.
Finally, note that a certification or safety certificate should not be taken as a warranty or a guarantee that the vehicle is reliable, or even in very good shape. Put simply, consider a certification to be a formality that confirms the vehicle has met some minimum standard of mechanical fitness, and probably won’t fall apart as you drive down the road.
What comes with the vehicle, and what doesn’t?
Our advice: Does the vehicle come with winter wheels and tires? Are all of the accessories you see included with the price? Are any other extras (dashcam, upgraded stereo system, off-road light bar, custom wheels) included with the price? Find out before you buy, so you know exactly what you’re getting, and what you aren’t.
Has the vehicle ever been modified?
Our advice: Some drivers modify their vehicles for added power, unique looks, added functionality, or enhanced capability. Some examples of popular modifications include lift-kits for trucks and SUV’s, big wheels and tires on a variety of vehicles, and custom performance parts on sports and performance cars. Many minor modifications are no cause for alarm, but some can cause problems – including decreased durability, compromised safety, and even voiding of remaining warranty coverage. If the vehicle is modified now, or ever has been, proceed with caution: the average shopper is best to stick to a vehicle that’s never been modified, wherever possible.
When was the cabin air filter last changed?
Our advice: A surprising number of drivers aren’t aware that cabin air filters are a thing that exists, and they rarely change them, if at all. Failure to properly maintain the cabin air filter (which cleans incoming air before it’s pumped into the vehicle via the climate control system) is a leading cause of air conditioner failure in summer, and poor heater performance in winter. As such, shoppers are advised to confirm that this component isn’t overdue for replacement. If it is, make plans to replace it ASAP.
A cabin air filter change is inexpensive and quick, and most owners can tackle it in their driveway in a matter of minutes. The owner’s manual has the scoop on how, and how often, to change this part. Note that some vehicles don’t have a cabin air filter, but most do.
Does this specific model have all-wheel drive (AWD)?
Our advice: Vehicles with AWD are increasingly in demand with used shoppers – but you’ll want to be sure that the specific used ride you’re considering has it equipped. Don’t make assumptions: many crossovers, for instance, are available in two-wheel drive (front-wheel drive) models, as well as models with AWD. If you’re set on a vehicle with AWD, be absolutely certain it’s equipped on the specific model you’re considering.