When shopping for a used car, keep in mind the old adage: don't buy another man's problem. To ensure this doesn't happen, you'll need to know a few things before you start scanning ads and car lots. First of all, what kind of car are you looking for? What do you need from a used car? What is your price range? How badly do you need a car right now? In addition to finding the car you want, finding a good seller is just as important when shopping the used car market. Is the dealership you're considering reputable, or will the private seller allow you to have the car inspected by an independent mechanic? Remember, your goal is to get the car you want at a price you can afford. Never be afraid to walk if you can't get the terms or price that you need.
Always ask the seller whether service records are available for the car. This can be a good indication of how well the car was taken care of (or not taken care of). If the seller doesn't have service records, beware. Most responsible car owners will have some sort of records for car maintenance and repairs.
Has the timing belt been changed?
You should always get maintenance records for any used car you buy, but always ask specifically about the timing belt. If the timing belt goes out, your vehicle can suffer severe damage, in some cases leaving the vehicle totaled. Most used cars need new timing belts every 60,000 miles.
Are there any mechanical issues with the car?
Never assume that a seller will disclose everything without you asking, and always ask the seller point blank whether there are any mechanical issues with the cars. Even minor ones. Most sellers will disclose issues when they're asked, but may otherwise keep quiet about mechanical problems.
How many owners has the car had?
Avoid used cars that have changed hands several times. That's an indication that the car may be a lemon.
Has anything been replaced or rebuilt on the car recently?
It's not uncommon for cars to have a rebuilt engine or transmission, especially when dealing with older cars. The seller should disclose this information to you before making the sale, but just in case, make sure to ask whether anything has been rebuilt or replaced on the car. If so, ask whether it was rebuilt or replaced, and whether the replacement was new or used/salvaged.
Why are you selling this car?
If you're buying a used car from a private party, always ask why that person is selling the vehicle. You may get some good insights on what to expect from the condition of the vehicle. You could also get information that could help you to leverage a better price.
Has the car ever been in an accident?
Always check to make sure that the car you're buying hasn't been involved in a major accident. Small fender benders are fine, but you don't want a car that has undergone massive repairs or has had frame damage.
Can I take this car to a mechanic for inspection?
Most mechanics can perform inexpensive auto inspections that can help you avoid making a bad purchase on a used car. If dealers and sellers have nothing to hide, then they shouldn't have problems with letting you take the car to get inspected. Avoid sellers who refuse to let third-party mechanics get involved.
Do you currently have the title to the car?
Many people purchase a used car assuming the seller has the title in hand, only to find out later the title has been lost or is otherwise unavailable. Never purchase a vehicle from a seller who does not have the title readily available. At best, you'll have to jump through hoops to get the title, and at worst, you may find out later that the seller was never legally allowed to sell the vehicle in the first place. Always make sure to ask to see the title before handing over money!