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What to Ask When Buying a Used Car or New Car — Tips to Save You Money

When it comes to buying a car, knowing how to navigate the market and handle car dealers can help.

Chris Scott

Contributing Writer at Tally

September 14, 2021

A recent study from Kelley Blue Book found that earlier this year, Americans were buying vehicles at one of the fastest rates since 2017. 

If you’re considering jumping in and buying a car, you may be nervous, especially if this is your first time exploring the automobile market. 

Going car shopping can be intimidating. Dealers are constantly trying to close a deal. It’s important that you go into a car dealership prepared with a list of questions that you need answered. 

Here is a breakdown of what to ask when buying both a used vehicle and a new vehicle. Below that, you’ll find more tips to help you navigate the purchase. By the end of this article, you should feel more comfortable about going through the car-buying process. 

What to ask when buying a used car 

If you are considering a used car, you need to ask the right questions to give yourself peace of mind. Purchasing a pre-owned vehicle can be a good idea financially and practically, but you need to do your homework ahead of time. Here is a list of what to ask when buying a used car. 

Do you know anything about the previous owners? How did they maintain the car? 

Your primary concern should be finding out about the car’s history. Ask for maintenance records so that you can take an objective look at the vehicle’s service history. 

If you are negotiating with a private seller, be sure to ask for a comprehensive breakdown of the car’s previous service records and maintenance history. A professional seller will be able to provide extensive information, down to the odometer readings when the car went for oil changes.

It will be much easier to find the vehicle history report if you’re buying a certified pre-owned (CPO) car. CPO vehicles have been vetted and deemed at least average compared to similar cars, if not better. However, these cars tend to be pricier than used cars offered by private sellers.

If a private seller is unwilling to turn over information about a car’s service history, this might be a red flag and you’ll want to proceed with caution. 

Was the car ever in an accident? 

Reasonable wear and tear is to be expected when buying a used car, but significant damage can cost you more money down the road. 

It’s important to ask the previous car owner if the vehicle was ever in an accident and the damage caused by the incident. You might be able to deduce some of this information from the service and maintenance reports, but they may not tell the whole story. 

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You can also look into a CARFAX report, which can provide information if the car you’re interested in has been involved in a serious accident. You’ll need the vehicle identification number to run one of these reports. 

Again, if the seller is not willing to share this information, that could potentially be cause for concern. 

Can my personal mechanic perform an independent inspection? 

If you have a mechanic that you trust, ask the seller if you can take the car for an independent inspection. 

Your mechanic should be able to give you a full report: whether the air-conditioning works, when you’ll need new brake pads, etc. You may want to have your mechanic conduct an emissions test as well. If the vehicle fails an emissions test, you won’t be able to register it or to drive it legally. 

Why are you selling the car? Could it make a cross-country trip tomorrow? 

Asking these questions can help you better gauge the seller. These questions are particularly helpful if you ask them in person, as you can read the seller’s facial expressions and body language. 

Hopefully, you receive an answer like, “This car provided a lot of good memories, but it’s time for me to upgrade to something that better fits my current lifestyle.” 

If the seller balks and starts mumbling about a faulty air-conditioning system, you might want to dig a little deeper. 

What to ask when buying a new car 

If you’re buying a new car, the questions you ask the dealership are going to be a bit different. Below is a list of questions you’ll want to be prepared to ask if you are interested in buying a brand-new vehicle. 

What is the manufacturer’s warranty? Are there any other warranties available? 

The manufacturer’s warranty covers certain parts on your car for a specific duration of time or number of miles. You’ll want to clarify this with your dealer before you purchase your car. 

For instance, if you have a long commute for work each day, you may exceed the manufacturer’s mileage coverage limit for a certain part within the first year of ownership. Your dealer should be able to spell out the warranties that the manufacturer offers. 

Similarly, the dealer themselves may offer additional perks or extended warranties. For instance, they may throw in a year’s supply of oil changes. Don’t be afraid to ask for these perks when negotiating. 

What are the safety features of the vehicle? 

One of the perks of buying a new vehicle is that you receive the latest safety features. Ask your dealer which features you’re receiving with the car. If there are no significant safety upgrades from a recent but older model, you may not find it worthwhile to purchase a brand-new vehicle. 

Can I take it for a test drive? 

No matter which car you purchase, you want to make sure that you’re comfortable driving it. The dealer should allow you to test-drive the vehicle in an environment that makes sense for your driving needs. 

If you spend a lot of time on the highway, test-drive the new car on a highway. Similarly, if you drive through the city a lot, drive your potential new car there. 

Other car-buying tips to help with your purchase 

What to ask when buying a used car: man surprising his wife with a new car

Now that you have an idea of what you should be asking and looking for when buying a car, it’s time to think about ways you can save money and avoid overpaying for your vehicle. 

Here are some tips that could help you keep your costs low: 

  • Shop around for rates from different lenders: Your dealership likely offers financing options, but that doesn’t mean you have to go through them for a car loan. Look into various banks, credit unions and other lenders to ensure you receive the best rate. 

  • Keep your loan as small as possible: Being able to buy your car in cash would be great, but if you can’t do that, it’s a good idea to try to put down at least 20% as a down payment. If you trade in your current vehicle, that can help offset the amount of money you need to borrow. 

  • Negotiate the sticker price: The sticker price is often the manufacturer’s recommended price, but that doesn’t mean it’s the lowest possible price. Try negotiating with your dealer to see what other perks they can add to sweeten the deal. Don’t be afraid to shop around with different dealers before settling on pricing. 

  • Consider the big picture: The true cost of the car is much deeper than the sticker price. You need to consider the big picture and think about everything, including how your car insurance premium will change, depreciation and fuel costs. You may find that a used car provides much more bang for your buck than a new vehicle. 

The best car purchase is a well-informed one 

Couple looking at a new car

Buying a car can be a hassle, but it doesn’t have to be. If you do your homework and are prepared, you’ll be more likely to make a well-informed decision that is right for you. 

Whether you intend to buy a new car or a used car, it’s important that you go to the dealership or seller ready to ask important and necessary questions. 

Also, consider implementing other money-saving tips — like shopping around for rates and negotiating the sticker price — to help ensure you get the best deal when purchasing. 

If you want to get your finances in order before purchasing a vehicle, paying down credit card debt is a good place to start. Be sure to look into Tally†, which automatically pays down your credit card debt efficiently, ensuring you never miss a monthly payment.

†To get the benefits of a Tally line of credit, you must qualify for and accept a Tally line of credit. Based on your credit history, the APR (which is the same as your interest rate) will be between 7.90% - 29.99% per year. The APR will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate. Annual fees range from $0 - $300.