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Top 9 Questions to Ask Before Test Driving a Used Car

If you walk into a dealership armed with smart questions, you’ll end up with a better used car. The key is to ask those questions -- and get answers -- before you test drive. That’s because once you have driven a car or two, the sales staff will be expecting you to sign on the dotted line.

Can I see the car history first?

You are asking for the standard car history as well as any service and maintenance records they may have gotten from the previous owner. Many people buy a used car and read the car history after they’ve taken out the loan. You can be one of those people who does it right. If you see problems in the car history, you don’t want to test drive the car.

Did the repair shop inspect this car? Did it do any work on the car? Is there a report?

You’d be surprised at how many places have repair shops but don’t actually let them repair what’s wrong on used cars. They try to do the minimum and get the car back off the lot. When you ask these questions directly, you can get a sense of just how hard the dealership has worked to make sure they are selling you a viable ride.

If I like a car, can I have it independently inspected?

An independent repair shop is more likely to tell you what’s wrong with the car. And if the dealer is reluctant to let you do this, you may need to find another dealer. Used car prices are too high not to be 100 percent certain that the car you buy doesn’t have a major engine problem, a bad suspension, or a rusty chassis.

How old are the tires?

Many people have been fooled by shiny black tires that look new in the sun. Truth be told, those tires were just blacked and polished for shine. So how old are they? You have a right to know that. It will drive up your ownership costs if you will have to replace those tires in the next year.

Are those the right tires?

You’d be surprised at how many people buy the wrong tires for their car. Then they sell it, and no one is the wiser. Thankfully, we have the internet. You can find out the right size and type of tire for any vehicle by looking up the original car manual.

Is there any warranty coverage on a used car? How much does it cost?

Often dealers will say there is warranty coverage only to tell you later that it is a $700 fee for the coverage. Again, the more you know up front, the less likely you’ll be hit with unexpected expenses.

What does certified preowned mean?

The CPO label gets slapped on a lot of vehicles but the meaning varies from brand to brand. Before you test drive a car, you want to find out exactly what that program means. It usually has a limit on the mileage and requires a certain level of inspection by the dealer shop. Does it require repairs or did they just check it off as being “okay”? You will hear the word warranty, but this is usually coverage that starts when the car was first put in service. So if you are buying a four-year-old car, the limited warranty already expired and the powertrain warranty has another year at most.

How much will the total price of the car be?

When you are getting a loan, the total price of the car can be twice what it says on the sticker. That’s because interest is paid first and it compounds over time. You deserve to know the total cost at the end of the loan. An auto loan calculator can help with that.

Does the dealership receive a kickback on loans?

Dealers can legally get a kickback on loans they make for their customers. They may not be willing to admit this. However, if you can identify that they are indeed doing that, you have leverage when negotiating the final price of your vehicle. Let’s say they will get a percentage of the interest on your loan. You can use that fact to ask for a discounted initial price and/or a lower interest rate.

Buying a good used car is expensive. Buying a bad used car is a nightmare you don’t deserve. Ask questions up front and get lots of answers before you ever get behind the wheel, much less sign up for a loan.