Ask these questions before you buy a used car from a dealer…
Can I see the repair order of the reconditioning work you’ve done to prepare this vehicle for sale? Reputable dealerships examine and repair vehicles before reselling. Typically, there is a formal repair order that tracks all the work done on the vehicle, and the salesperson should be willing to share this. (Some small mom-and-pop lots do not bother with formal repair orders.) It’s a great sign if the repair order lists routine maintenance chores such as replacing belts, fluids, air filters and/or spark plugs. Few buyers would have noticed if the dealership did not do these things, so the fact that it did suggests that the dealership is trying to do right by its customers.
If a used car has less than 20,000 miles or so on its odometer, it legitimately might not have required any significant maintenance or repairs, but be wary if a salesperson claims a high-mileage vehicle needed nothing.
Can I borrow it overnight before I decide? Many dealerships allow this, but few shoppers realize that it’s an option. Expect to be asked to fill out a “borrowed car agreement” and provide your driver’s license number and proof of auto insurance. Take advantage of this overnight loan to give the car an extended test-drive and bring it to an independent mechanic for a once-over. (Arrange this with the mechanic in advance.) Exception: If the used car you are considering has been heavily advertised by the dealership in recent days, the dealership might reasonably decline to lend it out in case another prospective buyer stops by.
What’s up with the negative reviews of this dealership on Yelp/Google? Almost every dealership has some bad reviews online from used car customers. That’s the nature of used car sales—some buyers are not going to be satisfied. But it’s still worth asking this question so that you can see how the salesperson responds. Does his or her answer suggest that the dealership is troubled when customers are dissatisfied? Does he mention steps it takes to try to make dissatisfied customers happy? Or is the salesperson dismissive of complainers? (If more than a quarter or so of the customer reviews you find online are negative in tone, it might be worth avoiding the dealership entirely.)
Does everything work on the car? You likely will be assured that everything does indeed work on the car. Now take a few minutes to try all the little things that are easy to check. Try all the lights and blinkers…each of the power windows…the wipers…the radio…the power seats…and the air-conditioning. A burned-out taillight bulb is not itself a big deal, but it should be troubling if the salesman assured you that everything worked when clearly the dealership did not take the time to confirm this. The dealership might not have identified or fixed other, pricier problems as well.
Does that look/smell right to you? After you take the car for a test-drive, pop the hood and take a look and a sniff. You don’t have to be a car expert to spot fluid dripping or to notice a burning smell. Remove the dipstick to examine the oil color, too. A conscientious dealership should have changed the oil when the car arrived on its lot—new oil is amber-colored and translucent. If the oil is very dark and thick, it probably has not been changed recently. If it is creamy in color, there could be water or coolant in the oil, perhaps from a head gasket leak.
Is there a warranty? Who’s backing that warranty? Used-car buyers often are satisfied when they are told yes, there is a warranty. But not all used-car warranties are created equal. The most reliable and comprehensive tend to be warranties offered by auto manufacturers. Warranties offered by third-party providers or by individual dealerships could be useful—or they could be virtually worthless. You should ask to see warranty terms in writing—including how long it lasts and precisely what it covers. But go further than that—also check customer feedback scores and comments online for whatever warranty is offered before putting any stock in the coverage. (If the dealership itself is the entity backing the warranty, also consider that this warranty might be worthless to you if you later move many miles away.)