Nine questions to ask when you make the initial call to someone who is selling a used car…

Are you the original owner? It’s a great sign if the answer is yes—it means that this owner should be able to make the car’s entire history of service records available to you (more on service records below). If you get the sense that you are speaking with an honest, responsible person, it also suggests that the car has been in good hands for its entire life. Follow-up question: If the seller is not the original owner, ask, “How long have you owned the car?” Having multiple owners does not necessarily mean that you should not buy this car, but do walk away if the seller has owned it for six months or less. This person might be reselling so soon because after buying, he learned that the vehicle has a major problem…or he might be a flipper (also known as a “curbstoner”) who regularly buys cars at auction and resells them by posing as a private seller. A high percentage of cars that pass through the auction system have serious problems. Asking about length of ownership also can help sniff out dishonest sellers because you can check the veracity of the seller’s responses by getting a CarFAX report (see below).

Do you have the title? Is your name on that title? Lack of a title—or a title in someone’s name other than the seller’s or perhaps the seller’s spouse—might mean the seller is a flipper, scammer or thief. Flippers often do not re-title vehicles in their own names after obtaining them, so the title still might have a prior owner’s name. Scammers have been known to sell cars they do not own, perhaps selling someone’s car right out of his driveway while he is out of town if they can get their hands on the key. And of course, a car thief might sell stolen cars. Lack of a title also could mean that a lender still is owed payments on the car or that the title simply has been lost. The safe move is to walk away—at best, this is a complication you don’t want to deal with…and at worst, someone is trying to sell you a car he doesn’t own.

Has it ever been in an accident or repainted? If the answer is yes to either, the safe move is to move on to other cars. Cars that have been in accidents are much more likely to have problems than cars that are accident free. Asking about repainting increases the odds that you will be told the truth here. A seller might be tempted to rationalize that a minor incident doesn’t really count as an accident, but if repainting was required—as it usually is following accidents—this seller must either answer yes or tell an outright lie. (The Carfax report, which may include mention of accidents and other damage, often can help you spot lies here, too.)
How many miles are on it? This probably was noted in the used-car listing, but ask anyway—it’s a way to sniff out scammers. The actual owner/driver of a car usually knows its approximate mileage off the top of his head…while a flipper or scammer sometimes must check—these people might not recall the mileage they cited in the posting if it’s not really a car they drive, they sell many cars and/or the car they are selling does not exist at all.

Where was it mostly driven—highways or around town? A used car with 100,000 miles on its odometer still might be in great shape if 90,000 of those miles were on highways—and it might be a great deal, too, because the book value of high-mileage cars tends to be low regardless of how those miles were accrued. Highway miles are far easier on a car than city or town miles because they are smooth sailing with little of the stop and go that puts extra wear on brakes, suspension and transmission.

Insider tip: When you examine a high-mileage car that you were told was driven mostly on highways, check the bottom-right-hand corner of the brake pedal. If this looks heavily worn, the car probably has endured lots of hard stop-and-go driving…but if it looks relatively new, most of the miles likely were indeed highway miles. Also, look through the front grill at the radiator’s thin metal fins. Ironically, the more dented these radiator fins are, the better. Dents in these radiator fins generally are caused by gravel and debris kicked up by cars ahead on the highway—such dents are less common and less substantial at sub-highway speeds—so lots of dents generally mean lots of highway use.

Do you have the service records? Can I see them? A vehicle’s service records let you confirm that it has received its scheduled maintenance. They provide key information about the seller, too. If the records show that maintenance was done by a new-car dealership, that’s a great sign—this owner paid more than he had to in order to make sure that the work was done right. If the service records are all from the same independent garage, consider this a good sign as well—it generally shows that the seller has a good working relationship with a mechanic. It’s extremely troubling if the seller does not have any service records or has only one or two recent receipts—the car might not have been properly maintained…or the seller might be a flipper who only recently acquired the car. It’s somewhat troubling if the service records are available but disorganized or incomplete—people who do not take proper care of their records sometimes do not take proper care of their cars, either.

Why are you selling? Be wary of responses along the lines of “I just have too many cars.” That’s an evasion that raises the question “Well, why did you end up with too many cars?” Maybe the seller had to buy an additional car because he could no longer rely on the car he’s selling. Maybe he is a flipper who has too many cars because he buys lots of cars to resell. Better answers point to life changes and/or personal tendencies such as “We had another child and need something bigger”…“We’re moving to the city and don’t need two cars anymore”…or “I treat myself to a new car every few years.”

What’s the earliest I can see it? It’s crucial that you see used cars offered by private sellers as soon as possible—the best tend to be snapped up by the first buyer who sees them. Tip: If your call to a seller goes to voice mail, leave a message and then immediately send a text asking if the seller has a minute to talk about the car. Your text will go through if the number is for a smartphone—and many people check and return texts more frequently than voice mails.

What’s the VIN? A car’s vehicle identification number will help you obtain its report from Carfax, a company that provides vehicle owner histories and accident histories. Carfax reports don’t necessarily contain every bit of pertinent data, but you generally can use one to confirm that the seller told the truth about ownership history and accident history. Also, a Carfax report can provide information about whether the original warranty still is in effect. (A single report costs $39.99, a package of 5 reports, $59.99, Carfax.com.)