It’s easy to assume the absolute worst in people when you’re shopping for a used car. From the countless sellers who are just trying to get rid of their rolling money pits, to the small but growing army of professional con-men, (known as curbstoners - used car salesmen posing as real people) the truth is that when you call a complete stranger about a used car, you never know who you’re going to get.
But there's one essential ingredient in the magic elixir which helps you separate the good sellers, from the tall-tale tellers and the ne’er do wellers. Conversation.
The other piece of the potion is the ownership history of that vehicle. Before I buy any vehicle, anywhere, I contact the seller for the VIN and run a history report through Carfax or Autocheck.
With the vehicle report in hand, I call the seller again, with these basic questions:
Question 1: “How did you wind up getting this car?”
A true lover of their car will tell you everything from the place where they got it, to the finer details, such as what maintenance they did after the purchase was made. That maintenance history is important. But don’t focus on it just yet.
Focus on the ‘where’ and ‘when’ the vehicle was bought. Why? The sharks out there almost always figure out a way to mess this up.
Most history reports will track when a vehicle is bought or sold, along with where it was registered. If you start hearing a story that has nothing to do with the historical information that’s in front of you, thank them for their time and immediately scratch it off your list. Honest sellers can always furnish you with the bare bone basics of the car’s history.
Question 2: “I like to catch up on maintenance whenever I buy a car. Can you tell me where the car was serviced, and what you’ve done lately?”
This is a little more complicated than question one because Carfax and Autocheck typically do not work with all the dealerships and service centers that can maintain a given vehicle.
The best thing to do if you hear a story that’s suspect is to take notes and after the phone call, contact the dealership directly. Ask the service advisor for a maintenance report. By law, dealers can’t print out the information or give the owner’s name. But some dealerships may be willing to verbally report a car’s service history if you only provide them with the last 6 or 8 digits of the vehicle's VIN.
Question 3: I know that an accident isn’t the end of the world, but has the car needed to have any panels replaced or bodywork?
I have always found that when you ask the hard questions in a kind enough way, the honest people in the world will tell you what you need to hear and the dishonest ones will fumble their way through the fog. If a car had an accident that was reported to an insurance company, chances are you will see it in one of the two reports.
Honest sellers are more willing to remain honest if they don’t feel threatened by your questions. Dishonest folks tend to be a bit more curt and when it comes to the details, such as where the impact took place. They will almost always get this level of detail wrong because they are typically selling several vehicles at a time and will know none of their histories.
If the seller has been absolutely up front and decent with you, return the favor by saying a thank you or two for their help and give them a little bit of a better understanding of why that vehicle interests you. No one likes to be constantly grilled by a complete stranger. Try to focus on making it a conversation instead of an interview. Often times folks who are enthusiasts for a specific type of car will find a lot of common ground, and that alone will help the both of you make the car buying experience more enjoyable.
Question 4: I realize this car is used and there are going to be a few things I may need to repair to get everything in perfect condition. Is there anything I should take care of now or in the next year or so?
This is the golden question because a good honest owner will always have their eyes on a few maintenance and repair issues. Power windows that don’t work. Timing belts that need to be replaced. Yes, there are some cars that are perfect. But for older used cars in particular, that's the exception.
An honest seller who is down to earth about what the vehicle needs now and in the near future is usually the best type of person to deal with when it comes to buying your next used car.
When somebody tells me that the car will need nothing, I laugh… but, only on the inside. If someone says, “Nothing”, I will either ask them about a possible upcoming (and potentially costly) timing belt service, or I’ll ask about a service that was done many years ago and may now need attention -- such as brakes or an air filter.
If they owned the car for a long time and all they did was, “change the oil”, you’re probably headed for a long list of repair and maintenance work that lies ahead. Delayed maintenance can be the ultimate death knell for an otherwise good car. If they cheaped out on that, God knows what else slipped through their fingers!
Final Question: Can we get together sometime… and could you bring a few of the records?
Notice I didn’t say all of the records. Most folks will go to a variety of shops and service centers to keep their vehicle maintained. A lost oil change receipt or other minor service really isn’t the end of the world.
What you really want to find out is…
- Did this person really invest in the car’s overall condition?
- Did anything major get done recently?
A dishonest seller will ‘forget’ these receipts while honest ones will more often than not keep them in the glovebox. The truly OCD seller will have a scrapbook that will contain every maintenance schedule, fill-up, and trip log for their vehicle. If you find that type of seller, let me know. I want his car, and as a hopeless used car addict, maybe his autograph.