Unfortunately, dealerships still have a miasma of a stigma surrounding them. It’s a hangover from the past when going to a dealership meant the consumer had zero control, and the stereotype is that car salespeople take advantage of that lack of information. Times have changed. Now, consumers have just as much information as the dealers. In fact, dealerships are largely wholly transparent. Although there is still some wiggle room for negotiations sometimes, for the most part, the information is attainable for all parties.

However, you’ll still want to ask some key questions, especially if you’re buying a used car. The information is probably readily available, but you don’t want to have to pore over all of the data for every car you’re considering.

It’s in the salesperson’s best interest to be helpful and honest because they know you’re going to have access to that information anyway.

Things get a little trickier if you’re buying from a private party. You’ll still want to ask certain questions, but there’s no way to ensure they’re being honest unless you get a third-party check on your vehicle. You’ll want to see a title check and might want to have an unbiased company perform a maintenance check on the vehicle, too.

Here are some of the top questions to ensure you don’t get stuck with a lemon:

  1. Has it been in any accidents? This is very important because even if it was a minor fender bender, if the accident was reported, it’s on the car’s report history. This inherently decreases the car’s value, even if it’s been completely repaired. This is called a “diminished value.” If the damage was minor, you may still want the car. However, you’ll also want the price adjusted to reflect the lower value.
  2. When was the last time it underwent maintenance? You’ll want to know if there will be any surprises when you buy a used car, and one of the best ways to gauge this is by asking about the last time a professional looked at it. This isn’t as prevalent at dealerships since many dealerships recently had their on-site mechanic care for it (especially if the dealership bought the car from a consumer). However, with a third-party seller, you’ll want to see records. If they don’t have them, they should be able to get them from the mechanic.
  3. Has it been in a flood? This is especially important to ask if you live in a high-flood zone or if the region in general is known for flooding. Flood cars “flooded” the market post-Sandy and Katrina, and they can be very dangerous. However, they are also much tougher to gauge than an accident. Flood damage can ultimately lead to dangerous black mold and rusting of brakes. Only a mechanic can tell if a car has been in a flood, and if you’re buying from a private party, you’ll want to make sure a third-party mechanic checks for this.
  4. Is this your best price? You don’t have to necessarily pay the asking price, whether you’re at a dealership or working with a private party. A lot of the time, there’s at least some room for negotiation. At a dealership, they might truly be at their lowest price but may be able to offer additional perks like an extended warranty. The worst thing that can happen is that they’ll say the price is firm.

Used car shopping can (and should) be fun these days. You have countless options at your fingertips, and more negotiating power than ever because of all the information online. When you start shopping, have a list of “must haves” when it comes to your future ride. That can help you stay on track.

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