5 – Inquire

More Research

The “checking out a car” part of buying has three primary components:

  • Inquiring (phone and email) (Step 5)
  • Viewing (looking and touching) (Step 7)
  • Experiencing (test driving) (Step 8)

All are very important.  The goal is to rule out an undesirable vehicle as early as possible so as to save time to be spent on finding your destiny car.  As soon as you see a deal-breaker, politely say thanks and move on.  You don’t have to justify your feelings or opinions.  Most sellers will understand this, but there are some who will make drama and act offended.  That is all the more reason to get away and not do business with them.

Pre-visit Interview

Your time is precious, so if you can eliminate a car from your list of car sellers for the make and model you’re searching for, then you’re working more effectively already. The idea is to look at only cars which you might want to buy. Therefore, you want to not spend a single moment on those which you know you do not want .

With your checklist handy, begin making your research inquiries by phone or email.

In the form of a normal conversation, you will interview the seller about the car.  In logging his answers, you can later evaluate his credibility by comparing them to your own personal observations.  For example, if he tells you it has new tires but you see that they are 50% worn, you can appropriately discount his trustworthiness towards the rest of his answers or even decide whether you want to do business with him at all.  (Ex. If he says the gasoline Ford Excursion gets 23 mpg, you know he is not telling the truth).  On the other hand, he might share some slightly negative things which he did not have to reveal, thereby increasing his trustworthiness factor.  If he says “I don’t know”, that is definitely better than an untruthful answer.

Find out about the seller.  How friendly, helpful/available, and honest is he?  His shortcoming in any of these areas could foretell a potentially-unsuccessful buying experience for you.

If the seller has a problem with taking a few moments to tell you about the vehicle, then perhaps it is a warning sign that you don’t want to do business with him anyway.  Of course if the seller is a bona fide used car dealer, then you would likely do the transaction on his car lot during business hours.  If for some reason you must meet at the seller’s home or some other private place, bring a couple of friends with you, and be sure to tell your family where you are going beforehand.  Leaving an email trail is another way to ensure that the seller is aware that their dealings with you are documented.

  • If the seller refuses to disclose his identity (real name) and phone number, then you should
    refuse to do business with him.  This is where the previsit questionnaire comes in handy as well, because most robbers are totally unprepared for the type of questions above and are abrupt and annoyed by your questions and just want to meet up with you remember
    if someone doesn’t wants to answer some simple questions over the phone, it’s not worth your time or risk. All this is not to scare you, but rather to guide you in safety. Upon arrival, check that the person selling the car really owns it. Ask to see the vehicle registration papers and make sure the seller’s name and address appears on it.  Ask the seller for proof of identity to verify. You don’t want to buy a good car and then afterwards discover that the car is stolen.
  • Choose a few of your top questions to ask.  You can’t ask all of them or the seller may rightly become annoyed and dismiss you.  But it is fair for you to ask a few – maybe up to a half dozen or even a dozen.  However, if you are talking to a dealer, be it large or small, then they might not have the information available to provide until you go to actually see the car.  And, often dealers will know nothing at all about the prior use or history of the car.

You can print and use the section below for each vehicle candidate you identified in step 4, and write your notes inside.

Car Assessment Notes and Guidance

Source where advertised ______________________.

Seller name: ______________________________.

Seller contact info: __________________________.

Seller friendliness:__________________________.

Vehicle Year __________  Make ________________.    Model _________________  Adv’d Price __________.

Colors? _______________ What color(s) is the vehicle inside and out?  How much do you like them?

Please confirm the model, engine, trim, etc. The V8 Mustang you are seeking might not be the 6 cyl one the seller is peddling.    Trim _________ Engine _________  Other _________________________.

(Engine examples: e.g. 2.4L, V8, 10 cyl, SR22, turbo, diesel, etc.).

Transmission: ________________   (e.g. Manual, Automatic, Super Duty, 6-speed).  If manual, then how are clutch and throw-out bearing? ___________________).

Overall Condition

How would you rate the car’s condition?  (poor, fair, good, excellent, like new).      This is of course a subjective question as to the seller’s opinion.  It is useful to compare to your own immediate observation so you can decide how much stock to put into the other answers he gave you.

Paint & body

Any damage to paint or body?

Any prior repairs?

Paint finish and sheen?

Rust spots?

Cars from the north where roads are salted, or near the ocean, may often have some rust damage.  The degree of damage can vary.  In some cases, rust spots on the automobile’s body is also accompanied by rusty shifters, carburetor linkages, and dangerously corroding brakes and brake lines.  A little rust “here” means there is more somewhere else.  Rust can also mean that body repairs were performed inadequately.   Rust can affect many mechanical aspects: Hood release, brakes and brake lines, steering components, electrical connections, and more.  Be sure to look closely when you see even a little bit of corrosion-based rust.


Does it need any work or repairs?   If so, then what specifically, and what estimated costs?

Performance & reliability

Start right up every time?  Hard to start in heat or cold?

Engine condition

Current condition?  Prior problems?  Any unusual sounds?  Leaks?

Transmission cond

Any problems now?  Any prior problems?  Ever serviced?


Leather? Cloth? Condition?  (Is there a clear indication of wear and tear or is it in impeccable condition?)


What is the title status? ____________________

If they don’t have a clear title in-hand, then do not take another step.  Move on to the next car on your list.

Sometimes a seller says something like “I don’t have the title right now, but my sister’s nephew-in-law will mail it to you in three days or next week”.   Simply say, “you can contact me as soon as you have the title clear and in your possession“.  You certainly do not want to get entangled in someone’s sordid legal affairs or invite them into your life.  If they have lost the title, then there are legitimate means by which they can file for lost title; but this is entirely their problem so don’t let them make it yours.



Disc?  Drum?  Condition?

Any problems or squeaking?  When last serviced?  Brake problems can be dangerous and expensive.


Type?  Condition – how much % tread left?

Shocks & suspension?

how does the car feel as it you drive it? when is the last time the shocks were replaced?

Why selling?

This is a subjective question, but it can give insight into the seller’s motivation and honesty.  It might be hard to prove a good answer, but sometimes a bad one can usefully raise a red flag.  One of your key objectives is to make sure someone else’s problems don’t become yours.


Any after-market products or modifications?   A super stereo might have cost a lot of money and be a welcome thing.  However, know that just about anything aftermarket installed on a car can lower its market value immediately.  For example, aftermarket wheels might be expensive, but if not of the car’s manufacturer’s origin, then they probably lower the resale value in the eyes of dealerships and value raters such as Kelly’s Blue Book.  This is a subjective area where perhaps it is personally worth it to you to buy a truck with a lift kit since you wanted one like that, even though it actually lowers the rated resale value.

Heating & A/C

It is best to test the Air Conditioner on a warm day if possible.

Engine cooling

Any problems with radiator or with overheating?


Is the registration current?  If registration is not current, it indicates the car has not been driven for some period of time, and it begs the question “why not?”  The answer might be that there are problems with it which were not expedient to repair.  Maybe it failed emissions test or inspection.  It is up to you to decide whether this is a deal-breaker or a negotiation point.  Just be sure to not give it a pass, unless you want to become the new owner of someone else’s problems.


Do you have the original owner’s manual?


Ever been in an accident?  If so, what was damaged and repaired?

History 2

What kind of problems have you had with this car? This is good to know beforehand so you don’t have any unexpected surprises when you get there. Always try to find out if the car needs additional body work, upholstery, etc…

Previous driver:

Who was the driver? (Teen?  Granny?  Doctor?)  Teens tend to take less care, whereas a working -professional might baby the vehicle.  A senior citizen possibly takes good care, but on the other hand might drive so infrequently that gasoline can gum up in the fuel system.

Special features

Any manufacturer special options?   Manufacturer-installed special options might add value.


Do you have maintenance records and receipts?

Safety Inspection

Is inspection current? In states which require safety inspection, you can’t register the car without it.  If the inspection is expired, there might be a mechanical reason.  Tell the seller to get it inspected and renew the registration, then to contact you.  You don’t want to buy a car with an expired inspection only to learn it needs $3k in new catalytic converters before it will pass.

Ask if Negotiable

And finally ask the seller what his/her asking price is and if he/she sees room for negotiation. Yes, some people do mistake the stated asking price as being a fixed price and when you try to bring down the price, they say something like “The asking price is what I want for the car so that is the price you need to pay?” not understanding that an asking price is a starting point for negotiations. Doing all these preliminary questions without leaving the house and working your way down your list of potential cars of the make and model you’re after, saves you time and gas money (If you travel by car) and if you have a little bit of people skills, you’re able to get a feel if the seller is being upfront with you about things, or if the seller is trying to hide something from you. Maybe something you find suspicious in his way of answering your questions, or in his tone of voice. It’s hard to say of course for certain if your suspicions are justified, but nevertheless a simple phone call can give you the opportunity to dig further and determining if the car is worth spending your time on.

Time is money and so is gasoline. Usually you will get either a good run down of items still needed, or a simple “Yeah, sure the car is in good condition” type of reply.  Don’t be afraid to inquire further, your time is just as valuable as the seller’s and if you can spare a round trip it means you save money on gas and you don’t waste any of your time. Keep asking questions to get the specifics you need. Ask the seller if he doesn’t mind a few additional questions you would like him to answer, so you and the seller don’t have to waste each other’s time. Legitimate sellers should have no problems answering all of your questions about the car they are trying to sell you.  If someone gets irritated and impatient, it could be because they feel you have found them out.  It might be better for you to move on to the next seller.  Or, sometimes someone is listing the car for their child or family member, and might not be able to address the details you are asking about.  In that case, after ensuring inspection and registration are current and that the title is clear, you can simply go check it out without the pre-visit interview.

Insights From a Seller’s Viewpoint

As is the case with life, you will find that different people have different temperaments and moods and different times and in different situations.

Consider these scenarios:

  1. Friendly seller who is fair and honest. (most desirable).
  2. Unfriendly seller who is fair and honest.  (not preferred, but still acceptable).
  3. Friendly seller who is not fair and honest.  (not acceptable).
  4. Unfriendly seller who is neither fair nor honest.  (not acceptable).

Of course scenario 1 is optimal.  But scenario 2 is acceptable.  Sometimes a seller might be grumpy or short for good reason.  When selling on Craigslist or other places, there are always scammers and people of questionable character making a nuisance of themselves.  They pester the seller with low-ball offers or ridiculous suggestions, such as “let’s trade your car for my boat and motorcycle and tickets to Disney World”, or “I need you to give me the keys today and I’ll pay you next week”.  Sellers often receive many fake offers or take time to show their vehicle to people who never show up to see it.  Scammers will try to perpetrate fraud using the line that they are deployed in the military or otherwise on travel, but they want to wire you some money if you will just give your banking information.  Enough of these irritations can make any seller weary and wary.