Buying a second-hand car comes with a lot of uncertainties. You don’t know how much wear and tear the car has experienced and what defects may be hidden under the hood. At times, it can feel like a guessing game to assess whether or not the seller is asking for a fair price.
To help you out, we’ve come up with a list—by no means exhaustive—of questions you can ask the seller or dealer when checking out a used car.
Some questions to ask when buying a second-hand car
Why are you selling the car?
Try to find out why the owner is selling the car. Some may simply want to upgrade to a new model or try a different brand. Others, though, have less pleasant reasons for selling—even trying to get rid of—their car. It may be experiencing more frequent breakdowns or may sometimes fail to start.
As the buyer, the onus is on you to try to find out the reason behind the sale. There’s no guarantee you’ll receive an honest answer, but do your due diligence by asking the right questions and even having your trusted mechanic inspect the car.
Take it out for a test drive and ask the owner specific questions about different parts and about the vehicle’s history. The more you converse with the seller, the better the picture you can paint of their motives.
How old is the car?
While a second-hand car’s age doesn’t reflect how well its owner took care of it, it can give you a benchmark as to the appropriate selling price. Age typically lowers a vehicle’s value, unless it’s a rare vintage collectible.
How far has the car travelled—and where?
When it comes to mileage, the figure the odometer displays is just one part of the story. The terrain it has travelled is the other part.
A car with a mileage of 50,000 kilometres can be in better condition than one with 100,000 kilometres, depending on the types of roads and weather conditions it has endured. (Of course, there are other factors, too, like how well the owner has maintained it—which brings us to the next point.)
What is its repair and maintenance history?
How diligently did the owner maintain the car, like having it washed and polished, and having the oil changed? What repairs were made, how often, and who performed them? The repair history gives you a clue on how frequently the car breaks down.
Ask for a written record of maintenance and repairs, if available. You can also figure out how much these cost the owner as that will partly explain the selling price and indicate how much you may need to spend if you purchase the car.
Find out, too, why these repairs needed to be done in the first place. Perhaps the owner didn’t take care of the vehicle as well as they should have done, or maybe the car has simply experienced too much wear and tear.
Apart from repair and maintenance activities, you also need to consider any parts that have been replaced and whether or not the replacements were manufacturer-approved.
What were the results of the last emissions testing (and when did it undergo the test)?
Emissions testing helps verify whether a vehicle’s emissions are within legal limits. These include carbon monoxide, particulate matter, total hydrocarbon, and diesel smoke.
In Singapore, vehicles must be tested and inspected for safety and emissions every two years starting on their third year. On their 10th year, tests must be done annually. Since April 2018, all cars registered from 2014 have been required to undergo a High Idle Emissions Test, which measures the gases and chemicals emitted when the engine is revved at 2,500rpm.
Get a record of a used car’s emissions testing history before purchasing it. If it failed tests, find out why, and what has been done about it.
Are there any parts or features that no longer work?
The seller should be upfront on this information, but it never hurts to ask, especially if they don’t volunteer this information. Of course, not all features come standard with a car model—for example, the seller may have foregone video screens or electronic switch controls for the side mirrors.
One way to check is to research on the car model and check the manufacturer’s specs and advertised features for the car. Ask the seller which optional items were included in the original purchase and ask which of all the built-in features still work. Then take the car for a spin and confirm this for yourself.
What modifications have been made on the car?
While modifications can improve the car’s aesthetics, acoustics, or interiors, they may also make maintenance more difficult and expensive. Some may also void the manufacturer’s warranty if they’re proven to be the cause of repairs needed.
Keep in mind that modifications may also affect the cost of insuring a car. Again, that’s usually in cases where they end up causing the need for repairs or high-level maintenance.
Is the warranty still valid?
If yes, check if it’s the original manufacturer’s warranty or an extended one. For extended warranties, each manufacturer has its own conditions, and they may not cover all items that are included in the original warranty.
If the used car is sold by a dealer, it may come with a used car warranty, too.
How much will it cost to insure?
The car brand, year of registration, and average mileage per year are the basic information you need to calculate the cost of car insurance. Repair history, modifications done by unauthorised workshops or using third-party parts, and your own driving record will also affect the cost of car insurance.
Can I take it for a spin?
The answer, of course, should be yes. This will help you see for yourself how well the car functions and whether or not you feel comfortable driving it.
Can my own mechanic inspect it?
You should be able to have your own trusted mechanic inspect the vehicle. This is one of the best ways to verifies a second-hand car’s working condition.
Peace of mind
Despite your best efforts, you may still end up buying a second-hand car that’s more troublesome than the seller let on. The good news is you’re covered by Singapore’s Lemon Law, which lets you make a claim for a product that requires repairs within six months of purchase or does not live up to the seller’s promises. This law covers second-hand cars.
With due diligence, consumer protection laws, and car insurance, you’ll be able to increase your chances of finding a good deal and protecting your purchase.