It’s always possible to get burned when shopping for a used car. One popular scam involves piecing together one car from several wrecked cars and then passing it off as a clean used car.

But the Internet and services like have made it easier to check out a car’s ownership history and whether it has been in any accidents. Unless you want to lay your money down and roll the dice, never buy a used car without getting a report using the vehicle identification number, or VIN. If a seller refuses to give you the VIN, run away from that deal. Or if the VIN report says the car is blue and the vehicle you’re looking at is white, be very suspicious of stories about the color change. Look inside door jambs, nooks in the trunk and wheel wells for signs of the original color. The seller may have switched VIN plates to pass off a lemon-law buyback or salvage vehicle.

Negotiate the best deal

Here are some other strategic negotiating questions that help you learn more about autos being sold in private sales. This list was compiled from ” The Insider’s Guide to Buying a New or Used Car,” by Burke Leon and Stephanie Leon.

Questions to ask
  • Why are you selling the car? (You may or may not get a real answer, but you won’t get anything if you don’t ask.)
  • Are you the original owner?
  • What is wrong with the car? (Never ask what condition the car is in. Everybody always says “excellent.”)
  • Is the price negotiable? (Almost everyone will say yes, especially to someone he perceives as a serious buyer.)
  • What is the bottom-line price?
  • How is the body condition? Has the car been in any accidents? Is there any rust?
  • How new are the tires? Do you still have the receipts and warranty?
  • How long has the car been on the market? (The longer it has been for sale, the more likely the price is negotiable.)
  • Has the car had any recent repairs? Do you still have the service records?
  • (Ask again) What price do you need for the car? Would you consider $___ below that price?
  • Do you own the car outright, or is there still money owed on it? (This is a key question. If there is money owed on the car, it may be difficult to get the lien removed.)
  • Are you in a hurry to sell the car? (If he has to sell the car fast, he may accept less money.)
  • Have you had a mechanic look at your car since you put it on the market? Is it a problem if I have my mechanic look it over? (Ask if the seller will take the car to your mechanic and if he will pay for the inspection if you buy the car.)
  • How good is the paint?
  • What is the Kelley Blue Book retail and wholesale for the car? (Even if you know, ask.)
  • When was the last tune-up? If the seller says it has been “awhile,” (i.e., either he doesn’t know or it’s never been done) ask: Will you pay for a tune-up? If not, will you pay half the cost of a tune-up?