Key takeaways

  • Before sealing the deal, ask the dealer for a test drive to confirm the vehicle suits your needs and lifestyle.
  • Ask about any warranties the vehicle may have, along with fees that accompany the transaction.
  • There are also other questions worth asking, but they depend on if you’re buying new or used.

The key to driving off the car lot pleased with your purchase is to ask the right questions. Both new and used car prices are starting to level off, but are still on the higher end. So, it’s vital to do your research and approach negotiations strategically to make sure you’re not getting bamboozled.

To advocate for your wallet and needs, be prepared with tough questions — and be ready to walk away if you can’t get satisfying answers. Otherwise, you may not get the best deal when buying a vehicle.

Questions to ask all car dealers

Whether you decide to buy new or used, there are three top general questions to ask the dealer before going in for a handshake.

Can I test drive the car?

You won’t truly know if a vehicle is a good fit unless you adjust the seat and get a feel for the handling capabilities. Pay special attention to how the brakes feel and if you can see the vehicle fitting all your needs and day-to-day routines.

If you are able, ask if you can take it to your garage or parking space to see if it fits right. Some dealerships may even allow you to keep the vehicle overnight to test it through your daily schedule.

What warranty is on the vehicle, if any?

Warranties can cover certain damage that the vehicle incurs and wear and tear. For new cars, manufacturer warranties cover the bigger issues — though you will still need to pay for regular maintenance.

Some newer used cars may still have their original warranty or a new warranty if you choose to buy certified pre-owned (CPO). If there is a warranty present, you could save quite a bit on future repairs, depending on how extensive it is.

And even if there’s not, you could see if an extended warranty or gap insurance are options. However, these are expensive — and frequently not necessary — so consider your needs carefully before asking a salesperson.

What additional fees come with purchasing this vehicle?

No matter what vehicle you decide to purchase, you should be prepared to pay additional fees. Your state may have title transfer fees and other costs that are non-negotiable. The dealership may also have some set fees that you will need to pay.

And although it can be tempting to just finance those fees — and sales tax — into your loan, avoid it if possible. After all, you should avoid borrowing more than the car is worth. Fees and taxes should be paid in cash if you’re able.

Questions to ask when buying a new car

Even if you feel like a seasoned veteran when it comes to negotiation and car buying there are still a few key points to cover to ensure you get the best deal. Make sure the dealer can answer these questions before signing off on a new vehicle.

What are the available financing terms?

Check for the best available rates from outside lenders. It’s likely that if you have good to excellent credit, you will be able to find a better deal through a bank, credit union or online lender. Be sure to compare any prequalified offers to what the dealer offers.

Are there any available rebates or incentives?

In some cases, you will qualify for a rebate or incentive when you purchase a new vehicle. This perk generally reduces your purchase price after taxes. These range from deals during certain times of the year to those available for certain groups, like veterans or students.

In November 2023, car incentives lowered new car prices by 5.2 percent on average, according to Kelley Blue Book. This represents a 136 percent increase from the prior year. But these incentives were even higher pre-pandemic, so they may continue climbing as the economy recovers.

How much is the documentation fee for this vehicle?

The documentation fee or “doc fee” is charged by dealers to cover the cost of completing the sales contract on your behalf. Unlike some fees that come with a new vehicle purchase, the documentation fee cannot be negotiated. Some states set a limit on how much dealers can charge. But if you live in a state that doesn’t, it can cost you up to $700, according to J.D. Power.

Questions to ask when buying a used car

Used car prices have slightly declined from record highs in 2022. Still, buying used can be more of a risk if you don’t know the history of the vehicle. If you intend to buy used, ask the dealer or private seller questions to ensure the vehicle is in good condition.

Has this vehicle been in any accidents?

Not all vehicle accidents can be found in a vehicle history report, so ask outright if your potential car has been involved in any accidents and how it was then repaired. Ask about how long ago the accident was and if there have been any subsequent repairs.

Carfax also suggests that you inspect the paint job and bumper covers. Look for gaps around body panels, liftgates, doors and the trunk to spot unreported accident damage.

Is the title clear?

The vehicle’s title should be clear, meaning free from any competing claims of ownership. Otherwise, you could lose your ride after it’s purchased because the previous owner did not have ownership rights. You can get the status of the vehicle’s title online from CarFax or AutoCheck.

Also, be on the lookout for vehicles with salvage or rebuilt titles. Both indicate that the vehicle was previously involved in an auto accident and declared a total loss by the insurance company. A rebuilt title means the car was repaired to operate safely on the road, but this may not be the case with a salvage title. Either way, you should proceed with caution as these vehicles may not be a worthwhile investment.

Can you show me the vehicle history report?

Ideally, you want a used car with one to two happy owners rather than one passed around to many drivers. A car with a long ownership history can be a major red flag that the vehicle has some outstanding issues.

If the owner doesn’t have a vehicle history report handy, you can also obtain it on the AutoCheck or Carfax website. Be sure to pay attention to the number of previous owners and maintenance and repair records. And don’t forget to review details on any accidents mentioned in the report.

Where did this vehicle come from?

You should also ask how the dealer acquired the vehicle. A trade-in may not have a full history attached, while a previous rental will have been regularly serviced — if driven harder than a privately owned car. This question is also worth asking if you’re buying from a private seller.

If the vehicle is from a harsher winter climate or an area prone to flooding, rust can become an issue. The vehicle may have sustained water damage.

Could I have the vehicle inspected by my mechanic?

Asking for a used car inspection is a great final step in your questioning process once you’re sure you want the vehicle. It can help you determine the seller’s confidence in the vehicle — if they say no, it’s a bad sign. Having a trusted mechanic check the vehicle can assure you you’re getting what you pay for.

The bottom line

Aside from doing your research on the type of vehicle you want and shopping around for the best deal on financing, it’s important to know what questions to ask before heading to the dealership.

Pull up to the dealership with a concrete plan and a list of the right questions to ask. You’ll also be equipped with the knowledge needed to make an informed decision, whether it’s signing on the dotted line or walking away to find a better deal elsewhere.