Tips for Buying a Car From a Private Seller

privatesellerGenerally speaking, buying a vehicle from a dealership is a safer bet than buying privately, primarily due to the laws that protect the buyer. But there may come a time when you find yourself looking to the private market for your next vehicle. There are some advantages to buying from a private seller – including simpler transactions with a more personal feel and the possibility of purchasing a vehicle with some aftermarket feature

On the flip side of the coin, there are some disadvantages to buying privately. Private sellers usually don’t have existing warranties on their cars, financing options, or experience selling and maintaining vehicles.

Whether you’ve already decided to buy privately or are just checking out your options, we wanted to give you a few tips to help ensure that you make a financially-sound purchase.

  • Get a CarFax or AutoCheck vehicle history report on the vehicle before you schedule a time to go see the car. These days, a seller may have one available for you to read or you can pay for your own. Either way, it’s highly recommended and worth the small investment. All you need is the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) for the car.
  • If you’re satisfied with the vehicle’s history, set up a time to test-drive the vehicle, preferably during the daylight, where you can check out all of the components of the car (including electronic features, the heating/air conditioning system and exterior). Interview the seller about the vehicle – some good questions to ask include: Why are you selling the vehicle? Do you have service records? Has the vehicle been in an accident or had bodywork? You can easily confirm some or all of this information by comparing it to the vehicle history report.
  • Don’t get caught up in a seller’s enthusiasm. Be rational and consider the merits of the car.  Decide beforehand what you’re willing to spend, what you want in a vehicle, and what you’re willing to compromise on (i.e. paying a slightly higher price for considerably fewer miles).
  • Schedule an appointment with a professional mechanic of your choosing to have a pre-purchase inspection (PPI). Even if you are knowledgeable about cars, it is a good idea to get a professional second opinion. Typically, a PPI runs about $100 to $200 and will provide a detailed assessment of the mechanical and cosmetic conditions of the vehicle. If the seller takes offense to this, that should be a big warning sign. If the seller has nothing to hide, he/she should have no problem with your having an inspection done. In addition, if you live in an area that requires emissions testing and a state inspection, make sure the vehicle has passed both before you consider purchasing.
  • Use an independent source to determine the retail value of the vehicle. Be sure to check for the “Private party” value considering the right mileage, condition, and location. The most reliable sources for this information are DriverSide, Edmunds, and Kelley Blue Book. Make sure that the asking price matches up with the value of the vehicle or ask the owner to explain the difference in price.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable with the seller, the vehicle, the area, or anything else, walk away – you are under no obligation to see, drive, or purchase the car.

Although we strongly recommend buying a used vehicle from an authorized and certified dealer, we understand that sometimes that is not the best option for everyone. We hope that these tips will help to make the process of buying privately as painless and unproblematic as possible.

Have you ever purchased a vehicle privately, and if so, what was your experience? Did you get stuck with a lemon? Were there problems with the registration paperwork? Tell us about it in the comments section below – we value your opinions and shared experiences!