Buy a Used Car via a Private Party: Things to Know

January 27, 2012

When buying a used car from a private party there are a few things you should know. While you can often get a better deal from a private seller,  especially one who is in a hurry to sell,  you don't get the security that comes from buying from a large reputable dealer group. It is important to do your research and give the car a very detailed examination. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Search - When searching for a car online make sure the site that you are using allows you to sort results by dealer and private party cars. is a good place to start. Look for vehicles with lots of photos and details.
  • Questions - Once you have found a car, contact the seller. Have a list of questions ready. One of your first questions should be why are you selling the car? Verify the mileage and the general condition of the car. Has it ever been in an accident? Would it be possible to get the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). If you are satisfied with the answers then set a time to go and see the car.
  • Walk Around - Give the car a very detailed inspection. Tap the panels to listen for any body work. If the drivers seat, gas and brake pedal are extremely worn on a low mileage car it is possible the odometer has been rolled back. Have the tires worn evenly? If not it may be a sign that the front end needs to be aligned. Check all the electronics, the wipers, the turn signals and the lights. Make sure the paint color is consistent on the vehicle, and all the doors shut tightly. It is helpful to have a list of things to check and make notes so if you are comparing more then one car you have a detailed record of your thoughts.
  • Test Drive - When you take the car out for a drive listen for squeaks, ticks or banging in the engine. Be aware of any give in the steering. Listen for grinding when applying the brakes. You should let the car idle for a few minutes and then check for leaks in the spot it was sitting. Verify that the A/C, the radio and any other electronics work. Make notes on anything you have questions on or are uncomfortable with. If you have any concerns about the car ask the seller if you can take it to a mechanic to have it check out professionally. If they are not comfortable with that you should probably walk away from the deal.
  • Car Lemon Report - If you are considering making an offer on the car then jot down the VIN and pull a car lemon report from AutoCheck when you get back home. These reports provide alot of information about the vehicle history and can bring potential problems to your attention. The reports are fairly inexpensive and will provide you with peace of mind.
  • Make an Offer - If you are satisfied, make an offer on the car and negotiate the best deal that you can. If you have cash in hand it will help speed things along. It is always a good idea to have a used car contract that you both sign, you can get templates of these contracts on the Internet. It will give you some legal recourse if the car turns out to be a lemon. You should get a bill of sale as well.

Buying a used car from a private party can be a harrowing experience, but if you keep these tips in mind you should be able to find the car of your dreams at a reasonable price.