When in search of a new-to-you vehicle, consumers are largely left with two options: dealerships and private sellers. Both have pros and cons, but if you decide to skip the dealerships to find the best deal, there are a few steps you should be sure to take. Knowing how to buy a car from a private seller can reduce the overall cost of a used car purchase, but you have to do your due diligence. Here’s a few tips for how to buy a car from a private seller.
With the right information, you’ll reduce the risk of being taken advantage of and be in a better spot to negotiate. Assuming you already know the type of vehicle you want, search available resources like Kelley Blue Book to get a handle on what that vehicle at different years and mileages is worth. Ask a seller a lot of questions, including the vehicle’s history, usage, maintenance, mileage, VIN, known issues and any accidents or repairs. Use the VIN to pull up a history report online from CARFAX or AutoCheck to ensure the title is not salvage, rebuilt, deemed a lemon or has any other substantial red flags such as existing liens. You can also run the VIN through the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) for free to check for theft or salvage records. And if you need financing, get all that hammered out before heading into talks with a seller.
How to Avoid Scams
Be aware of a number of potential scams for potential car buyers. Do not place money in escrow at the seller’s behest. Do not purchase a vehicle without a title or a title that’s not in the name of the seller. Match the VIN number from the windshield tag and door sticker to the title. If a seller’s answers don’t match up to a vehicle history report, that’s a red flag. Private sellers selling multiple cars may actually be a dealership selling damaged products under the radar. Sellers should be willing to meet in person. Beware of identity theft. Ultimately, if you have a bad feeling, trust your gut and walk away.
If you like what you hear, meet in a public place in the daytime and bring a friend. Take a picture of the seller’s driver’s license and send it to another friend who knows where you are. Also, get a photo of their insurance information, and check that their ID matches the name exactly as it appears on the title and registration, checking to make sure there are no additional names, etc. If emissions inspections are required in your state, ask for proof that the vehicle has passed.
Operational inspections should include a test drive and basic use items such as lights, horn, windows, locks, steering, brakes, air conditioning and heat, radio, infotainment, cruise control, and general performance at stop-and-go and highway speeds. Check tire wear for any signs of unevenness that might hint at suspension or alignment issues. Use your senses to check for unusual sounds, smells and visual cues that tell you something is off. Use a flashlight to look under the car for any rust or damage. Pull back the carpet at the edges to look for any signs of flood damage like silt or mold. Use a scan tool to run any codes from the OBD II port. All OBD systems should read ready, if not then the computer memory may have been recently wiped to hide a trouble code. You can also have your local NAPA Auto Care perform a pre-purchase inspection. If the seller balks at an professional inspection, walk away.
If all checks out, negotiate a fair price. Know that it will likely be higher than you want and lower than they want; that’s just the nature of negotiation. As a final precaution, make the purchase contingent on passing a pre-purchase inspection, which you can get at your local NAPA Auto Care location. Save this as the last step and be prepared to buy if the vehicle passes.
Ensure the bill of sale and title transfer are accurately filled out, make sure you’re covered for insurance before you drive away and don’t forget to register the car in your name. Congratulations on your new-to-you vehicle! Now protect your new ride with a good set of floor mats and give it a unique look with custom accessories.
Check out all the code reader and scanning products available on NAPAonline, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA Auto Care locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on how to buy a car from a private seller, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA Auto Parts store.
Photos courtesy of Blair Lampe.
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Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.