Buying a Car from a Private Seller

Lucy Lazarony
November 3, 2020

Who needs a middleman when you can buy a car from a private seller? And if they are the only owner of the car with complete maintenance and repair records all the better. You still will have to check that your vehicle has a clean accident record. And you’ll need to flex your negotiation skills to get a good price on the car. You’ll also want to be incredibly thorough when you test drive the car. Here are the ins and outs of buying a car from a private seller.

Where to Find Cars on Sale from Private Sellers

There are plenty of cars from private sellers on sale on Craigslist and you’ll find private sellers and their vehicles on eBay Motors. AutoTrader allows you to search and compare vehicle listings from dealers and individual sellers alike. So you will get a good range of the types of used vehicle you are looking for. It may be old-fashioned but your local newspaper has car ads from private sellers as well. So don’t forget to check them out. A great seller could be waiting for you there.

Taking the Car for a Test Drive

A key part of buying a car from a private seller is the test drive. Here are some tips for doing it right.

Walk around the car and take a close look at the car’s exterior. Are there scratches and bumps? How does the bumper look? Is it clean or has the driver been bumping into quite a few things? Look at the tires. Are they new? Has the tread worn evenly? Will you need to put a new set of tires on your to-do list if you should buy the car? Don’t forget to check underneath the car for any leaks.

Get in the car and start it up. Did it hesitate or did it start right up? Take the car for a short test drive. How is the

steering handling? How are the brakes? How does the car accelerate? Next, turn on the air conditioning. How fast does the car cool down? You can test out the heater as well. How quickly does the car’s temperature change? You’ll want to know come summer or winter. Test turn signals and test power windows and power door locks. Is everything working properly?

Take the Car to a Mechanic

If you take a car for a test drive and it seems to be running just fine, it is still a good idea to take the car to a mechanic. Ask the seller to bring the car to a mechanic that you trust for an inspection. The inspection will cost between $100 and $200 and is well worth the money. You want a professional to tell you what is wrong and what looks great on the car.

Don’t know a mechanic? CARCHEX is a mobile car inspection service that you can use. With CARCHEX, a technician does a two to five mile road test and performs a 155-point inspection on the vehicle. The technician comes to where the vehicle is so you don’t have to worry about traveling to a shop somewhere. The price of inspection costs $129.95 or $139.95 depending on the level of the inspection that you choose.

Check out the Car’s History

Get a vehicle’s history report from Carfax. You’ll get all the details on past ownership, service and a car’s mileage. Avoid buying a car with a deep accident history or a salvaged title. A salvaged title means that a vehicle has been certified as totaled by an insurance company.

Don’t Buy a Car Without a Title

If a car owner has lost the title of the car, ask the owner to apply for a replacement title before selling you the car. A title is a legal document that establishes the owner of a vehicle. Don’t make a private car sale without one. The last thing you need to do is buy a stolen car.

Check for Liens on the Car

A lien on a title means a third party has a financial stake in it or it hasn’t been paid off. You can check for the lien by asking to see the car’s title, which should state clearly if there is a lien attached. You also can get the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) and call your local department of motor vehicles and ask if the vehicle has any outstanding liens.

Review the Car’s Emissions Test

Check for smog and do emissions testing with the car’s paperwork. In most states, a seller must have an emissions test done before selling the car.

Making an Offer

If you like what you see in the car and on its test drive and it’s been inspected by a mechanic, you may be ready to make an offer. If you’re thrilled with the car, you can meet the owner’s asking price or maybe a little below. If there is some work that needs to be done with the car, knock the cost of the repair off the price of the car.

There is a good chance the owner of the car is ready to make a deal. A private seller may need to sell a car quickly because they are moving, because they need the extra cash or because they no longer need the vehicle. So make a good offer. You may get the price you are asking for.

Purchasing the Car

Many private car sales are cash offers. So it is a good idea to have available cash when you shop for a car from a private seller.

Need a loan? With a private party car loan, your lender loans you money to buy a car from a private seller. If approved, your lender pays the seller the amount you owe and then you repay the lender with interest over the course of the loan. Once you’ve paid for the car, the seller signs over the car’s title to you.

In addition to turning over the title of the car, there may be a bill of sale. A bill of sale entails the car’s year, make and model, VIN, sale price, date of sale, and names and addresses of the buyer and the seller. There is also a notation for the condition of the car. For most private car sales, the car is “sold as is.”

You’ll want to make sure you have adequate insurance for your car, and your seller may require that you get full coverage. So make the call to your insurance company as soon as possible. Better yet, compare car insurance rates to get the best deal. If you already have one car insured this is an opportunity to earn a multi-car discount by insuring a second car. You can even make the call on the day that you buy the car. So you’ll have your car purchase and car insurance complete on the same day.

Register Your Car at the DMV

Once you buy a car, you’ll want to head over to the DMV. Depending on your state, you’ll need to bring the title, bill of sale, odometer disclosure statement and any lien information if you borrowed money to buy the car. Once you file the paperwork and pay any taxes and fees, you'll receive a new title for the car. Once you get the car’s title, you and your new to you car are all set to go.

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