Buying a used car from a private seller can be an unnerving experience. But there's a lot you can do to make sure you're getting a good deal.

Prepare Yourself

Do your research ahead of time and know what make, model and year of car you're after. You can also find out what you should expect to pay for your car by comparing prices online and in newspaper ads.

Visual Inspection

Once you've found a car you're interested in, take a good look at it, focusing on:

  • Making sure the 17-digit VIN numbers on the dashboard and doors match (otherwise the car could be stolen)
  • Signs of flooding, such as water lines on the engine, new carpeting or upholstery, rusting under the seats
  • Signs of fluid leaks on the ground around the car
  • Fluids levels 
  • Signs of oversprayed or new paint, suggesting repairs after an accident
  • Tire condition

You'll also want to test drive the car to determine general handling and whether there are any rattles, which may be signs of a prior accident.

Questions to Ask the Seller

Asking the seller a few basic questions can give you a lot of information:

  • Why are you selling the car?
  • How many miles are on it?
  • Are there any needed repairs?
  • Has the car been in any accidents?
  • Has the car ever been flooded or declared a loss by an insurance company?
  • How many people have owned the car?

Mechanical Inspection

It's important to have an independent mechanic inspect the vehicle for mechanical defects before you buy. Be sure to get a written inspection report from the mechanic, with cost estimates for necessary repairs.

Independent Research

Depending on where you live, you may be able to get at least some of the following information from your state's motor vehicle department:

  • Odometer mileage each time a car has been sold
  • Whether the car has been in any accidents
  • Whether the car has been sold at auction
  • The number of owners, and sales dates 
  • If the vehicle was leased, a rental car or government vehicle
  • When the dealer took delivery
  • Any vehicle emissions inspection problems
  • Whether the car has been reported as stolen

Warranties

Used car sales by private owners usually aren't covered by the "implied warranties" under state law, so the sale will probably be "as is" unless you have a written agreement otherwise.

You'll want to examine any manufacturer's warranty that may still be in place, to see what it covers, how much longer it will last and whether it extends to new owners.

You can check with your state attorney general's office to find out whether there are minimum requirements for warranties and/or assurance a vehicle will pass state inspection.

Closing the Deal

It's especially important when dealing with a private seller to carefully document the sale before handing over your money. You should have a blank Bill of Sale form ready to fill in with the car's VIN number and seller's name and address.

Rather than bringing cash to the sale (which is dangerous and can't be traced), use a bank draft. If the car turns out to be stolen, you can put a stop payment on the bank draft.

It's important to get the car title and check the registration before giving the seller any money. If the seller can't produce the title, walk away from the deal, as something is very wrong. The seller should record the mileage and the amount of the sale on the back of the title. Be sure to check his identity by asking for his driver's license. If the title shows a lienholder, there should be a "lien satisfied" stamp on it (otherwise, the seller might still owe the bank).

You'll want to get any special equipment that comes with the car, such as wheel lug keys to unlock the lug nuts on the wheels.

With some preparation and caution, you can buy a used car from a private seller with confidence.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I bought a used car from a private seller and the car stopped running after a week, do I have any legal recourse?
  • What items should I make sure to include in a Bill of Sale for a used car that I am buying from a private party?
  • The used car seller showed me a title for the car I want to buy, but it lists a lien that isn't marked as paid off. How can confirm that lien's status?

Tagged as: Consumer Law, Vehicle Finance & Repair, buying used car, vehicle finance repair lawyer