Buying a Used Car from an Owner Tips

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What Should I Ask When Buying a Used Car from an Owner?

Three Things to Do Before You Buy a Used Car from an Owner

There is no substitute for research when buying a used car from an owner. Following are tips on three things you must do.

Narrow Your Choices and Research them Exhaustively
After you've done your research and narrowed the field of possible purchases, call the sellers and ask for the VIN or Vehicle Identification Number. You can use the VIN number to learn a lot about the car before you decide on a test drive. You will probably save yourself a lot of trouble by weeding out cars that are unsuitable based on their history.

Dig a Little Deeper
Get the Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) for the cars you are considering. If you can't get the TSB, try to find out about any recalls or mechanical problems by calling the dealership local to the place where the car was first registered.

Verify Recent Service or Maintenance
Ask the private seller about any recent work or repairs on the car. You may even want to follow up with the mechanic that completed the work. Even if you choose an independent mechanic you should ask about:

  • The quality of the work that has been performed on the car.
  • The quality of the parts used in repairs.
  • What you can expect in terms of repair or maintenance in the next six to 12 months.
  • The mechanic's opinion about how well the car has been cared for.
  • What is needed to get the car into the best possible shape?
  • How much will it cost?

How to Avoid Being Scammed When Buying a Used Car From an Owner

Avoid Being Scammed When Buying a Used Car from an Owner

Most private sellers are above board. A few are not. Here are some tips on what to look for to avoid being scammed.

Name Confusion

The practice of buying used cars and then reselling them is called curbstoning. It is not legal.

  • When you buy a used car from an owner, the name on the title should match the name of the person standing before you.
  • Before you go out to see the car, ask if the person you are talking to is the titled owner.

Anonymous Location

  • If the seller wants to meet in a strange location, beware. Although this may just be a safety precaution from a seller that doesn't want to invite several strangers to their home, it could also mean you are dealing with a dishonest person that should not be conducting this sale.

Ask Questions

  • Private used car sellers should be very familiar with the vehicle for sale. If the seller cannot answer basic questions about the vehicle and its history, that may be a red flag.
  • Some questions you might ask include:
    • How long have you had the car (this should be consistent with what is printed on the title)
    • Why are you selling the car?
    • What repairs have been made? Do you have records?
    • What is the current mileage? What was the mileage when you bought the car?

Should I Negotiate When Buying a Used Car from an Individual?

How to Negotiate During Private Used Car Sales

There are several things to remember when buying a used car from an owner. Following are some tips that can help you make the best deal.

Don't Be Afraid to Negotiate.

  • Before you call about an auto for sale by owner, you should have some idea of the market value of the car. You can get this information from NADA used car pricing guides or using Kelley Blue Book values. You can also look in your local paper to see how much similar cars are being sold for in your area.
  • Knowing how much the car is worth can give you a place to negotiate from. This information can also let you know if you are being offered a fair price.
  • The buyer has probably added a little padding to the price in anticipation of bargaining.
  • Be prepared to offer justification, based on your research, for the price you are offering.

If the Asking Price is Above Market Value, Ask Why.

  • If the private owner has made significant upgrades that warrant an asking price above blue book value, ask to see documentation (don't forget to look for dates).

If you can't agree on a price you are comfortable with – be willing to walk away.

What Should I look for When Test Driving a Used Car?

Take a Test Drive Before You Buy a Used Car from an Owner

Even if the private seller is the only owner and s/he only ever drove the car to church once a week, you still need to take it for a test drive. Here are some tips on what to look for.

Safety First

Sure we want our car to look great, but it's more important to arrive alive.

  • When you get in the car, be sure that everything can be adjusted so that it is comfortably in your reach or view (for mirrors).
  • How does the seat feel? Will you be comfortable even on long drives?
  • If you have a family will there be enough room for everyone to be seated comfortably? Are all the safety belts in working order? How easy or difficult will it be to load the children or pets in and out?
  • Look for child safety locks, if appropriate
  • Are all of the signals and lights in working order?
  • Does the gas gauge work?

Safety on the Road

  • Does the car provide good visibility?
  • How well do the brakes work?
  • Be sure to check the windshield wipers and defroster.

Comfort Counts

  • Check to be sure the air conditioning and heater are working.
  • Be sure windows roll smoothly up and down.
  • Make sure all of the locks work as well.
  • Ask about spare keys, too. It can be pretty uncomfortable to be locked out.

How Can I Prepare to Buy a Used Car from an Owner

Buying a Used Car from an Owner

Buying a used car from an owner is generally thought to be the least expensive option for getting into a car. If you are buying a used car from a private party, here are some tips to get you off to a strong start.

Research First
Before you begin contacting car owners:

  • Do some research about the kind of car you are looking for. In addition to reading auto magazines and websites, you might also want to talk with friends and family to get their opinions.
  • Know the amount of money you can comfortably afford.
Narrow Your Choices
After you have narrowed your choices to a few cars learn about:

  • Vehicle reliability
  • Annual maintenance costs
  • Mileage per gallon
  • Any past recalls or technical problems (you should be able to find this information in the technical service bulletin of each car you are considering).

Contact the Private Used Car Sellers
You should ask specific questions about the car before you go forward. Examples include:

  • Who was the primary driver? (younger drivers are generally harder on cars than older drivers)
  • What was the car used for most? (Long distance traveling, back and forth to work, etc.)
  • Are service records available for review?
  • Is the title clear and in hand?

What Shouldn't I Do When Buying a Used Car from an Individual?

Buying a Used Car from an Owner: What Not to Do

An auto for sale by owner is often a great deal. You can improve your chances of a great used car buying experience by following these tips.

Don't Buy Without a Vehicle History Report

  • No matter what the private seller says, it is up to you to do some research. A vehicle history report will tell you if:
    • The car has been flooded – even if it looks and drives perfectly now, you may be in for some very hefty repair bills later.
    • The car has been in a major accident – again you could just be buying a big headache.

Don't Buy Without Having the Car Inspected by a Qualified Mechanic

  • Private used car sellers usually offer the car as is. After the sale, any problems that may come up are usually all yours. Let a mechanic find any problems before you buy so you can make the most informed decision.

Don't Let Your Heart Rule Your Head

  • The old saying, haste makes waste applies to used car sales, too. You don't have to buy the car the minute you see it. Take a moment to think if this is really the best choice. What are the downsides of this decision? How will you feel about this decision a year from now?

What are the Disadvantages of Buying a Used Car from an Owner?

The Downside of Buying a Used Car from an Owner

Buying a used car from an owner is usually thought to offer the advantage of lower pricing. But what about the disadvantages? Read on for some tips on the downside of private used car deals.

Private Owners Can't Usually Provide a Warranty.

  • When you are buying a used car from a private party you are less likely to get any type of warranty if the manufacturer's warranty has expired.

Private Owners May Not Invest in Servicing or Inspection of the Vehicle.

  • Most private used car sales involve motivated, conscientious individuals that make every effort to prepare the car for sale. Unfortunately, there are a few private sellers that pretend instead of prepare.

For your protection…

  • Have a mechanic inspect the car before you buy. The mechanic should detail any problems in writing. If you still intend to buy the car, you should discuss these repair items with the owner and decide how they impact the price before you buy.

Private Owners Have a Limited Selection.

  • Especially if you are pressed for time it may be tough to travel around to several individual owners rather than to a dealer where you can look at several cars at once.

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Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D.