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Insider Tips on Buying a Used Car From a Private Seller

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If you have been meaning to buy a vehicle for business or personal use but don't have enough money in the bank for its purchase, the typical alternative is to buy a used car at its rock-bottom price from a private seller.

However, there are several pros and cons to consider when going this route. Dealing with an individual and not a business entity will save you a lot on dealer fees but you won’t also get dealer warranties. You can’t also cancel the sale in case you change your mind a day after purchasing the vehicle and discovering major engine issues.

Here are some tips for a safe and smooth experience on buying a used car from a private seller:

1. Ask questions

Whether or not you’re communicating with the seller on online marketplaces or in person, never hesitate to ask questions about the car’s condition even before checking the vehicle and test driving it. Sometimes, you can sense a scam or bad sale as early as this stage, especially when the seller’s answers do not really make sense.

Some good questions to ask include:

  • Why are you selling the car?
  • Are you the original owner? If not, who owned the car before you?
  • How long have you owned the car?
  • Where did you buy it?
  • What was the car used for?
  • Who has been driving it lately?
  • Have you taken the car off-road?
  • What issues have come up since you bought it?
  • What are its issues at present?
  • What car parts are not original?
  • Has it been in an accident?
  • Have the airbags ever been deployed?
  • How often have you been taking the car for maintenance and where?
  • Can I see your service records?

2. Run a VIN check

You can check the car’s history report if you know its vehicle identification number (VIN). This identifying code for a specific automobile is usually found on the driver's side of the dashboard or under the hood in front of the engine. If not, it could be inside the driver's door jamb, under the spare tire, or in a rear wheel well.

The VIN check can tell you a lot about the car’s history, including its:

  • Ownership
  • Title blemishes
  • Vehicle maintenance
  • Existing liens
  • Odometer or title fraud
  • Accidents
  • Airbag deployments
  • Flood damage
  • Lemon Title (If it has malfunctioned several times while under warranty and this defect makes the car inoperable or unsafe to drive)

You can ask for the car’s VIN over the phone or online when you’re not communicating with the seller in person. If the seller is willing to give it to you before going out to check the car up-close, you can do the VIN check and save time negotiating for a car with a bad past.

Once you have it, simply enter the code on VIN check websites like or the website of the transport authority in your state of residence and instantly see the car’s rego information.

Pro Tip:

The seller can also send you a VIN check report but it is better to do it yourself. This will prevent any shady seller from altering or deleting some negative information on the report before handing it over to you.

3. Get a pre-purchase inspection

This is a detailed inspection of the vehicle that is performed by a duly licensed auto mechanic or an automotive technician who is knowledgeable in the make and model of the vehicle being inspected. Its purpose is to gather factual information on the vehicle's current condition, including its cosmetic, mechanical, and safety status. It will also uncover existing conditions or maintenance shortcomings that could become potential safety or financial issues in the future.

You can request a vehicle inspection service from any trusted auto repair shop for a fee. You can also have it done by your own mechanic if you have one. During the process, the mechanic will take a close look at the car’s tires, lights, brakes, body condition, and computerized engine analysis among many other things.

Be aware though that a private seller is not used to buyers asking for a pre-purchase inspection, unlike an established dealer. Therefore, you might need to explain to the seller the importance of this process. If you’re shouldering the inspection fee and the car doesn’t have any issue that the seller conceals, this should be a reasonable request.

You may spend money on inspection before actually buying a used car from private seller but it’s worthwhile if you want to avoid owning a mechanically unsound car.

Pro Tip:

If the mechanic gives the car a clean bill of health, consider buying it. If repairs are recommended, however, negotiate for a lower car price or deduct the repair cost from the purchase price of the vehicle if the seller is willing.

4. Use a mobile mechanical diagnostic tool

While it's not as good as getting an experienced mechanic to check the car, it’s a decent alternative if you can’t afford to pay for a pre-purchase vehicle inspection service.

A mobile mechanical diagnostic tool app lets you run a computer diagnosis on the car through a handheld device or on certain smartphones. It comes with a sensor that plugs into the onboard diagnostics (OBD-II) port in the car’s computer. Once connected, it provides a code reading and computer diagnosis of any issue on the vehicle.

However, this technology doesn’t work on old car models built before 1996.

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5. Take extra precautions when test-driving the car

Do not get too excited to drive the car no matter how engaging the seller is. Remember that at this point, the car is not yours and the seller is just a stranger that’s about to ride along with you. Before conducting a test drive, ask for the seller’s photo ID and take a photo of it and send it to a trusted friend or family member who knows about your plan to test-drive a car.

Also, ask the seller for proof of car insurance. If the car is insured, you can avoid being sued for damages if you test-drive it and you have an accident.

During the driving test, don’t get overwhelmed by any fancy infotainment feature like the seat massager or the posh interior. Instead, pay special attention to the vehicle’s:

  • Brakes
  • Stop-and-go performance
  • Highway performance
  • Off-road performance if you’re buying a ute or heavy-duty vehicle
  • Cruise control
  • Power steering, especially when steering all the way to the side
  • Signals, brake lights, reverse lights, and headlights
  • Air conditioning and heating systems
  • All windows and locks

Pro Tip:

During the driving test, don’t forget to check the gas and brake pedals, brake pads, floor matting, and tires. If you’re buying a used car from a private seller with relatively low mileage, these parts should not have much wear and tear. If it’s showing the opposite, it could be a sign that the seller has illegally manipulated the odometer to show a lower mileage than the car actually has.

6. Beware of used car scams

The vast majority of secondhand car sellers are honest, but there are some who makes a living out of scamming unsuspecting buyers.

Before handing over your hard-earned money for the pre-loved vehicle you’ve dreamt of owning, pay attention to how the seller deals with you.

Here are popular car-buying scams to avoid:

Title Washing

When a defective car is sold, the salvage value or the value that isn't going to be repaired because it's a total loss should be reflected in the title.

Title washing occurs when the car’s title is altered to remove the salvage notation.

This fraud, however, can be easily identified by running a VIN check, which reports the car’s salvage history among many other things.

Pay Now, Ship Later

A scammer lures unsuspecting victims with an attractive-looking, usually classic or exotic car at a price way below market value. Any interested buyer is notified that the seller and the car are abroad but will arrange for the car’s shipment upon receipt of payment via wire transfer or bank-to-bank transfer.

Who sends out money without even touching the car? Anyway, once the money is sent and collected, the seller ghosts out.

Fake Escrow

This is related to the “Pay Now, Ship Later” scam that involves a great-looking car at a very low price. The bogus seller may claim that she or he is in another country asks the buyer to make a deposit for the car into an escrow account, and then the car will be delivered and the escrow service will make the payment upon receipt of the car.

The escrow company is, of course, fake. When the unsuspecting buyer agrees to send the money, they either lose the money or receive a car that is defective.

Pro Tip:

Scammers may spoof an escrow company site that looks like trusted sites, like eBay or PayPal, to convince inexperienced used car buyers. The best way for a buyer to protect their money when paying for a car via an escrow company is to make sure that the company legally operates in a jurisdiction where they can be held legally accountable if something goes wrong.


Curbstoners are professional car dealers who pose as individual private sellers to conduct unlicensed sales of cars for profit or resell salvage or flood-damaged cars at auction. They can also alter odometer settings or remove the salvage notation to conceal serious problems with the car.

Pro Tip:

To avoid a curbstoner early on, don’t mention a make and model when responding to an ad. Simply say that you’re inquiring about the car being sold. If the seller replies, "Which car?", you may be dealing with a curbstoner. Private sellers are not likely to sell multiple cars at once.

You can also search for a seller’s phone number and email address. If it returns with several car ads, it’s likely a curbstoner.

Ask the seller for the car’s VIN to check its history, as well as for the service records. Most curbstoners do not have them.

Used cars and the inherent risk of repairs

It is important to thoroughly check a used car from a private seller before making the purchase because once you have the vehicle, you also take all the risk of future repairs. Remember that there is likely no social media recourse when you’re buying a used car from a private seller. Unlike with a dealer, you can’t leave a negative review on social media and review sites if you're not happy with your experience. You're buying the car "as is” so always take precautions.

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