How to Buy a Used Car from a Private Seller

If you want to buy a car from a private seller there are a few things you will need to do, from inspecting the car and knowing what to look for to acquiring the right documents and asking the right questions. Our expert Sue gives some tips in this video from a number of her own experiences. Also giving some of his advice in an Engine Noise podcast episode is another one of our experts, Jeremy. Read both of their tips and advice in this article and learn how to buy a used car from a private seller with confidence.

Tips on How to Buy a Used Car from a Private Seller

Buying a used car from a private seller

Tips for Buying a Used Car from a Private Seller

  1. Know If You’re Looking to Keep It or Flip It

    Before starting, know if you intend to buy this car as a daily driver to own or if you’re flipping it. If you’re flipping the car, meaning you plan on buying it and fixing it and selling it for more, you’ll be more focused on the best deal, and the kind of car you’re buying won’t matter as much.

    If you’re more interested in flipping the vehicle, try buying cars not for sale. You can do this by being someone who people seek to sell cars to, has cash around, and gives lowball offers to get the car off their hands. You can also do this with cars that have been sitting on someone’s property untouched for long periods of time. Ask them if they’re doing anything with the car that has been sitting. You might get a good deal for getting it off their lawn.

  2. Know the Car You’re Looking for

    Before you begin, you want to know the exact kind of model you want to buy.

    Know the vehicle, find out what the kinds of problems owners run into on them, and drive as many as you can. It’s harder to compare two different models than two cars of the same model. This will help you see what makes one better than the other.

    You can find models by searching on sites that are known for initiating these kinds of purchases, like craigslist.

    Also, go with your gut feeling. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. For example, you might care if it has body work damage and you’re not the kind of person to fix that, so you’ll have to bring it to a professional, which, in this example, isn’t something you’re interested in doing.

  3. Get the Mileage and Check its Value Online

    If you know what model you’re looking for, you can get the mileage to get an idea of its worth. Searching for it on sites like Kelly Blue Book and NADA, which are free online, will give you a more accurate price of what the dealer is looking at. You’ll need the model and the amount of mileage it has.

  4. Don’t Look in the Rain and Bring Someone With You

    Don’t look at the used car in the rain. Rain will make it look better than it really is. It can make it look shiny, and it can hide the visibility of surface-level scratches.

    Meet the private seller of the used car in the daylight for a good visual, and so you can see underneath the vehicle without a flashlight.

    Bring someone with you if you don’t know the seller.

  5. Look at the Vehicle’s History

    Get a Carfax report of the car. These reports cost around $20 and are worth it if you’re seriously considering spending money on the car. It will tell you if it has a salvage title, accident reports, previous owners, and more.

    If you’re just looking to flip the vehicle, you’re pulling it from someone’s yard, and it already has its problems, so you won’t need a Carfax report.

    Apart from using site like Kelly Blue Book or NADA for its value, you can also get free info of its history with the vehicle’s VIN number. Some sites might require you to pay to get a complete history, but search with the VIN on some sites like the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), and it will give you free info about the vehicle’s history.

    Also, see if you can get a general vehicle maintenance history from the seller of repairs, like brakes, shocks, water pumps, etc.

  6. Ask Questions

    Ask the private seller questions like, “Why are you selling? Is it a lemon?” See if you can get a different story than what’s believable, or judge if their reasons sound realistic, like someone trying to sell an extra car because they do not want to give it to a family member, for example.

    Ask some of the questions featured throughout these steps if needed.

  7. Make Sure It Has a Clean Title

    You’ll want a clean title. The paper title will say “Salvage” if it’s not a clean title. A clean title doesn’t say “Salvage” and hasn’t been totaled by insurance in the past. If it’s been totaled by insurance, the value of the vehicle is halved.

  8. Inspect the Car for Different Body Panels

    Look for mismatched body panels, which indicate it has been in an accident.

    Look for structural rust.

    Bring a code reader and check the readiness monitor. If it has been cleared of any codes recently, the scanner will read a message like, “not ready, not ready, not ready.” A seller might do this if they don’t want you to see any codes, which could indicate there’s an ongoing issue with the car.

  9. Check for Rusting and Leaking Underneath

    Look for rust or leaks underneath. Check underneath for leaking coolant or oil.

  10. Check the Suspension

    Bounce test the car the pressing down on the front or rear and releasing. Seeing if the vehicle bounces excessively. If it doesn’t move, there may be a broken coil spring. If it bounces too much, suspension parts are probably worn.

    Feel the coil spring for damage. Make sure no animals are living inside, and make sure the spring isn’t broken. It wont hurt you if you touch it when the car isn’t moving.

  11. Check the Tires

    Look at the tires’ tread and see if any are worn or uneven, and look for dry rot. You will have to replace the tire if its dry rotted, and uneven tire wear could indicate there’s an issue with other parts like the steering.

    Look at the dates of the tires and when they were made. You will find the acronym DOT and some numbers. Look at the 4 digits at the end. The first two numbers indicate the week, and the last two indicate the year when it was manufactured. This is a sign that the tire is a couple years old. Will it be good on the highway with heat?

    Grab the tire firmly at the 3 and 9 o’clock position, turning it in and out and back and forth. Feel for wear on the tie rod ends. You want zero movement. If you can get movement, they are not in good condition.

  12. Check the Fluids like Oil and Transmission

    Is battery the brand new? Is the alternator working? Ask the history of the car. There could be an electrical draw, so check for a battery light turning on.

    Ask if you can look at engine. Look for delinquent care, meaning you get the impression they don’t really care about it. Borrow a code reader or buy one and read the codes. The engine light should not be on. If it’s not on, put the code reader in and check the readiness monitor. If it was cleared before you came, it will say no monitors are ready, or the battery has been disconnected and the codes have been cleared so you can’t see check engine light.

    Make sure the engine is not warm and has not been running. Start the engine after looking at fluids.

    Check the oil level under the hood and make sure that it’s clean. Remove the oil stick and check for clean oil and a good level. Creamy oil means coolant is in the engine and black oil means there’s gas in it.

    Check the transmission fluid for a burnt smell. You want it to be red. If there’s no dipstick, rely on a road test and feel how it feels and shifts.

    Check the coolant overflow tank for a proper coolant level.

    Make sure there is some fluid in the washer tank, which is a sign there’s no crack.

    Check the master cylinder. You can always do a brake flush. See if you can check the level and condition.

    Check what maintenance may have been done under the hood.

  13. Check the Thickness of the Brakes

    Listen to the brakes when driving, Listen for scraping and a vibrating brake pedal.

    See if the rotors are rusted. Surface rust means it’s been sitting. Why has the car been sitting for so long?

  14. Check for an Oil Sticker

    An oil sticker may give you an idea of when it was last due or how well the owner took care of the car.

  15. Check for an Inspection Sticker

    Check if it has a passing inspection sticker or if it’s currently past the inspection date. You may not be able to get it inspected. This gives you a reason to lowball them since it will cost you a bit to get the vehicle running.

  16. Look at the Dash When the Car Is Turned on

    Turn the key to the ON position. Every light should turn on. If the check engine light doesn’t turn on with others, its burned out or someone pulled the bulb out. If there’s a problem, some private sellers might pull a bulb out to make it seem like there’s no issue.

  17. Check the Windows and the Seat Belts

    Make sure all the windows work and check the seat belt for restraints. Pull the belt and see how well it works.

  18. Look for Smells and Burn Marks

    Look for cigarette burns on the dash, door, and the seats. You don’t want to be surprised your car smells like smoke after sitting during a rainy day or week, and it can smell again if it was a smoker’s car. The seller might be able to hide the smell momentarily.

    Check for moisture forming inside, which could be a sign water is leaking and getting inside.

    Look at nooks and crannies for dirt and debris to see how well it was taken care of. This may give you an idea of how they treat it.

  19. Start with a Cold Car

    Some cars will need to be warmed up for a certain amount of minutes, usually if it’s older, has been used and has more problems. If you don’t start with it cold, you may not know the engine needs to be warmed up.

    The transmission also doesn’t always shift right when cold. Once they have warmed up, they shift nicer, and this can give the appearance that the transmission is in better condition than it is.

    Listen for noises. If you start it, feel the brake pedal if possible for how well it moves, and make sure it doesn’t slowly press down, which indicates there’s a problem with the brake system.

  20. Take the Car for a Road Test

    The private seller should be willing to at least drive the car for you.
    This will give you an opportunity to diagnose problems during the drive and add up repair costs. Assess what you’ll spend to fix it, especially if you’re flipping it.

  21. Check the Heat and AC

    Check the air conditioning and the heat. See if it was warmed up first before you got there. The seller may have prepared it to prove to you it runs better than it does. You want to see it start cold and get a true idea of how the car runs.

    Listen for a loud sound from the blower motor, which could indicate there’s a problem with it. Turn the AC to cold without the AC on. This should turn to the interior to the temperature outside and shows a module is not stuck on heat inside the heater box.

    Put the AC on. Listen for the AC compressor to turn on, which is a good sign.

    You can also put an AC/heating thermometer in the vent. Turn the fan on high and the AC on and see what the temperature goes to with windows up for the recirculating air mode. Listen for the fan to come on. It should, and it’s a sign the circuits are good.

  22. Feel How the Transmission Shifts and the Car Turns

    If it shifts, check the brakes, check the lights, make sure the clutch works if it’s a manual, and make sure the shifter doesn’t pop out of gear. Confirm the horn works, and that the engine doesn’t over heat.

    If the transmission slams into Drive and Reverse, there could be motor mount or transmission problem.

    Do sharp donuts in a parking lot to check the suspension—listen for clicking and clacking from axles, and do a turn in both directions.

  23. Jeremy’s Tip: Buy 5-Year-Old Cars

    Buying 5-year-old cars will help you save money. These cars are still new enough to not have major problems for the mileage, which will probably be around 40,000, but still old enough to have lost the initial price tag. They will also have a good 40,000 to 50,000 miles left before major repairs, and those will probably be normal maintenance like brakes, tires, transmission service, and then after 5 years of owning the vehicle, you’ll be replacing parts like the timing belt, AC, and clutch if it has a manual transmission.

  24. Get a Bill of Sale

    If you want to buy it, get a bill of sale even if you know the title is clean.


    I ___ selling a ___ VIN ___ with ___ miles
    for the sum of ___ as is as seen
    to ___ on ___

    Seller __
    Buyer __

Listen to Some Tips on How to Buy a Used Car from a Private Seller

Check out this episode from our sponsored podcast, Engine Noise. Hosts Jeremy and Matt discuss how to buy a car from a private seller with tips for flipping and purchasing cars.

More DIY Tips: Learn How to Do More Than Buy a Used Car From a Private Seller

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How to Buy a Used Car from a Private Seller - Expert Advice - 1A Auto
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How to Buy a Used Car from a Private Seller - Expert Advice - 1A Auto
This guide reviews how to buy a car from a private seller with tips from two of our mechanics who have tons of experience buying, selling, and fixing cars
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