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How to Buy a Car from a Private Seller

Written by Ray Shefska

My career in the retail automotive business started in 1977. Buying a car doesn’t have to be anxiety inducing, stressful, or painful. Instead it can be confidence inspiring, fun, and convenient. Let me show you how.

December 8, 2020

Whether you’re going through eBay, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace, you need to know how to buy a car from a private seller. We’re here to arm you with information you can use to secure a reliable car and avoid scams (which are all too prevalent on these peer to peer websites).

You’re about to learn a few easy-to-remember things about how to buy a car from a private seller that will guarantee you are purchasing a roadworthy vehicle. Our hope is that you don’t end up like Riley, or John

Make Sure the Private Seller has the Title

You should ask if the seller has the title to the car before you even agree to meet them. In your first or second message to them on your chosen platform, ask if they have the title. If they say yes, you should inquire if the title is in their name.

That last part is vital – the title must be in their name. Something you should know about buying a car from a private seller is that some people “jump” the title. This term means they’ve purchased the vehicle from another seller and are now trying to sell it to you without putting the car in their name first. While legal, jumping the title is extremely risky.

You want to avoid someone who is attempting to jump the title because it may indicate they have stolen the car. Surprisingly, some car owners store their title in their glove box (please, never do this!). If someone steals that car that has the title in the glove box, not only do they have a car, but they also have the title. All they have to do is sign the back of the title, and they can sell the car to you.

If you end up buying a stolen vehicle, you’ll end up losing the car. It will likely happen when you go to transfer the title to your name. If you’re lucky, they’ll only take the vehicle and bring you in for questioning. If you’re unlucky, well, it could get much worse.

Of course, purchasing a stolen vehicle is a worst-case scenario. The point is that the person whose name is on the title should be the person that you’re dealing with. Even if the person selling the car claims the title is in their spouse’s name, don’t buy that car.   

How to Buy a Car from a Private Seller: Get a Carfax Report

It’s simple; you need to know the history of the vehicle you want to buy. While an honest seller will tell you everything they know, they might leave something out or not know the entire story.

Grab the VIN from them before you meet up and buy a Carfax report (are those reports trustworthy?). The cost of a Carfax report is well worth it to know everything about the vehicle.

The main things you’re looking for on the report are:

  • Has the car been recalled?
  • Is this a salvage title?
  • Has the car been in any accidents?

Another alternative to a Carfax report is to contact your insurance company. They have a wealth of information at their disposal that goes beyond what you could find by Googling the VIN.

However you go about it, be sure you have all of the information you can find about this vehicle. You need to be positive that you aren’t buying a salvage title (unless you want to) and that you are aware of every accident the car has been in.

How to Buy a Car from a Private Seller: A Mechanic Inspection

We always suggest getting a pre-purchase inspection before buying a car, whether you’re buying from a private seller or a dealership.

A pre-purchase inspection is a specific type of vehicle inspection that a mechanic performs in which they look over the car for any apparent issues. They inspect it for any signs of damage, leaks, and any parts that will need to be replaced soon.

The goal of a pre-purchase inspection is to get a well-rounded picture of the vehicle that you’re looking to buy. Depending on the mechanic, they’ll likely give you an overall opinion: “yes, buy this,” or “no, avoid it.”  

Combined with the Carfax report, the pre-purchase inspection paints an image of the car’s history and gives you a glimpse into the future. You might discover that the lower control arms are going out or that the alternator is failing. This information can be used to negotiate with the seller or help you decide to avoid buying the vehicle altogether.

Something you should know about how to buy a car from a private seller is that if the seller refuses to let you have the vehicle inspected, just walk away. They could be hiding something intentionally, or they may just be a pain to work with. If they’re worried about handing you the keys to take it to the mechanic, have them go with you.  

Be Careful How You Pay for the Car

Due to the price tag and people’s naivety, the private car selling world is filled with various scams. You can avoid most of them by following one piece of advice: if it sounds too good to be true, then it is.

The most common types of scams that we see have to do with how you pay for the car, such as:

  • Paying with Western Union (this one is common when they don’t let you see the vehicle)
  • Ask you to pay entirely with gift cards
  • Want you to pay with cryptocurrency (this isn’t always a scam, but cryptocurrency is often used in scams)

You should only pay for the car with traditional forms of payment. Of course, you should only buy a car you’ve seen in person. That’s right; some scammers try to get people to pay for vehicles they don’t even have.

How to Buy a Car from a Private Seller: Arm Yourself with Information

Information is your greatest tool when it comes to buying a car from a private seller. You should know everything about the vehicle that you possibly can. You should also know simple tips, such as making sure the seller is listed on the title and not paying for the car with strange forms of payment. By arming yourself with information, you’ll be ready to buy a car from a private seller.

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