How to buy a used car from a private seller


Buying a car from a private seller can seem like stepping into the unknown, but understanding the process upfront may help avoid wrong turns and enable you to secure a vehicle you’re confident with. Take a look at these tips before you shop.

Research vehicles online

Where should you start when you want to buy a used car? Online is the best place, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Research vehicles to find out what’s best for your needs and budget.

Check out a car in detail

Once you’re shopping for vehicles and find a model that you’re interested in, there are some further points to consider. Check the potential expenses of vehicle maintenance and running costs, and look up the car’s market value before negotiating a price with the seller. Car values can be found in the National Automobile Dealers Association’s Guides, Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds. See if there are any recalls on the vehicle, too, by visiting, or calling the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at 1-888-327-4236.

Inspect the vehicle

When inspecting a vehicle, think about using an inspection checklist that provides specific points to look out for and evaluate. These are available online and from magazines and books. You may want to get a mechanic to inspect the car as well. If this reveals the need for repairs, they can be taken into account when negotiating the vehicle’s price.

Test drive it

Test driving the vehicle in different situations and conditions, like on the open highway and in traffic, is a valuable exercise. “This is your chance to see how the vehicle performs and whether you can detect any problems with its drivetrain, steering, brakes, or other important systems,” says Consumer Reports.

Check the status of warranties

Keep in mind that buying a used car from a private seller is generally on an “as is” basis, and comes without the warranty you might normally get with a used car that is bought from a dealer. Vehicles bought privately are not usually covered by the implied warranties of state law, either.

A privately sold vehicle may well be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, or a service contract the seller purchased separately, but they might not be transferrable to another owner. Ask to review these documents before buying the car, recommends the FTC.

Know the vehicle’s history

Whereas a dealership could furnish you with details of a used car’s history, that’s not necessarily the case with a person-to-person sale. Consider starting off by talking to the owner about it and asking to see the service and maintenance records.

Get an independent vehicle history report, too, advises the FTC. They’re available from a range of sources including databases like the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System and National Insurance Crime Bureau. Another option is using an online company, which typically enables you to search for a vehicle by entering its vehicle identification number (VIN) or license plate and state information.

Ask to see the title

You don’t want to buy a car only to discover the previous owner didn’t pay off their loan, and the lender has a right to repossess the vehicle. Check for an outstanding lien by asking to see the title, bearing in mind the information on a title will vary by state. If you’ve run a vehicle history check with companies like CarFax or AutoCheck, this information will typically be contained in the report. Alternatively, visit your state’s DMV office or see if it has an online service.

Buying a used car from a private seller with financing

When buying a car with the help of financing, check your credit history first, says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Getting copies of your credit reports will enable you to check for errors that might limit your access to credit or, if approved, lower your interest rate.

Then shop around for financing to compare lenders and potentially reduce your costs. Make sure you apply for financing with lenders that accept applications for private party auto loans. If your credit is poor,* there may still be options.


* “Bad” or “Poor” credit generally is considered a FICO score around 600 and below by sources including the Consumer Federation of America and National Credit Reporting Association (reported by the Associated Press),,, Investopedia, and others. The Congressional Budget Office identifies a FICO score of 620 as the “cutoff” for prime loans. FICO scores are not the sole factor in lending decisions by and Santander Consumer USA.

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