Who wants to buy a car from a fast-talking man in a suit when you can buy the car down the street with a “For Sale” sign in the window?

Used car dealerships are notorious for tough negotiations, so you might think you’ve hit the jackpot when you find a used car for a reasonable price on Craigslist or know someone who knows someone trying to sell their vehicle.

But unlike used car dealerships, private sellers don’t have to adhere to trading laws or provide appropriate certification for their used vehicles. It’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to car sales with private sellers and educate yourself about car mechanics to avoid getting scammed.

Once you get your car, don’t forget to find the cheapest auto insurance you can get! Visit Insurify to find and compare up to 10+ auto insurance quotes for your profile.

Before you shop, take these five steps

  1. Have a car in mind. Pick a vehicle that would fit your needs. Ask yourself what you’ll primarily be using your vehicle for. Will you use it mostly for errands, a long commute, or driving friends and family around? Planning your regular driving routine will help you choose a vehicle within your needs.
  2. Have a budget in mind. While private sellers may quote lower prices, you should still check the Kelley Blue Book price and Edmunds’ reviews for the vehicle before agreeing to the asking price. Most private sellers will also expect you to pay the vehicle cost upfront in cash or check and you might have to take out a personal loan or an auto loan from your bank if you can’t afford the price in full. But auto loans for private party sales usually have higher interest rates and require a good credit score.
  3. Educate yourself on relevant laws. Remember that consumer protection laws don’t apply to private transactions. Also don’t forget to read up on Buyer Beware laws in your state, as they generally dictate that once they buy a vehicle, buyers have no legal right to sue if something happens to the car…even on the day of the sale.
  4. Investigate local ads. Check listings online or in the newspaper, and be picky about which ads you answer. Don’t let terms like “clean” or “runs great” sway you; instead, pay attention to the car’s make, model, year, mileage, and any recent mechanical work. If the ad is vague and doesn’t offer a detailed description, the seller might be sketchy and unreliable. You may even want to ask family and friends if they know of anyone selling a vehicle. You may get a better deal and feel more comfortable buying from an acquaintance.
  5. Make the call. Call the seller at a reasonable hour so that they’ll have the time to tell you everything about the car. Verify the make, model, year, mileage, vehicle identification number (VIN), and condition of the vehicle. Ask the seller how long they’ve owned the car and why they’re selling it. If the seller isn’t willing to give you all the information you requested, it could be a scam. 

Meeting the private seller face to face

  1. Ask for the maintenance history of the vehicle. The seller may have kept records of this; if not, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will be able to check for you. The DMV and websites like CarFax.com can reveal any registered car’s vehicle history report, including any major repairs.
  2. Perform a pre-purchase inspection of the vehicle with the engine on and off. Look out for red flags:
  • Check the body for physical, water, and rust damage
  • Check the tires for defects (new tires should be a red flag because they’re an odd expense. They could be covering up damage to the alignment, shock, or rods.)
  • Check the odometer settingsSome sellers may try to mask issues by changing odometer settings, so you should ask for an odometer disclosure statement.
  • Check the wear and tear on upholstery
  • Check the wear and tear on gas and brake pedals (be aware of new pedal rubbers that may try to cover previous damage)
  • Check the car battery for corrosion
  • Check the air filter for oil
  • Check the engine oil and coolant for grit and particles
  • Check if the heat and air conditioning are working
  • Engine overheating

3. If the seller allows you, take the car for a test drive both on the highway and in residential areas. Drive with the stereo off so that you can listen for any mechanical problems. Pay attention to the check engine light and how easily you can steer and brake.

Purchasing the car

  1. Have all the necessary paperwork. The seller should have the vehicle title and registration title on hand. If they don’t, this is a major red flag. Don’t be fooled by stories about it being lost. The title and registration should be in their name. If not, they might be selling the vehicle illegally or trying to hide a salvage title, which means the car was certified as “totaled” by an insurance company. Likewise, you as the buyer should also have your paperwork in order which includes pay sales tax, title, and registration. Once you make the deal, make sure the seller signs over a bill of sale that verifies the car now belongs to you. You can obtain all of these papers from the DMV.
  2. Hire a mechanic to do a full inspection. If you’re planning to buy a car sight unseen, this might be your best bet to make sure you don’t get scammed. If a seller tells you they already took the vehicle for a checkup, don’t just take their word for it. Hiring your own mechanic ensures that the inspection is done correctly by an independent third party. This will also help catch any problems you missed in your test drive. If the seller is uncomfortable with the test, they may be trying to hide significant issues the car has.
  3. Negotiate. Just like you would at a used car dealership, you can always haggle for a lower price. In fact, you’ll probably be able to get away with more at a private sale. Most private sellers are only looking to get rid of a vehicle that has a poor trade-in value; in this case, they’re more willing to take less than the car’s market value. Pressure them with the idea that you only have a certain amount of cash on you. And if you don’t feel comfortable carrying a large amount of cash, bring a money order or cashier’s check.
  4. Sign the title. Once you’ve struck a deal, make sure both you and the seller sign the title on the spot. This ensures your ownership until you can get the vehicle registered in your name.

Once the vehicle is signed over to you, make sure you update your auto insurance policy, as you could face severe penalties. Driving without insurance is illegal, and you could end up as a “high-risk driver,” leading to higher insurance premiums in the future.

Your research isn’t over when the title is in your name! You can find the best car insurance for your driving and financial needs on quote comparison websites like Insurify, which allows you to customize, build, compare, and buy your policy online.

Updated April 29, 2021

Tanveen Vohra is currently a content writer for Insurify. Tanveen has a background in college media, having produced videos, news articles, and feature pieces for various student magazines and newspapers at SUNY Buffalo. She recently moved to the Boston area, and now works full-time for Insurify, helping produce blog content. In her spare time she frequents climbing gyms and explores film photography.