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Tips for buying a car from a private seller

Date posted:  5/27/16 09:00:00 AM

Whether you are buying your first car or your fifth car, the process of researching and figuring out how much you plan to spend on a vehicle can be exhausting. Being organized and establishing your needs can help you land a nice set of wheels. 

To cut down on the costs associated with purchasing a car, you may want to purchase a car through a private seller. Follow these critical tips if you decide to purchase a vehicle this way: 

Familiarize yourself with the benefits 
Buying a car from a private party means your vehicle won't be as expensive. JD Power noted that this is because a private party does not need to cover the costs of reconditioning a car, paying commission and advertising, like a dealer does

In addition, a private party may be more eager to sell a vehicle and more flexible when it comes to negotiating a final selling price. 

Private sellers who take care of the car and can provide all of the maintenance and service records are an especially great deal. Because the trade-in value at a dealership typically won't be as high for a car, the savings will be passed down to you as a buyer. A quality car from a private seller is almost always more affordable than the same one at a dealership. 

Understand the risk 
Unfortunately, buying a used car from a private party means your risk for buying used is at its highest, noted Kelly Blue Book. You'll want to ensure you have as much information as possible before making your decision on a car. Some items you'll want to request include: 

  • Maintenance and upkeep information
  • Ownership history 
  • Records of any crashes or body work 
  • Title 
  • Certificate of ownership 

You may also want to request an AutoCheck or Carfax record check to further protect yourself from purchasing a faulty car.

Buying from a private seller also means you may need to meet with multiple strangers when searching for the perfect car. In addition, you won't have a warranty or guarantee like you would when investing in vehicle from a dealership. 

Determine whether the risks outweigh the benefits before committing to purchasing a car from a private party. For some, the cost-savings are well worth the risk. 

Know what to ask 
When you look at an available vehicle, you'll want to make sure you are asking the right questions so you have a good idea of the kind of car you are investing in. A used car may have some issues, so make sure you know what they are before buying. 

Stop Curbstoning suggested asking if the seller is the owner. If he or she answers this question with variations of no, like "I'm selling it for a friend or family member," this might be a red flag. The seller may actually be flipping salvaged cars for financial gain. 

Test drive the vehicle 
One way you can get a better idea for the quality of the vehicle is by test driving it. The Department of Motor Vehicles noted that sellers should first take a copy of the buyer's drivers license, so make sure you have one available when you check out the car. 

When test driving, ask the seller how long you can take out the vehicle. You want to operate the car long enough to identify any issues and determine if it is the right fit for you. However, you also want to be mindful of the seller. Typically, you shouldn't need to drive for more than a half hour. 

Before you start driving, Bankrate suggested first examining the tires. Ensure there is at least a quarter of an inch of tread, the tires are the same brand and size and that the wear is even. You'll also want to check if there are any fluid leaks underneath the vehicle and whether there is any rust on the car. 

Also check that the general mechanics of the car work well. Open and close all doors, roll down windows and check that you can lock and unlock the vehicle from both the inside and outside. 

Ask yourself these questions when test driving the car: 

  • Does the steering wheel ever vibrate? 
  • Does it seem to pull to one side? 
  • Does the car's transmission shift smoothly? 
  • Do the breaks work well? 
  • How well does the car handle above 60 miles per hour? 

If you are not confident in your ability to evaluate the vehicle, consider asking a friend or family member to come along for the test drive. A second pair of eyes can be invaluable when purchasing a used vehicle. In addition, he or she may be helpful when it's time to negotiate a selling price should you decide to purchase the car. 

Consider having an inspection  
Another option that may be appealing if you do not have anyone who can come along and offer an educated opinion is having a mechanic look over the car. It usually costs less than $100 and will be worth the peace of mind. 

When you discuss this option with the owner, it may also reveal how confident they are in the car and their overall honesty. If the seller is especially against a mechanic looking over the vehicle, know that there might be something he or she is hiding from you and other prospective buyers. An inspection up is a good way to quickly identify a car that may need extensive repairs.

Trust your gut 
When it comes to buying a vehicle from a private seller, it might boil down to trusting your instinct. If you don't feel confident, or the seller seems odd, don't hesitate to walk away. Even if the deal seems too good to be true, you don't want to be stuck purchasing a car that is not worth it in the long term.  

Buying a car from a private seller can be a great affordable alternative to heading to a dealership. However, you'll want to be prepared and know what to expect before doing so.