Buying a Used Car: Tips When Making an Appointment with a Private Party

September 14th, 2016 by
used car private owner

If you are planning to purchase a used car from a private owner, it pays to do your homework. Learn the most important questions to ask and things to consider


If you’re shopping for a used car and you’ve decided to take the for sale by private owner route, you’ve got some homework to do before you start seriously surfing the ads in Craigslist and other online classifieds. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Know what you want. There’s a gazillion makes and models out there, so if you don’t want to spend the rest of your natural born life scrolling through all of them, think about just a few that would probably make you happy. You’ll save yourself some time that way.

Get a history report. If you come across a vehicle that really does interest you, you’ll want to get a history report from CARFAX, AutoCheck, or one of the other report providers. If the seller’s ad doesn’t have one available, order it up yourself. You’ll need the vehicle identification number (VIN) to do this, and one-off reports do cost money, but it’s totally worth it to avoid buying a car that’s been through one or more serious accidents. If you’re not familiar with these reports, check out our previous article: How to Read a Used Car History Report.

Check the price against the value. If the photos of the car online give you decent idea of what condition the car is in, you can find out what this car is worth by visiting websites such as Edmunds and Kelly Blue Book. You type in the information about the car and it will tell you what kind price a private seller can expect in your area (based on zip code). Then it’s up to you to decide if you think the asking price is fair or if you should be prepared to try and negotiate a lower price. If you’re searching on Craigslist, you should be able to find at least a few similar cars in your region so you can compare the prices and see if this one is in line with the others. Also run a check on the VIN to see if there are any open recalls that haven’t been completed (see our previous article, Where do YOU Stand on Auto Recalls?)

Call the seller for more information. With all that information (and print it off so you have it handy), call up the seller. This call is not necessarily to make an appointment to look it at the vehicle in person, although it might be. First and foremost you want to find out as much information as possible by asking lots of questions, including the following:

  • Why are you selling this car? What did you like and not like about it?
  • Has it ever been in any accidents that you know of?
  • Has the vehicle been smogged? In California, a smog inspection/certification is the responsibility of the seller, no exceptions. In California you can check a smog inspection history on this website.
  • When and what was the last service performed on the vehicle?
  • Does the vehicle need any repairs that you know of?
  • If the vehicle paid off or not? If not, it needs to be paid off first in order to sell it.
  • Do you have the title to the vehicle and is it in your name? If not, don’t go any further!

More pictures. If there was only one or two photos of the car online, ask the seller to take a bunch more detailed photos and send them to you. In this day and age, that’s really easy to do and any motivated seller should be more than happy to oblige.

If everything checks out and you’d like to make an appointment to see the car in person, keep safety in mind. Arrange for the meeting to take place in a public area, and be sure someone knows where you’re going. Do not bring a pile of cash with you thinking you’ll just pay for the car outright – that is not a safe way to pay in this scenario! You won’t have any way to prove you actually paid for it.

If it feels like all of this is quite a hassle for trying to find a used car, you can always find a reputable dealership or two and shop for your next used car there. It may make for a quicker, smoother experience.