Buying a Car From a Private Seller

Know the risks heading into a private sale, and you can get a great deal with less worry.

By Scott Baker (CarEdge.com) | Posted on November 9th, 2020 | Last Updated on November 9th, 2020
By Scott Baker (CarEdge.com)
Posted on November 9th, 2020. Last Updated on November 9th, 2020.
Buying a Car From a Private Seller

How many times have we driven down the street and seen a car in a driveway that had a "For Sale" sign that looked interesting, or been online, and see a "Private Seller" listing that seems like a bargain?  If you're like me, you've seen a lot which have caught your eye.  You get excited, as you feel like you've found a hidden treasure that no one knows about, or you have the opportunity to buy a vehicle, straight from the owner, without having to involve a costly middleman.  These cars often look alluring at the outset, but oftentimes, there is more to it than meets the eye.  

Unlike an auto dealer who has to maintain a reputation with the public to stay in business, private sellers are oftentimes unconcerned about their reputation with a stranger, especially if they live in a larger metropolitan area.  While no one is perfect, private sellers won't always be 100% truthful about the state of the vehicle they are trying to sell, and the track record of some poor-intentioned individuals is suspect.  With that in mind, here are some trouble spots to be aware of when looking to purchase a vehicle through a Private Sale:

  • Sellers lie - While we won't suggest that dealership used car salespeople are always perfectly honest, there's very little downside for private citizens to bend the truth.  They don't have the same sense of accountability that auto dealers have, and they are less concerned about your continued satisfaction, should you purchase a car from them.  It's just too easy for private sellers to not disclose that which they should, especially if it means losing out on hundreds or thousands of dollars.


  • Mechanic's Liens - A seller will generally only be in possession of a vehicle's title, if there is no bank loan on the vehicle.  However, it's very possible to have a mechanic's lien on the vehicle for work performed on it, or for any other unpaid expenses associated with the vehicle.  If this is the case, that liability transfers with the vehicle, and as the new owner, you are on the hook for any outstanding debts associated with the vehicle.  A vehicle history report should disclose any liens present on the vehicle.  


  • Suspect vehicle history report - Most auto dealers will provide vehicle history reports for the cars that they are selling, whereas most private sellers will leave that up to the buyer.  If buying privately, make certain that you get a history report that will show any reported accidents, and a history of recalls or major repairs.  While these reports aren't foolproof, they will usually identify any major issues, or a troubled past.


  • Undisclosed mechanical problems - Many vehicle sellers turn to a "private" sale, only after the auto dealers determined that they didn't want to take a vehicle in trade.  This could be due to some major mechanical problem that most buyers wouldn't see without sophisticated diagnostic equipment, or where the cost of a repair would be so excessive, that it makes the vehicle's value questionable.  Make sure you have the vehicle checked out, and aren't buying something that everyone else has refused.


  • Prior accidents - Vehicle history reports are only as good as the information that is entered for that vehicle.  If an accident occurs, and it isn't reported, then no record of that accident will exist.  Have a professional look for signs of paint work, or replaced body panels, to ensure you're not getting something that's been in a wreck, is going to have ongoing problems, or will complicate your ability to sell it in the future. 


  • State inspection issues - This is a tricky one, but make sure the vehicle that you're looking at is capable of passing your state's safety and emissions inspection.  Vehicle safety and emissions vary by state, so just because it passes in one state, doesn't mean that it will pass in yours, and things could have even changed since the vehicle's last inspection.  Simple things, like excessive window tinting and ground clearance, which may not look to be issues at all, can sometimes prevent a vehicle from passing inspection, and be costly to remedy.  


With a dealer, you have lots of forms of recourse, and there are well-known mechanisms for resolving disputes.  Whether it be the Better Business Bureau, a State's Attorney General's offices, Yelp, or any other form of review system (including social media posts), auto dealers have to live with the consequences of their actions, and they will be reluctant to pull a fast one on an unsuspecting buyer.  While not always the case, a dealer can generally be held accountable for the vehicles that they sell, and they will not want to run afoul of any state licensing agencies or potential litigation.  

For private sales, aggrieved buyers always have the ability to take legal action against a private seller, but that involves filing a suit, and it's likely that the claim will be too big to be heard in small claims court.  So, you may conclude (and the seller may know), that it's just not worth pursuing them, and that you're out of luck.  Unfortunately, most state regulatory agencies don't get involved with private business transactions, and the courts are likely the only path to resolving a dispute.  

If you are considering buying a vehicle from a private party, make sure you do your homework. Obtain a history report, research predicted resale values, compare insurance rates, then take it to a local garage to have it looked over thoroughly before you write the check, or hand over the cash.  If you're like most, you may never see that seller again, and trying to track him or her down after the fact if something isn't as promised, will likely be a frustrating and hopeless cause.  Weigh the pros and cons, and be an informed buyer.  

Caveat Emptor! 

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