Here is some helpful advice from the staff at PrivateAuto about how to buy a used car from a private party.

“Caveat Emptor” - Your Due Diligence as a Used Car Buyer

Buying a used car from a private seller is a great way to find the best deal. Yet, it comes with some risks.

  • Giving personal info to strangers.
  • Scams.
  • Hidden mechanical problems.
  • Risks in transferring funds.

Here are some ways to protect yourself from some of the dangers of buying from a private seller.

Mechanical Inspection

Remember, you’re buying a used car “as-is.” You’re responsible for any repairs once you complete the purchase.

The car can look good on the outside, and the interior can be clean with new floor mats, but you need to make sure it’s mechanically sound. An inspection can uncover hidden problems which might lead to expensive repairs down the road.

You’ll need to work with a mechanic that has the proper training and experience.

Look for a mechanic who is ASE Certified.

The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1972. Its mission is to support consumers in finding competent auto mechanics.

Look for a mechanic with the Master Automotive Technician ASE Certification. A mechanic with this credential is skilled at inspecting and repairing most cars and light trucks.

There are additional ASE certifications for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Verify the Car Isn’t Stolen

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), there were approximately 748,841 motor vehicle thefts in the United States in 2018.

The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is the key to spotting a stolen car.

  • Are all the characters in the VIN legible? Do any appear to be scratched or altered?
  • Does the VIN plate on the driver’s side dashboard (visible through the windshield) match the VIN on the driver doorjamb?
  • Does the VIN on the title match?

You can go to the National Insurance Crimes Bureau website and enter the VIN into the VINCheck tool.

A vehicle history report, such as PrivateAuto partner, AutoCheck, can reveal if the car has been reported stolen.

When you run a VIN through a history report such as VINCheck or AutoCheck, make sure the automobile description matches the car you’re thinking of buying.

Verify the Car Hasn’t Been Totaled

Unless the seller has revealed that the car was rebuilt from salvage, you’ll want to make sure it wasn’t declared a total loss in an insurance claim.

If you are knowingly buying a salvaged vehicle, the title should say, “rebuilt from salvage.”

The VINCheck tool on the National Insurance Crimes Bureau website will reveal if the car has been totaled.

Some vehicle history reports, such as AutoCheck, will include accident reports and will show if the vehicle was declared a total loss.

Vehicle History Report

We’ve discussed briefly how a vehicle history report is useful in finding out if the vehicle was stolen or declared a total loss. But the right report can reveal a lot more.

There’s a multitude of history report providers.

PrivateAuto has partnered with AutoCheck, which delivers the best value for the price. AutoCheck gets its data from Experian and includes a host of data sources.

  • State Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs).
  • Auto auctions.
  • Salvage auctions.
  • Collision repair shops.
  • Service and maintenance facilities.
  • Insurance companies.
  • OEM manufacturers.
  • Car dealerships and extended warranty companies.
  • Import and export companies.
  • Rental and fleet companies.
  • Vehicle inspection and state inspection stations.

Collecting from all these sources, AutoCheck reveals a ton of info about the car’s history.

  • Salvage/junk, flood, hail, storm, fire damage, and more.
  • Manufacturer buybacks or lemon titles.
  • Odometer rollback or not actual miles.
  • City and state of previous registration, number of owners.
  • Accidents and damage reports, stolen vehicles.
  • Rental, taxi, lease, or government use.
  • Lien information, ownership transfers.
  • Collision repair history.
  • Structural or frame damage.
  • Service, repair, and maintenance performed.
  • Total loss and reason for the loss.
  • Stolen vehicles.
  • Open recalls.
  • Emissions records.
  • And a lot more.

The Vehicle Title

Verify the Title Is Valid

A crafty counterfeiter can make a realistic-looking fake title, with the state seal, watermark and all.

Some criminals will present a valid title for a different car than the one you’re buying. You’ll need to look closely to make sure the title matches the car.

  • Make sure the title is for the same make and model, color, year model, and trim type.
  • Check the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Make sure it matches the VIN on the title.
  • You can find a car’s VIN on a plate which is located far-forward on the driver’s side dashboard. It’s positioned so you can read it from outside looking through the windshield.
  • The VIN may appear on other parts of the vehicle. A decal on the driver’s side door jamb is a common location.
  • A vehicle history report can reveal title discrepancies. When you buy with PrivateAuto, you can get a vehicle history from AutoCheck.

Check For Liens

Often the title will show one or more lienholders. The title has “Lien Release” checkboxes next to signature spaces.

The lienholder checks the box, signs, and rubber-stamps “Lien Satisfied” to clear the title.

But it’s too easy to forge a lien release.

In most states, you can go to the DMV website and check for a lien on the title.

A vehicle history report, such as PrivateAuto partner AutoCheck, can reveal whether or not the title is truly clear.

Odometer Disclosure

Federal law requires a mileage disclosure for vehicles less than 10 years old. In some states, you only need to provide the mileage on the title.

Others require additional documents. Check with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to find out what you need.

Test Driving the Car

You’ve determined that the car isn’t stolen, isn’t rebuilt from junk, and doesn’t have any hidden mechanical problems. But is the car a good fit for you? A test drive is the best way to see if the car suits you.

You and the seller will need to agree on a time and place to meet for the test drive. Sometimes that can lead to endless back-and-forth phone calls and texts.

But when you shop for a used car with PrivateAuto, you can use the handy test drive scheduler.

The seller has set up a place where you can meet for a test drive. You choose from available test drive appointment times, and then all you have to do is show up for the appointment.

Negotiating the Price

A lot of sellers will inflate the asking price. In other words, they are willing to sell for less. That way there’s room to haggle with a buyer. When the seller lets the car go for a lower price, the buyer feels that she got a good deal.

How can you tell if you’re paying the right price? A lot of factors go into the car’s market value:

  • Location.
  • Price others paid for similar vehicles.
  • Vehicle condition.
  • Upgrades, extras.

There are a few online resources where you can get an estimate for your car in a couple of minutes.

Kelley Blue Book gathers data from wholesale auctions, car dealers, automobile manufacturers, rental fleets, and other related sources.

Consumer Reports is the trusted buyer’s guide for all kinds of consumer goods. It estimates your car’s value with data from Black Book, which was previously only available to auto dealers.

NADA Guides. J.D. Power now owns the National Automobile Dealer Association (NADA). Pricing is based on dealership pricing by location.

Edmunds. The Edmunds tool collects data about the selling price of similar automobiles in your region to determine “true market value.”

Armed with the market value of the car, you can negotiate a fair purchase price.

Finalizing the Deal

Close At the DMV If Possible

Finalizing the sale at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is the best way to make sure that you have completed all the state’s requirements before you drive away in your new (to you) car.

  • Notify the DMV of change of ownership.
  • Request a new title.
  • Register the vehicle.
  • Order license plates.
  • Get temporary permits.

Bill Of Sale

This documents the terms and conditions of the sale. It should include the make and model or your car, the odometer reading, purchase price, and date of delivery.

Even if you’re buying a car where local laws don’t require a bill of sale, it’s still good to have a legal record of the transaction. When you buy through PrivateAuto, the seller will have a bill of sale that you can sign straight from the app.

Make the Payment

The seller will most likely want secure funds. That is, he or she will want to make sure the money is in the bank before handing over the keys.

There are a few ways to make a secure payment.

  • Pay with cash.
  • Cashier’s check. Since they are easy to fake, the seller might ask to meet you at your bank when you purchase the check.
  • Escrow. Use or another licensed escrow agent. The agent holds your funds and hands them over to the seller when you authorize payment.
  • PrivateAuto provides secure payment options through their integrated banking partner, which makes the transaction both safe and convenient.


Buying from a private seller is a great way to find the best deal on a used car. A lot of times you could pay hundreds, or even thousands of dollars less than you would from a dealer.

But there’s a great risk of fraud, scamming, theft, forgery, and other criminal stuff.

PrivateAuto makes it easy to buy safely.

  • Verifies the identity of both parties.
  • Vehicle history report from AutoCheck.
  • Bill of Sale with electronic signatures
  • Secure payment options

With PrivateAuto, you get dealer-like services without the dealer.