Buying a Car From a Private Seller In California

When purchasing a used vehicle from a private seller in California, the following car-buying tips will help.
If you want to get the best used vehicle for your price range, it’s important that you stay safe and secure. This article will help you navigate the California car-buying process.

Oh, and, by the way: PrivateAuto has private-party used vehicles for sale in California and also provides an end-to-end platform to get the deal done, from secure messaging with sellers to instantaneous payment transfers.

What is the Process of Buying a Used Car in California?

In California, you’ll go through the following sequence to buy a car from a private seller.

1. Find a seller who has the car you want
2. Negotiate a price you both can agree on
3. Take the car for a test drive
4. Handle paperwork
5. Pay the seller
6. Have the seller sign over the vehicle title
7. Register the vehicle in your name and pay sales taxes and fees
8. Get new license plates

Find a Vehicle to Buy

Whether you’re looking for an inexpensive car or a barely-used luxury car, you’re better off purchasing from a private party than from a California used car dealer. Dealerships need to buy low and sell high to make a profit. Better to cut out the middleman.

PrivateAuto has a wide selection of used cars for sale in California, and we have security and convenience features that none of our competitors have. For example, we verify the identity of all sellers, so you know who you’re negotiating with. You can browse used car listings and make offers within the app, and when the seller accepts your offer, you can proceed to scheduling the test drive. It all happens within the app and you never have to give out your personal info.

Test Drive

When you find your ideal used car for sale near you, and settle on a purchase price, it’s time to take the car for a test drive.

Schedule a Meetup

Other used vehicle marketplaces leave you to organize a meetup with the seller by exchanging personal info and having a lot of back-and-forth. With PrivateAuto, your personal info is kept private. Our handy in-app scheduler allows the two of you to arrange the perfect time and place.

Research the Vehicle History

It’s always a good idea, along with taking a used car for a test drive, to research its history. You can get a detailed history report through a service like CarFax. Or, you can get a car history report when you buy it through PrivateAuto.

AutoCheck now partners with PrivateAuto to provide buyers with a motor vehicle information check and report. When PrivateAuto sellers opt for a Premium listing, we include the vehicle history report for your peace of mind.

Mechanical Inspection

Before purchasing the vehicle, you may want to conduct a mechanical inspection on it. This is at your discretion, and is more advisable for higher-mileage cars. Depending on your level of mechanical savvy, you can inspect it yourself at the time of the test drive. Or, you can coordinate with the seller to have it inspected by a qualified mechanic.

PrivateAuto gives you all the tools and technology necessary to close the deal at the test drive meeting. If you’re opting for a professional vehicle inspection, you’ll be adding at least a couple extra days onto the closing process.


Paperwork is a key part of the transaction process. Different states have different paperwork requirements, but here are the most common paperwork involved in a used car transaction.

Vehicle Title

Both you and the seller will fill out the Certificate of Title thoroughly. Required information includes the following:

Signature (completed after payment)
An odometer disclosure statement (for cars less than 10 years old)

Odometer Disclosure Statement

When you purchase a vehicle that’s less than 10 years old, Federal law requires the seller to complete the odometer reading statement (also called an odometer disclosure) on the back of the title.

Complete the Federal Odometer Disclosure Statement if there’s no room on the title.

You can verify the accuracy of the odometer reading the seller enters on the title by looking at the odometer yourself. Note that there are severe penalties for sellers tampering with vehicle odometers in order to provide inaccurate readings.

The PrivateAuto app includes an odometer reading entry, where both parties (buyer and seller) confirm mileage before taking the next step.

Bill of Sale in CA

In California, a bill of sale is required if purchasing a vehicle from a private seller.

PrivateAuto includes a California bill of sale as part of our standard in-app transaction process. At the appropriate phase in the transaction, both buyer and seller will be prompted to e-sign the bill of sale within their mobile PrivateAuto app.

The entire transaction, including the bill of sale, can be completed in minutes when you meet for the test drive and approve of the vehicle. It’s so fast and convenient you won’t believe it. And then, you’ll always have the electronic bill of sale accessible in your PrivateAuto account to prove that the transaction was legitimate.

Vehicle Identification Verification

As a buyer, check the vehicle identification number that the seller has written on the title. Compare it carefully to the actual VIN on the vehicle. You want to avoid the problem of having an incorrect VIN on the title when you go to register your newly-bought car with the State of California

Four entities can provide a California VIN verification service:
1. The California DMV
2. AAA
3. The California Highway Patrol
4. Private VIN verifiers

The PrivateAuto app has a VIN field where buyer and seller individually confirm the VIN. This helps eliminate errors (or the rare case of outright seller fraud).

Smog Certificate

Smog certificates are one of the documents needed in California that most other states don't require. Most vehicles in California require smog inspections before registering.

Vehicles that don’t require smog testing are:
Electric cars
Gas-powered cars
Cars less than eight years old
Diesel-powered cars manufactured in 1997 or older
Cars powered by natural gas and weighs more than 14,000 pounds

If the car that you are buying does not meet any of these criteria, find a DMV-authorized smog check station and proceed with the test.

For precise locations of smog check stations visit the DMV website.

Pay the Seller

It’s time for you to pay the seller for the vehicle. There haven’t been a lot of good ways to send large sums of money in a private car transaction—until PrivateAuto arrived on the scene.

Introducing PrivateAuto Pay

Our integrated banking gateway, PrivateAuto Pay, allows you to instantaneously send any amount. The seller will get the funds in a matter of seconds, whether after hours, on weekends, or during a national holiday. We charge no payment processing fee. It’s truly revolutionary.

So, if you don’t like the idea of lugging a briefcase full of money or waiting for a check to clear, you’ll love PrivateAuto Pay.

Easy Financing Options

Oh, and if you didn't want to pay out-of-pocket for your next car, you can apply for a used car loan right within the PrivateAuto app. When approved, your profile will show that you have verified funds, making you stand out from other buyers.

When closing the deal and sending payment, our lending partner will pay the seller in full. You'll make monthly car payments to the lender. It's that easy. Wondering how much your payments will be? Our handy auto payment calculator will tell you.

Title Transfer

The key component of the entire transaction is transferring a California car title from seller to buyer. When the seller signs the title and hands it to you, the vehicle is legally yours. There are still some steps remaining for you to take following the title transfer, but you now own the car.

To transfer California vehicle titles successfully, sellers must complete the Transfer of Title by Seller section on the front of the title certificate and include the name and address of the buyer, odometer information, the selling price, and the date sold.

When Multiple Owners are Listed on the Title

If there is more than one seller listed on the title, both sellers will need to sign the document in order for the transfer of title to be legitimate.

Should You Conduct Title Research?

Before meeting with the seller, it’s always a good idea to do preliminary research on the vehicle title.

Any California attorney will recommend using the National Insurance Crime Bureau website to research the title of a potential used car purchase to protect yourself from fraud. It’s rare, but sometimes sellers will attempt to mislead or outright deceive. For example, they may try to pass off a salvage title as a clean title.

Good title research will help you check for:
Reports of the vehicle having been stolen
The vehicle having been declared a total loss in an insurance claim

Finalize with California DMV

The seller is out of the picture and you own the vehicle. Now you need to finalize the process with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (California DMV).

You’ll need to complete the following at your local DMV:
Finalizing the transfer of title with the State of California.
Registering the car in your name and getting new registration tags
Paying taxes and fees
Getting new license plates

Transfer the Title in California

After buying a used car in California from a private seller, you’ll need to complete an Application for Certificate of Title, attach it to the title, and submit it to the DMV along with the required documentation and payment.

What is Required to Complete a Title Transfer with California DMV?
California Certificate of Title
Buyers and sellers signature
A transfer fee of $15

Submit title transfer documentation within 10 days of purchase to avoid penalty fees.

Even though the seller has already transferred the title to you, California requires you to do this step to transfer the title into your name in the DMV system.

Online Title Transfer
California DMV offers title transfer services. Your title can be requested online and will be mailed to your address within 10 days.

License Plates and Registration

Different states have different rules for license plates in a private car sale. Most states require the seller to remove the license plates from the vehicle before turning it over to the buyer.

When you purchase a used car in California, the license plates remain with the vehicle for which they were issued. This is good news for buyers: you won’t have to apply for new plates from the California DMV. You will need to get new registration tags for them under your name, though.

Certain types of plates (personalized environmental, special recognition, or special interest) can be reassigned to another vehicle upon request by the owner and payment of appropriate fees. The owner can submit a form to the California Department of Motor Vehicles if he wants to keep specialized plates.

California charges a registration fee of $46.00 and California Highway Patrol Fee of $23. The initial vehicle registration must be done in person at your local DMV office.

You will need to submit the following:

The vehicle's out-of-state title
A valid smog certificate
Payment for fees

Fill Out a Notice of Transfer and Release Liability

You’re finally ready to fill out the Notice of Transfer and Release of Liability (NRL) and complete your sale. There are a few different ways you can do this. The first, and easiest option is to fill out an NRL online. You can do so by visiting the California DMV’s website and clicking on the button marked “Start NRL”.

The website will then guide you through the process of entering the required information. Once you’re done, you can submit the form online and be done with it forever.

If for some reason, you don’t want to fill out your Notice of Transfer and Release Liability online, you can also complete the process by submitting a paper form. Your options here include printing out an NRL or going to your local DMV office to pick one up there.

Submit The NRL
If you filled out your NRL online, then you’ll have already completed this step. However, if you’ve chosen to submit a paper form, then you’ll have to either bring it to your local DMV office or mail it to them.

It’s important to be prompt about this. California law gives car sellers five days from the date of sale to submit their NRLs. Not doing so could cause you to incur a fine, and open you up to legal liability. Get your Notice of Transfer and Release Liability submitted within five days from the sale and you won’t have to worry about these issues.
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What Fees Are There When Buying A Used Car In California?

The vehicle purchase price never includes the used car sales tax, registration, and title transfer fees, which the buyer will pay on top of the car itself.

Here are additional fees you'll pay beyond the purchase price when buying a used car in California:
Title fee
Plate transfer fee
California sales tax: 7.25% on the purchase price of the vehicle

PrivateAuto charges no buyer fees. The buyer is responsible for paying for the vehicle only and has no transaction-related costs on our platform.

Buying a Used Car in California with PrivateAuto

PrivateAuto makes buying a used car hassle-free. Whether you’re looking for a Dodge Viper, Jeep Wrangler, Range Rover, or Tesla Model Y, you’re sure to find a great deal on the ride of your dreams.

We are the only end-to-end vehicle buying platform that gives you everything you need to get the deal done, from making offers to sending payments.

Browse our used cars for sale in California.

The PrivateAuto purchasing process consists of a few simple steps:

Register on PrivateAuto and get verified

To make PrivateAuto a safe place for everyone, we require email, phone, and driver’s license verification, including facial recognition.

Get started here.

Look for your dream car

It’s easy to browse listings of used vehicles for sale on PrivateAuto. Filter by make, model, mileage, year, and other criteria to make your search simpler and faster.


Make offers on vehicles that catch your eye. It’s up to you whether to accept the seller’s asking price, or to offer a lower price. You can also decide whether to accept ID-verified sellers only.

Meet up for a test drive

As the buyer, you will want to test drive the car. No more back-and-forth texts. You never have to give out your phone number. Rather, use our handy scheduling feature to coordinate a time and place for a test drive. (Oh, and you’ll be able to finalize the transaction instantly at the test drive location, FYI.)


After you are satisfied with the car and the two of you have agreed on a purchase price, you can easily e-sign the Bill of Sale within our app, from your phone. With our shared documents feature, you can easily locate the paperwork needed after the sale.

Pay the seller on the spot

Before PrivateAuto, receiving funds was the most stressful part of the entire purchasing process, especially for any used vehicle purchases over $5,000. There just aren’t a lot of good ways to move large amounts of money quickly and conveniently.

Those days are over! Verify and send out the funds instantaneously with PrivateAuto Pay, our innovative banking integration. Guaranteed funds for transactions large and small.

Transfer car title

When purchasing a used vehicle, you must fill out the necessary information on the title transfer document.

Looking to sell your car? Choose PrivateAuto to get the best price and transact easily and safely!

California Car Buying FAQ

What kind of insurance does a used car need?

Used cars, just like new cars, are required to have liability auto insurance at a minimum. Every insurance company will have different rates, so shop around.

The California DMV requires you to carry evidence of your auto insurance in your car, and also mandates these policy minimums:
- $5,000 for property damage
- $15,000 for injury or death to one person
- $30,000 for injury or death to more than one person

You can consider purchasing collision, comprehensive, and gap insurance for your vehicle, but these are not required in California.

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