Open Road

Tips for buying a used car from a private party

For some consumers purchasing a used vehicle is enjoyable. The thrill of the hunt can be exhilarating. For others this experience can be daunting. For both of these buyers there are some good tips to consider when it becomes time to make that purchase, especially if the purchase will be from a Private Party instead of a dealer.
  • Check the vehicles current available values
Review "Private Party" values and check the dealer "Trade-In" value also. This will enable you to see what the Seller would get if they traded it in. This provides a good window for values – trade-in versus street value, which is leverage when negotiating. Some good sources that can be used for this research are,, and
  • Does the Seller have a rating?
If you're buying the vehicle online, make sure it's from a highly rated Seller. For example, most reputable Sellers on Ebay will be ranked 98% or above. Don't forget to also look through the reviews of the Seller to get a good feel for the type of person you are dealing with. Even still, it's better and preferred to see the vehicle in person than to purchase it blindly because pictures on a listing don't tell the whole story.
  • Glass
Okay, you have made the appointment to meet the Seller in a highly visible location (remember, safety first). The first thing you should do as you approach the vehicle is to take a look at the glass. If the windows are closed when you walk up to the vehicle and you find that the windows are fogging up on the inside then you have a good possibility of having come across a vehicle that has water damage. Walk away. That water is not just fogging up windows. Behind the scenes the water could have been anywhere in the vehicle in any volume be it 1 inch, 2 inches, or 1 foot. The fogging could also have been from a minor thing like having left the sunroof open during the most recent storm, or a windshield seal that is deteriorating. Regardless of what the actual cause is, mold is a greater possibility within the vehicle and the possibility of electrical component decay on connections due to moisture could be on the radar.
  • Smell
Does the vehicle smell like smoke? Often smokers don't realize the toll that smoke impacts on their vehicles. The smoke gets into the electronic components, even ones that are tucked behind a dash. Smoke and its residue can cause advanced decay on electrical connections and solder joints causing premature failures as the vehicle ages. If the vehicle smells like smoke, walk away.
  • Suspension
Rust is a huge concern when purchasing any vehicle. It is especially more concerning if you find a decaying chassis or underbody that looks like swiss cheese. The suspension needs to be handle usage. If you question that ability when you look at the suspension, walk away.
The front shocks or struts have mounting points in the engine bay that usually can be seen easily. Are those mounting points rusty? Will those struts or shocks handle the vehicle road and off road capabilities?
Does the vehicle feel solid when you test drive it? Or, does it feel like it's going to fall apart at any second?
  • Mechanical and Electrical
Initial entry into the vehicle will tell you a lot very quickly. Look for any lights on the dash. Fire up the vehicle and listen to determine if the vehicle is firing on all cylinders? Does the air conditioner work? Do the power options operate as expected – power brakes, power mirrors, power locks, power sunroof, ect.?

As you get into your test drive you will have a better idea of what kind of a vehicle you are dealing with. But, many people forget one thing. If the vehicle has four wheel motivation, you really should check to see if that 4x4 system actually works. Find a dirt or snowy road and stop to engage the system. Does it engage? Once engaged, does it grip if you blip the throttle on loose terrain? Hopefully you've found a vehicle that has this system working properly because repairs can be costly and would need to be taken into consideration when negotiating a final sale price.

If you know what to look for, open the fuse cover and see if the fuse box looks unmolested. If it does not, if wires are protruding or look like they are shoved carelessly in holes, or if there is partial melting of the box, then ask the Seller what's going on, or walk away.

After all these check points are reviewed, then you can look at the really minor stuff – cosmetics.
  • Cosmetic – doorway rubber insulation, shiny paint or the lack of it, tires all the same, yellowing headlights or fog lights, carpet condition, glove box door and center console doors swing and attach correctly, etc.

If the entire used car buying process is intimidating to you, and you would prefer to have nothing to do with it, then hire an independent mechanic to go through the vehicle with you or for you. You'll either need him/her to come with you to the appointment or to bring them the vehicle for their review. There will typically be a small fee associated with this. Peace of mind, however, may make it worth it.

Remember, you are more than likely buying this vehicle As Is, Where Is. So, check and recheck everything because the lack of warranty means that any issue down the road falls on you and your wallet. It's a big transaction you'll be doing with somebody to purchase the vehicle. So, don't feel you need to be apologetic about making sure that this is the right vehicle.

Although this post is geared to a Private Party purchase, the same tips can be used for purchasing a vehicle from licensed dealer. The difference being that a licensed dealer is more than likely going to have the vehicle already inspected, and have already fixed some of these maladies to make the vehicle more appetizing on the car lot to buyers. Dealers are also monitored for regulatory compliance and so have to be more open about their familiarity of the vehicle and their business practices. You also deal with a professional at the dealer instead of Joe Shmoe. These things together tend to justify the higher purchase prices over Private Parties. Even still, going the Private Party purchase route can save you some dough if you know what to look for.

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