Back to Blog

Tips for Buying a Car from a Private Seller

Couple Looking Back from Front Seat of Used Car

Buying a vehicle from a private seller follows the same basic steps as going to the dealership. There are a few key differences, however, because you aren’t guaranteed the same safety net that you get with a licensed dealer. Here are a few tips to help you end up in the right car or truck—and not on the wrong end of a scam.


You have a couple of assignments when it comes to car-buying homework.

Identify what you require: Think in advance about what you’re using the car for and what features you need. Is it for your daily commute or do you need it to handle mud season and frost heaves? Is it important to you to protect the environment? Do you prioritize fuel efficiency and saving on gas? Are you transporting a large family or hauling large loads? Your answers to all these questions will narrow your search to the right makes and models that fit your requirements.

Determine your budget: How much car can you afford? Do you have the cash on hand to buy the car outright? Or do you need to take out a loan that will be paid in monthly installments? Either way, knowing your budget ahead of time helps ensure you don’t stretch your finances too thin with your car choice.



You’ve identified the parameters for your vehicle search. Now it’s time to see what your actual options are. There are a host of sites online where you can look for used cars near you. This includes AutoTrader, Carvana, Edmunds, CarMax, and even Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, to name a few. It’s worth perusing multiple sites to see if you get different results. It will help keep your options open and may get you a better car or price!



Once you’ve identified a car that you want to buy, take a close look at the vehicle history report. Use the vehicle identification number (VIN) to search Carfax, Autocheck, or another site for its history. This will give you important information about the car’s title, any accidents the car may have been involved in, previous owners, service history, and the most recently reported odometer reading.



It’s time to meet the car—and the seller. This will give you the opportunity to inspect the car in person and make sure there aren’t any unexpected dents, dings, or other surprises. You can also ask the seller any questions you have based on the vehicle history report or anything you see in person.

Sadly, you have to be careful when shopping online. When you set up your meet and greet, make sure you do so in a public place during daylight hours with people around. This is particularly true when going through Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. Bring a friend if you can, and never buy with cash. Use a money order or cashier’s check instead.


Woman Sitting In Car Smiling

Find Your Next Car with Ease

Discover available vehicles at dealerships near you with our convenient car finder tool.

Find your vehicle



Give the car a thorough inspection when you arrive at the meeting. Check the car’s exterior for any signs of damage. Look under the hood for any leaks or rust, or signs of regular maintenance like clean oil and air filters. Check the tires for wear and tear. Make sure the odometer reading makes sense compared to the vehicle’s history report. Inspect the inside of the vehicle, too. Does it smell like mold or mildew? Are the seats in good condition and the wipers, headlights, air conditioning, and other features working properly?

Then, take the car for a test drive! Feel for any funny vibrations, listen for any strange sounds, and see how it handles before you go through with the purchase.



Maybe you don’t feel confident in your inspection skills. I know I wouldn’t. Have your mechanic examine the car before you buy. Unless you are a mechanic yourself or extremely familiar with cars, they can check for hidden issues that you couldn’t have identified during your initial inspection. You can also be much more confident in your purchase. You’ll know that you’re not walking into any major issues (and unexpected expenses), or you’ll know what issues you’re dealing with (and can negotiate accordingly).



Speaking of negotiating…Once you’re satisfied with the car’s condition and history, it’s time to haggle! During your earlier research (step 1), you probably came across the expected values of the different cars you were interested in. Use those figures (from Kelley Blue Book or elsewhere) to determine what the car is worth compared to the seller’s asking price. Be prepared to walk away if the price is too high, or if the seller isn’t willing to negotiate based on damages or other issues you or your mechanic have identified. There will be more proverbial four-wheeled fish in the sea!



Assuming everything goes according to plan and you’re ready to move forward with your purchase, this is the most exciting step. When you hand over payment, make sure to get a bill of sale and to transfer the title to your name. You may also want to consider getting a temporary registration or insurance policy until you can get permanent coverage.

At long last, take the keys, put on your favorite playlist (optional, but highly recommended), and drive away! You are now the proud owner of your new vehicle, with the peace of mind that you did all your homework to buy the right car for the right price.


Not a Member?

Join a values-based credit union that puts people over profit.

Join today
Nick Bohlen

About Nick Bohlen

Nick Bohlen is a communications strategist at VSECU, sharing ideas and information with staff, members, and Vermonters. When he’s not writing, he enjoys reading, traveling, and exploring Vermont’s great outdoors with his wife, daughter, and dog.
Reading on Phone

Stay informed

Stay up to date on financial tips, tricks, and tools that will build your financial literacy and help you live a more prosperous life.

Subscribe now!