Buying a Car Privately: Do’s, Don’ts, and Paperwork You’ll Need


10 min read

Here at Quoted, we’ve talked about buying and selling cars a lot, and we’ve detailed the various ways to pay for them, and how to make the best choice for you. But what if you aren’t going through a dealer? What if you find a great car in an online listing, or through friends and family?

We asked car dealers, auto experts, and auto industry veterans for their private-car buying musts. The best of their advice, alongside Quoted’s input, below.

Buying a Car Privately, Do:

  • Determine the fair market price of the vehicle you are considering by consulting online valuation at KBB.com and inputting mileage, condition and options to come up with a ballpark price. KBB lists private values as well as dealer trade-in and dealer retail, so you can gauge whether or not the private party’s asking price is fair and whether or not there is room for negotiation.

  • Ask the owner for service records, especially for any major work.

  • Get the car inspected by your own or a third party mechanic to make sure that the wear and tear on the vehicle is consistent with the mileage and to spot any potential problem areas that may need to be addressed.

  • Take a test drive. Look for the small things, like a shimmy in the steering, transmission shift smoothness, brakes that need a lot of pressure to bring the car to halt, how well the a/c works and the quality of the ride.

  • Use a cashier’s check or money order to pay.

  • Look at the car’s registration: Is it up to date? Is the name on it the same name as the seller? (If not, this person cannot legally sell the car in most states and in most cases). Ask for the pink slip. Is the name on it the same name as the seller? There are ways to work with all these situations, so just ask questions and proceed with caution.

When buying a car privately, don't hesitate to ask a lot of questions.
  • If buying through eBay, check out the company they work with that offers quality automotive inspections across the USA for a flat fee.

  • During inspection, turn the steering wheel completely to one side and examine the front tires for abnormal treadwear which would show signs of suspension or alignment issues.

  • Even though the CarFax may seem clean, check to see differences in paint color or hue from one body panel to the next. There are plenty of times a car has been in an accident but not reported to CarFax.

  • Look under the car for any visible rust on the frame of the vehicle.

  • While negotiating the price, let the car run and reach operating temperature (which usually takes 25-35 minutes), and check to see if there’s any overheating.

  • If the car is fairly new, make sure there are no lienholders on the car by doing a VIN check online, or by inspecting the Motor Vehicle title (it should be in-hand by the seller).

  • Go online to safercar.gov to find out if the model you are interested in is subject to any recalls.

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From the experts:

“You may also want to invest in a CarFax search to find out if the vehicle has been in an accident or has had a major repair or recall.” — Matt DeLorenzo, from Kelley Blue Book

“Assess any accident damage: certain types of accidents, like ones involving the engine compartment, may not be worth taking the chance on. If it’s a minor enough issue you and/your mechanic are okay with, find out what it costs to fix the problem and have that amount deducted from the final negotiated price.” — Mike Rabkin, of From Car to Finish

“Walk away if they are trying to rush you.” — Janet M. Nast, author of “Shifting to the Business of Life, A Survival Guide for Young Adults”

“If your state requires, make sure that a smog test has been performed within the required time frame. In California, and some other states, for a vehicle transfer to occur, a smog test has to have been performed within 90 days of title transfer-this is the seller’s responsibility.”
Gary Siegel, Owner of San Francisco Auto Repair Center

“When you finally agree to buy the vehicle, meet the seller in the lobby of your bank. You should have your cash in hand, and they should have a title in their hand. Most states do not require private buyers and sellers to complete a bill of sale, but it’s never a bad idea to do so.” — Jason Lancaster, Editor and Founder of AccurateAutoAdvice.com

“If the car was manufactured within the past 5 years, contact the dealership to check if the manufacturer’s warranty is still in effect, and if not, ask why.” — Steven Mandala, of Scuderia Automobili

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Buying a Car Privately, Don’t:

  • Rely on the owner’s mechanic for an inspection.

  • Buy a car sight unseen or without a test drive.

  • Buy without checking to see if the title is clear. Be wary of out-of-state titles.

  • Bring a lot of cash. Instead, bring enough for an “earnest money” deposit to hold the car and then get a money order or a cashier’s check. (Don’t use a personal check.)

  • Meet at night. Too many things on the car can be overlooked with bad lighting.

  • Believe everything the seller tells you, or at least take it all with a grain of salt. People want to believe they took good care of their car, and maybe they did, but without service records they just don’t remember that it has been four years since a maintenance has been done, not two years.

  • Buy without starting the car cold, after it sits overnight. Sometimes a worn engine will blow oil smoke, or make noise or run poorly only when started cold and it goes away when warmed up.

When buying a car privately, don't meet a seller at their private residence and don't meet alone.
  • Buy a car if you can’t meet the person named on the registration or title. The vast majority of stolen cars that are sold are “moved” via Craigslist (and eBay), and purchased by unsuspecting private buyers who aren’t careful.

  • Purchase a car with obvious frame rust/damage, but also don’t buy a car just because it has a nice paint job.

  • Purchase a newer car without service records; fixing late model vehicles due to lack of service (oil changes, transmission fluid exchanges, etc.) can cost thousands in unexpected repairs.

From the experts:

“Don’t assume that you’re going to get a better deal on a car from a private party than you would from a dealership, especially a franchised dealership. Dealers are heavily regulated, will never sell you a stolen car (and they would be liable if they did), will never try to attack you (or worse) when they meet you, and will provide you with all the paperwork you need.”
Lancaster

“Don’t buy a car with a salvage title. As good as the repairs may be, there’s no way of knowing if the vehicle’s safety equipment like airbags or issues like mold in the case of a flooded car, have been correctly replaced or addressed.”
DeLorenzo

“Don’t buy anything on the spot, always get the vehicle checked out with a mechanic you trust first.”
Rabkin

“Don’t buy without a nice long test drive. You need enough time to know that the seat isn’t going to give you a back ache that after a half an hour on the freeway the transmission, or something else, isn’t going to act up.”
Siegel

“Don’t purchase the car on the first visit, get to know the seller (if its in person), or find references (if online) to make sure the seller is reputable.”
Steven Mandala

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Buying a Car Privately: Paperwork You’ll Need

The paperwork required for a private sale differs from state to state, so be sure to look up the specifics. Some general paperwork items you’ll want to keep your eye out for:

  • The title, which must be signed over to you by the current owner.

  • Ideally, the vehicle’s service records and owner’s manual and anything else that came with the vehicle.

  • Smog test (if required by your state).

  • Title, or in California, paperless title transfer (which requires the seller to go to the DMV or AAA office with you for registration).

  • A bill of sale stating VIN, mileage, plate #, both the seller and buyer’s names and addresses, and the sale amount.

  • Original title with seller’s current information on it. Make sure the name matches the seller’s ID if it is a private, cash sale.

From the experts:

“Any warranty information to which the vehicle may be entitled.”
Mandala

“All keys/remotes that came with the vehicle. There should always be at least two, and if they don’t have two, I’d make them pay for extras so you have two in the end.”
Rabkin

“Release of liability: In California the ROL can be filled out online. This releases the seller from liability of tickets and tolls post sale if new buyer does not register promptly (print a copy and keep in file just in case if you’re the seller).”
Siegel

Have any private car buying tips? Have you bought or sold a car privately? Tell us in the comments.

  • Neil Richardson

    It sounds like you should seriously consider contacting an attorney. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like there would be much that the police could actually accomplish due to the title now being in his father’s name. Very sorry to hear about this terrible situation, but getting an attorney is probably your only option to get results.

  • Jay mans

    Why be wary of out of state titles?

  • Neil Richardson

    It all depends on the coverage included on your policy. You’ll need to contact your insurance provider about the specifics of your policy.