How To Buy a Car from a Private Seller: Step-by-Step Guide

How To Buy a Car from a Private Seller: Step-by-Step Guide

Buying a car is always time-consuming and a bit tricky, but that’s doubly true when you purchase a car from a private seller instead of a dealership. If you want to know how to buy a car from a private seller safely and easily, you’ve come to the right place.

Read on for a step-by-step guide that breaks down how you should find a seller, how to negotiate a great deal and asking price, and how to seal the deal by signing the right paperwork.

Determine Your Budget and Do Research

Firstly, be sure to do lots of research and determine a budget for your upcoming car purchase. By having a maximum spending limit, you’ll know what your negotiation restrictions are and you won’t spend time chasing after cars that are too expensive for your wallet.

Similarly, doing a lot of research helps you determine which cars you should look for and helps you decide whether a listed car is a possible purchase or not. This cuts down on the time you have to spend shopping and lets you build up a list of key features you have to have, such as:

  • A car with four-wheel drive
  • A truck with a bed of a particular size
  • A car with good gas mileage
  • Something else

Find a Car Seller Online

Your next task is to find a willing automobile seller. This is easier now than ever before, as listings sites such as Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist are filled with people selling cars in your local area. Be sure to set the search controls properly on the side of the screen so you don’t look at cars that are too far away for you to pick up.

Ideally, you’ll want to find a car seller who’s selling a vehicle within driving distance. Then you or the seller can meet in a neutral location. Or you can drive to the seller’s home to pick up the vehicle with the help of a friend or family member.

When browsing seller profiles, check to see:

  • How much the car is listed for
  • Whether the car has any known defects or maintenance problems
  • How good the pictures are and how many pictures there are in total. The more pictures, the more honest the seller usually is
  • If the seller has a history of successful sales on the platform

If a seller has a few bad reviews from previous buyers, look elsewhere for your used vehicle.

Contact the Seller

Once you identify the right car seller for your needs, give them a call or shoot them an email. This is only the beginning of correspondence, so be prepared to send a few messages back and forth. Specifically, you need to ask:

  • Whether the used car in question is still for sale (or if the seller simply forgot to remove it from the listing site)
  • If the price is set in stone or negotiable
  • When the seller has a chance to do the deal

Throughout your correspondence, remain polite and sociable. It’s also wise to ask some extra questions to determine the character of the seller and to decide whether they are being forthright about the deal. Ask the seller:

  • Whether the vehicle has been in a collision
  • If the car was ever repaired
  • Whether the vehicle has service records and maintenance records you can inspect
  • Whether the seller is the original owner
  • Why the owner is selling a car
  • When the car was last inspected
  • If the owner has the car’s title
  • Whether the car was a trade-in
  • Whether the car is subject to auto loans
  • The original purchase price
  • Any other elements of the car’s history

All of this information will give you clues as to the motivations of the seller and the quality of the vehicle. Check reported information on sites like Carfax, Kelley Blue Book, and so on to verify the vehicle history report whenever buying a new car. These resources can enhance the car buying experience and ensure that you don’t miss any red flags.

They’ll also tell you what the fair market value for a car is and make sure you get it for a fair price. That’s doubly important if you’re buying the car with the help of a lender, who may not allow a title transfer until the price has been re-checked.

Negotiate a Price

Trust your gut throughout the process. If the car seems like a good deal from the pictures and the answers to the questions above, negotiate a good price for the vehicle. The seller may be more or less open to negotiation depending on how cheap the car is already. If you want to get a discount, offer to pay for the car in cash upfront rather than financing it.

When you’ve both agreed on a price, it’s time to move on to the actual deal.

Get Paperwork Together

Any private car sale requires a few pieces of necessary paperwork. These include:

  • The vehicle’s title, which should be provided by the seller. You’ll sign this when you become the new owner. This should also include the vehicle identification number or VIN
  • The bill of sale, which is signed by both of you. You provide this to the seller, and you can either download a template online or get a bill of sale from the DMV
  • The odometer disclosure statement in most states. The seller fills in the odometer reading at the time of sale (not before or leading up to the sale date)
  • The lien release paperwork if the vehicle is currently under a loan

Some states may require additional paperwork, such as an emissions report.

If you plan to put new license plates on the car, make sure you have all of your new registration paperwork ready to go, as well. You can’t legally drive a vehicle without a temporary registration tag or license plate, after all.

Set a Meeting Time and Place

The best meeting place to purchase a car from a private seller is a public location, preferably near a police station. That way, you can stay safe throughout the process and be assured that the seller won’t try to scam you or steal the vehicle after you hand over the money.

Alternatively, you can do the sale at your local DMV office. That way, if you forget one piece of paperwork and need a copy of something, you can run inside and get it quickly.

Make sure that the time and place work for both of you. Then set the date and move on to the next steps.

Do a Pre-Purchase Inspection and Test Drive

After getting the paperwork in order, head to the meeting place and ask to do a thorough inspection and test drive of the car. Any seller worth your time will allow you to do both — they shouldn’t have anything to hide. If they try to avoid the test drive or inspection, stop the deal immediately since it probably means they are trying to hide a major problem.

If the vehicle doesn’t have maintenance reports from a recent check, take the vehicle to a mechanic’s shop and have them give it a look over. That way, you can catch any maintenance issues before they cost you later down the road.

Check for things like:

  • Air conditioning quality
  • Mileage
  • Handling
  • Tire quality

Sign the Paperwork and Make the Purchase

If everything looks good and the car seems to be what was promised, you can sign the title paperwork and bill of sale and get the keys to your new vehicle! Hand over the cash, write the check, or send over a bank transfer depending on your preferred payment method.

Don’t forget to contact your car insurance company and to tell the Department of Motor Vehicles that you have a new car. Your auto insurance rates could change as a result, as could your credit score, especially when you take out a new car loan


Buying a car from a private seller might be time-consuming and a bit tricky, but renting is much easier… especially when you rent from Advantage Rent-a-Car. At Advantage you can rent the perfect SUV, truck, or car for your needs in a matter of minutes, plus pick up your vehicle from convenient locations at airports and in major metro areas. Contact us today to learn more!

 Would You Buy a Car Without Giving It a Test Drive? |
How to Inspect a Used Car | Consumer Reports
1 Odometer Disclosure Why is an odometer disclosure required? The Truth in Mileage Act 
(TIMA) is a federal law that requires the | Department of Transportation

Recommended Articles