If you’re buying a used car from a private seller, don’t make my mistake.
When a friend mentioned she was trying to sell her gorgeous-looking 1996 Chevrolet Suburban, I leapt at the chance to buy one of my dream machines. My husband and I had been talking about buying an older, large SUV for towing purposes, so it seemed like the stars had aligned in our favor. There was just one problem: we didn’t have the suspension looked at before we bought the car. Now, we’re paying off a several thousand dollar suspension repair bill.
Don’t be like us. Make sure you’re as educated as can be when taking on a private sale, whether that’s from a friend, via Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, or off the side of the road. These are the biggest red flags to be aware of when you’re buying a used car from a private sale.
No Documents or a Salvaged Title
If your seller doesn’t have the proper documentation for the car being sold, do not buy that car. If an owner doesn’t have a title or the title is in someone else’s name, they don’t have the legal right to sell it. If the information on the title is off, you may be looking at forged documents. And if there are no other documents that note service or repairs, the seller may be trying to pass a problem off to you.
A salvaged title means the car was totaled or is currently not fit for safe operation. Depending on your intentions in buying a used car, a salvaged title may not be an issue. For example, if you’re looking for a project car or are planning on doing a full restoration, you may not mind. But if you need a daily driver, this is not the way to go; you’ll be looking at a hefty repair bill to get this machine back on the road.
Related: Ask The Car Chick: How Do I Get the Best Deal on A Cheap, Used Car Without Feeling Like I’m Compromising?
Parts Were Tampered With
If the car’s VIN number is scratched out or covered up, that’s a very bad sign. If other parts that normally have numbers or other identifying features are tampered with, that’s a problem. That often signals that the car is stolen (or was stolen at a previous date). Don’t get tangled in that legal mess.
Other forms of tampering can include jerry-rigged repairs. If you have to perform a small ritual to make the air conditioning function based on some quick fixes the seller implemented, you’ll want to think twice about making the purchase.
View this post on Instagram
Something Looks Off
Does the car in question sit lower than you think it should? Do the tires kick out at different angles? Does it wobble when you climb in? Is the interior a mess? Even discolorations in upholstery and paint can signal that something is wrong—it may be a sign that the seller or a previous owner has done some spot repairs for, say, a dent or rust that could present an issue later. Listen to your gut instincts. If you notice something that looks strange, find out why.
Strange Sounds or Feelings
You don’t have to know a lot about cars to know when something is wrong. If you hear grinding or squeaking noises where there shouldn’t be, or if you feel the car pulling or shaking, it’s important to discover the source of the problem. Depending on the age of the car, you can usually expect some problems. Not all of those strange sounds, feelings, or smells may be dire. But you should always locate the source of the issue—through an objective third party if you can. And this is why you always want a test drive!
Rust or Other Damage
Depending on where you live, rust may simply be an unavoidable part of life. But if you’re looking at tons or rust or other damage to the bodywork, suspension, or interior, you need to be wary—especially if you’re finding damage on critical components of the car that impact its functionality. This is why it’s important to look at the car yourself and to have it looked at by a professional.
Numbers Matter: Mileage and Owners
The fewer owners and the lower the mileage on the odometer, the better when it comes to a used car. Fewer miles means you’re more likely to have the car at its best functionality for a longer period of time and that you may not have to perform maintenance or repairs right away. In a similar vein, fewer owners means there are fewer chances for someone to have failed to disclose a crash, problem, or damage. Of course, many owners or a higher mileage doesn’t immediately make a car bad; you just need to be ready to inspect everything with a fine-toothed comb.
Pushy or Sketchy Seller
If your seller makes you feel uncomfortable, pay attention. Your gut instincts may be right. If you feel like you’re being rushed, that’s a problem. If they don’t want to provide documents or hem and haw about it, that’s an issue. If you want an inspection done and the seller seems trustworthy enough that you want to believe them when they say it doesn’t need one, that’s also a problem. If the seller fails to respond to your calls and only responds every so often, you’re right to worry. If the seller pushes against a test drive, that’s bad. These are all concerning problems, and if your seller is making you feel off, then something is probably wrong.
It’s always important to be wary, even if the seller seems kind, friendly, or charming. They may be appealing to your pathos, hoping to catch you off guard. Of course, they may just be a nice person—but it’s always best to come at these interactions with a critical eye.
Cars get recalled. It happens. But if a seller is trying to pass a used car onto you that has a known recall that hasn’t been repaired, that’s a big red flag. You always want to make sure recalls are up to date before buying.
Does this old, junky car seem like it costs way too much? Or does this mint-looking machine come with a shockingly low price tag? Make sure you do your research to understand the going rate for the make, model, and year of the car vehicle you’re thinking of buying so you understand, roughly, what the cost should be. Just be aware that costs will be different depending on your location and the condition of the car. But if things seem too good to be true, or if it feels like you’re being scammed, it’s time to put on your thinking hat and understand why. It may be that the problems are hiding under the surface, or that the seller is trying to make a quick buck off an unsuspecting buyer.
You Don’t Have to Know Cars to Make an Informed Buy
You just need to know the usual scams and make sure you won’t fall for them! When in doubt, bring along a friend well versed in what makes the used car market what it is — but all you need to do is trust your instincts and recognize when something feels wrong.