Buying Your First Private-Party Vehicle? What Should You Know?

Posted on: 6 July 2015


If you've always purchased new (or new to you) vehicles from an auto dealer, you may be reluctant to delve into the world of private party sales. How can you ensure that the vehicle has been well cared-for and is in good mechanical condition? However, purchasing from a private party not only requires less paperwork on your end, but can save you money. If you're not a car expert, there are a few things you can do to reduce the chances you'll wind up purchasing someone else's lemon. Read on to learn more about what you'll need to do (and research) to ensure you're getting a high-quality vehicle.

Run a vehicle history report

Although many car dealerships will take care of this for you for free, if you have access to the vehicle identification number (VIN) of the vehicle you're hoping to purchase, you can ensure that the person selling the vehicle is the actual legal owner, as well as check to see if the vehicle has been involved in any accidents or sustained other damage (like flood or fire damage). A skilled repair person can fix mechanical or body damage so that you might be unaware that the vehicle was ever wrecked, but the VIN report will always reveal the truth. 

The U.S. Department of Justice has developed a database (the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS)) to help consumers access information about their vehicles. This database includes a number of service providers, some of which offer the report for "free" in exchange for watching some targeted advertisements or providing personal information. Others will sell you the report for a small fee. 

Research the vehicle's value

Not only can running a free vin history report give you insight into your potential vehicle's past, but the VIN number can provide you with most of the information you need to get a blue book value. There are several online sites that will tell you the approximate dollar value (both dealer and private party) you can expect to pay. You'll also justifiably be able to discount this price if there are any accidents or other damage in the vehicle history report. 

Generally, it's a good idea to offer less than the blue book price for a private party vehicle -- once the vehicle belongs to you, it's unlikely you'll be able to sell it for much more than the blue book value (unless it's a rare or in-demand vehicle), and it will only continue to depreciate from that point. However, the private party price is nearly always less than the dealer price, so you should be able to save some money by avoiding the dealership upsell.

Bring along a mechanically-inclined buddy

Whether you're meeting the seller at his or her home or a public location, it's always wise to bring a friend. And when you're purchasing a used vehicle (from a dealer or a private party) it's good to have a mechanically-inclined friend to help you look over the vehicle and identify any potential problems. 

If you don't have anyone who can help you analyze the mechanics of a specific vehicle, there are a few things you can do yourself to reduce the odds of needing a sudden repair shortly after purchase. First, start the vehicle and let it idle for a few minutes. Although some variance in idle speed is normal, if the vehicle sounds like it's about to die, or repeatedly sputters, this could indicate that not enough fuel is getting to the spark plugs. Any knocking noises from the engine are also a red flag -- this could mean that the vehicle is about to throw a rod.

Before the engine has warmed up, test the oil level by checking the dipstick. If the oil is dark or there is debris on the dipstick, it's possible this debris could have already entered the engine and transmission to cause problems.

You'll want to take the vehicle on a short drive to test its handling and performance. The engine should still run smoothly, with no knocking or sputtering. Pay attention to things like the response time when you push down on the accelerator or brake. If no obvious problems have revealed themselves yet, you should feel confident that you will be purchasing a well-maintained vehicle.