Skip to Main Content

How do you buy a car from a private owner?

Two pale hands shaking in front of white car
Nopphon Pattanasri/Getty Images
Two pale hands shaking in front of white car
Nopphon Pattanasri/Getty Images
Bankrate Logo

Why you can trust Bankrate

While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here's an explanation for .

ON THIS PAGE Jump to Open page navigation

When it comes to buying your next vehicle, options can range from traditional dealers all the way to a fully online order that’s delivered to your front door. Purchasing from a private seller can also be a great option to get a good deal, but it takes a bit more consideration than buying from an established business.

1. Lock in vehicle financing

Whether you are purchasing from a traditional dealer or from a private party, walking in with vehicle financing you were preapproved for ahead of time is key to saving money. Apply to at least three different lenders that offer private-party auto loans. This way you can compare potential rates and terms and walk into the buying process with a firm grasp on how much you can afford.

2. Research

Now that you know how much vehicle you can afford to purchase, it is time to begin looking for your vehicle. You won’t be going into a dealership and will instead be looking for the vehicle online using sites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace or searching ads in your local classifieds. Look out for specifics on each vehicle’s mileage and history. It is also wise to do some research on the vehicle model itself to be sure no recalls have occurred.

3. Contact the seller

Once you find the vehicle, you can then reach out to the seller. Ask any remaining questions missing from the ad. Queries on accident history, the number of previous owners and why they are selling are great starting points.

Plan a vehicle test drive after your questions are answered. Arrange this to be done in a public place with a friend or family member present.

4. Check out the vehicle

Take a good look at the interior and exterior of the vehicle before you start your test drive. Unlike buying from a used dealer, it is possible that the owner didn’t check over the vehicle prior to the meeting. Test the vehicle’s electronics and look for any exterior rust, low tire tread or cosmetic issues.

5. Take a test drive

When test driving the vehicle try and get out onto the road to see how the vehicle handles at higher speeds. Check the brakes and pay close attention to the sound of the engine as you increase the speed.

6. Get the vehicle inspected

Following your experience driving the vehicle, it is wise to get a trusted set of eyes on it. Ask the owner if the vehicle can be taken to your mechanic. This way you can have them look under the hood and confirm that there aren’t any hidden vehicle issues. If the owner has any qualms with this request, it is best to walk away — they may be trying to hide a problem with the vehicle.

7. Make an offer and close the deal

Once you know the vehicle is in good condition and are sure you want to purchase it, it is time to make an offer. While you should use their posted asking price as a jumping-off point, use any vehicle issues you found in the inspection process as leverage for a better deal. Check Kelley Blue Book to see what the vehicle’s typical selling price is and remember that your greatest power in negotiating is the ability to walk away from the deal.

Risks of buying from a private seller

While buying a vehicle from a private seller does save you money, it is also a likely place to run into vehicle scams. Look out for common scams like curbstoning, fake advertisements or even identity theft.

These scams can be avoided as long as you look out for common red flags. Do not buy from a seller who seems too pushy. While there is emotion attached to vehicle sales, trust your instinct. Finally, you also should never purchase a vehicle sight unseen and avoid wire transfers.

The bottom line

Buying a vehicle from a private seller is a great way to shop online and save money. But it does come with additional risk so be sure to complete an in-depth vehicle inspection and walk away at the first sight of anything suspicious.

Learn more

Written by
Rebecca Betterton
Auto Loans Reporter
Rebecca Betterton is the auto loans reporter for Bankrate. She specializes in assisting readers in navigating the ins and outs of securely borrowing money to purchase a car.
Edited by
Auto loans editor