By Anthony Santiago - Editor-in-Chief

December 28, 2023

As we conclude 2023 and approach the new year, it's always interesting to see what articles are closing out the year. 

Recently, an article by Doug Demuro, a rehash of an article on AutoTrader.com by Renee Valdes, reviews the most common questions you should ask a private seller. 

Interestingly enough, I do agree with a majority of questions, and I have my top 3 questions:

  1. What are you selling?
  2. Are there any minor issues or repairs that were recently done?
  3. Can you get it state-inspected before purchasing it? (If there is no check engine light)

It would help if you did your detective work on your own before seeing the vehicle. This includes obtaining a vehicle history report and researching the common problems owners have reported. 

One good rule to follow is to find at least a few examples of the same vehicle for you to test drive. This will allow you to compare the condition and overall performance of the vehicle in your head. 

The same rule applies to dating, jobs, and house hunting. 

It's a numbers game. 

Please take your time to select the RIGHT vehicle for you.

There will ALWAYS be another opportunity for you to buy, and do not feel pressured to purchase unless you are ready to buy.

You want to avoid experiencing buyer's remorse with a purchase that may cost thousands and tens of thousands of dollars. 

Is There a Warranty? (Odd question to ask)

From the article of Doug Demuro, I'm afraid I have to disagree with a few of his questions. 

For example, is there a warranty? Most private sellers would already point out if there were an existing warranty. Plus, there is typically a transfer fee associated with the paperwork. 

Please note that replacement parts and online warranties are usually valid for the original purchaser of the part. I have seen a few listings that tout a lifetime guarantee from FCP Euro. Still, I know from experience it only applies to the original owner because you have to submit a return slip from your order invoice. Don't fall for a lifetime guarantee on parts. It's not accurate. 

Do You Take Trade-Ins? (Odd question to ask)

Another odd question in the article regarding questions to ask private sellers is whether they take trade-ins. The truth is that I have seen FB marketplace listings that list pricing as $1234 or $1, and the seller is looking for swaps or trades with no cash involved. 

However, this type of listing is 1 out of 25 listings. 

If you see pricing on FB that is low or odd, take a closer look at the description. Most of the time, the seller is either looking to trade, gauging interest or parting out. 

As for the rest of the article, I agree with most of the questions. 

Here is another real-world rule: most sellers are TRYING to sell their vehicle, so take any information that comes out of their mouths with a grain of salt. 

For example, the vehicle history report will indicate how long the current owner had the vehicle. It will list when the vehicle was last registered and inspected. 

As mentioned in my FREE VIN Report Guide, it's a little red flag if the vehicle was owned for less than 1 year. There could be a flurry of reasons, but what comes to mind is that they are attempting to flip or get rid of a vehicle that is too difficult or expensive to fix. 

You should be able to tell the vehicle's overall condition when you see it in person. 

Unless you have the expertise or a trusted shop to take the vehicle for repair, I will tread carefully based on the ownership length. 

If the owner had it between 1 and 3 years, that is a solid sign that it was driven, used, and in operating condition. 

If the vehicle has an expired inspection, see if the owner is willing to have it inspected before your purchase. It will save you time to get it inspected and provide you peace of mind that the emissions and engine are operating normally. 

Check Engine Lights

Several reasons can cause a check engine light. The most common "reason" is a cheap sensor or "I don't know." 

In this situation, you should be able to run a quick OBD scan to see what codes come up. 

The solution might need a new ignition coil or spark plug. Otherwise, it could be caused by a vacuum leak somewhere in the engine. Repair costs will vary, so scanning the vehicle for codes is important. 

From there, you can determine what it might need. 

Pre-Purchase Inspections (PPI)

Most private sellers DON'T have the time or patience to schedule a pre-purchase inspection from would-be buyers.

Independent inspection from a shop is a hassle. 

I know from experience and talking with sellers that they get hundreds of texts and DMs on their listings, and organizing them all is a headache. 

You might be lucky to find an open seller in instances of a PPI, especially if the purchase is over $20,000. But for vehicles priced below $15,000, I have seen most sellers stick to selling as-is with no explicit warranty. 

PPIs will cost time and money from your pocket, so I suggest doing homework. 

For example:

It would be a solid purchase if a vehicle passes state emissions inspection, runs well on the test drive, and is repaired and taken care of. 

However, if you have ANY reservations about the condition of the vehicle, sketchy service history, or smoke out of the tailpipe, I would walk away. 

Unless it's a killer deal and a no-brainer. 

I have known that there is nothing more expensive than a cheap car. Repairs will be required, and you may be chasing electrical gremlins, for example. 

The Reality of Buying from a Private Owner

The ideal situation is that the seller is getting rid of the vehicle because they are upgrading or no longer need it. In addition, a 1 or 2-owner vehicle is significantly better than a multi-owner vehicle. Remember, they are trying to sell at a fair market price. 

Expect to pay top dollar for a pristine example with dealership service records. A long ownership history puts the fair market value at the top of the range. 

Be sure to input the vehicle specifications, mileage, and condition in Kelly Blue Book to better understand the going market price. 

What the seller wants and what the market dictates can vary drastically. When the KBB price is under your tool belt, you can share your knowledge with the seller when negotiating a fair price. You should have your price in advance and have a price range. 

Does It Have Any Future Upcoming Repairs?

Another reason the seller might be getting rid of the vehicle is anticipated costly repairs or major repairs in the near future. 

Check out RepairPal.com and input the vehicle brand and model to see what owners have reported as common repairs. You can also get a quick repair estimate of what you might expect to pay out of pocket to fix it. 

Sellers Do Lie

The hard truth is that sellers lie and sometimes don't know. There have been instances where I was told it's just a fuse or needed a Freon recharge. 

However, upon inspection from an indie shop, the AC system needed a new compressor and lines as there was a hole. In addition, a check engine light turns on after taking the vehicle for a test drive. 

The seller acted surprised and as if it was a small issue. As mentioned earlier, check engine lights can be because of a laundry list of reasons. 

In addition, accidents that are not reported can sometimes fall through the cracks on your vehicle history report. 

Check the body panels for wavy lines or paint that doesn't match in color. You can reference the history report for any previous accidents and areas to go over with a toothcomb. 

Cosmetic issues are expected in used cars. Don't let that deter you when it comes to the body condition.

I'd rather take a 100% mechanically sound vehicle over one that looks great but may need some work to get it 100% mechanical. 

Rebuilt Titles

R titles are rebuilt. These titles CAN save you thousands of dollars, but I would shy away from them if you plan to resell or sell your vehicle in the future. Prices for R title vehicles are commonly discounted to 60 - 75% of market value due to the branded title. 

Rebuilt vehicles were previously considered salvaged from an accident, damage from mother nature, or flood damage. The insurance company deemed the repairs more than the cost of the vehicle. 

You can find gems with pennies on the dollar and have it rebuilt. But the value and hassle of selling to the public might be challenging. 

However, go for it if you plan to drive the vehicle until it stops running. Otherwise, you are better off financially to find a clean title vehicle.

Buying a Vehicle from a Private Seller

A good buy only stays for a short time on the market. From my experience, a great deal is typically sold in 1-3 days. If the vehicle is on the market longer than 4 weeks, then the price is typically higher than what the market is willing to pay. 

Secondly, the vehicle's condition might not be as accurate as the listing depicts. 

The market is full of private buyers looking to purchase,e as well as used car dealerships looking to scoop up deals from the public. 

I sold my Nissan Maxima to a used car dealer from South Jersey. The vehicle was sold in under 2 weeks, and I had a few other buyers interested. The user car dealer came with cash, and we agreed on a price. He drove it away the same day.

So, as mentioned, good deals can be found all the time. I typically like to purchase from private sellers since there are no dealer or documentation fees. Also, I can negotiate in person with the seller casually. 

Having a clear goal, a good understanding of the vehicle's service history, and a fair price to pay will help you avoid any pitfalls when buying from a private seller. 

Remember, no warranties are implied, so be sure to do your homework first. 

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Anthony Santiago - Editor-in-Chief

About the author

I am a passionate car enthusiast who likes to help people save money and avoid headaches when it comes to cars. I believe that everyone can find the right car at the right price. I share my tips and experience so you can learn quickly and maximize your next SUV, truck or car purchase.

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