Car Buying

Buying a Used Car: Tips for Buying Sight Unseen

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author photo by Doug DeMuro March 2014

Not everyone interested in buying a used car has the luxury to spend hours, or even days, checking out various models and going on test drives. Some people don't have the time to do such thorough shopping, and other drivers are interested in rare or unusual vehicles that aren't always available locally. In either case, we've rounded up a few tips for drivers looking to buy a car without looking at it first.

Get to Know the Seller

I've purchased many cars without seeing them beforehand, and in the cases where I was buying from a private seller rather than a dealer, I was far more interested in the seller than the car itself. That's because a long conversation with a car's seller can be much more informative than hearing about the specifics of the car.

For instance: Why is the seller selling the vehicle? What kind of person is the seller? The kind who would do regular maintenance and fix every issue, for instance, or the kind who might skip a few oil changes here and there? How long has the seller owned the vehicle? A short ownership period may be a red flag that there are hidden problems. Is the seller someone who understands cars? Otherwise, hearing his or her interpretation of the vehicle's condition might not be important. Each of these questions should be highly important for shoppers interested in purchasing a used car sight unseen.

Have a Friend Check It Out

Once you're satisfied that the seller is honest and trustworthy, consider asking a friend located near the seller -- or, if the car is local, a friend with some time on his or her hands -- to take the car on a test drive. Even if your friend isn't mechanically inclined, he or she can provide you with some general thoughts on the car: Does it ride rough? Does it smell? Are the tires OK? If the car passes the friend test, you should feel free to move on to the next step.

Hire a Mechanic

If you don't happen to have a friend who can check out the car for you, or if you're still not sure whether the car in question is perfect for you, consider hiring a mechanic to inspect the vehicle. Of course, this will be more costly than simply asking a friend for a favor, but it will also mean a more thorough examination of the car. This is an especially important step for shoppers interested in a rare or unusual car located in another city, since such shoppers tend to be more interested in buying a car without flaws or issues.

Have a Look Before You Sign the Papers

If you're buying a car located in another city, you might consider spending the money to fly or drive there and check out the car before you sign the papers. It may not be the most convenient advice, but if you're unsure about the seller, if you don't have a friend near the car and if you can't find a good mechanic, it might be your only option. Otherwise, the paperwork will be done when the car arrives, and you won't be able to return it if there's a big flaw. Remember: A plane ticket that costs a few hundred dollars is much cheaper than a problem that costs a few thousand.

If you're buying a local car but haven't had time to check it out first, we suggest doing so before you sign the papers. Even if it means a short trip on a weekend afternoon, it's important to remember that a car is a large purchase, and a broken car could be a large expense. For that reason, it might be worth interrupting your schedule to have a look before you set up a delivery.

But if you can't make it to check out the car in person, our advice should be useful to shoppers interested in buying a used car sight unseen.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying a Used Car: Tips for Buying Sight Unseen - Autotrader