Car Buying

Buying a Used Car: What Questions Should You Ask a Private Seller?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro June 2015

Buying a used car is rarely an easy process. Used cars can have problems, they can be expensive to own, and it's often hard to figure out mechanical issues without an inspection from a trained professional. But if you're interested in purchasing a used car from a private seller, we can help with at least one aspect of the process: questions. It's important to ask the seller a lot of questions about the car, and today we're helping you figure out exactly what some of the most important questions should be.

Why Is He Selling?

One of the most important things you should consider when buying a used car from a private seller is why the current owner is selling the vehicle. Sometimes, it's obvious. Maybe they're moving. Or maybe their kids are gone, and they no longer need a minivan. Or perhaps they bought a new model and want more features, or they just had a baby and need something bigger.

Sometimes, however, private sellers can be shifty about answering this question -- so you'll have to try your best to figure out if they're lying or hiding the truth. We say that because some sellers are getting rid of cars because they're starting to have problems, and some sellers may try to hide these problems from a potential buyer. This is one reason why we always recommend getting a mechanical inspection before buying any used car. But if you think the seller is lying about the answer to this question, that alone may be enough of a red flag to walk away.

Ownership History

Another important thing to consider when you're buying a used car is ownership history. How long has the seller had the car? And more importantly, how has the car been during their ownership? Reliable? Troublesome? Has it ever been in an accident or had any major issues?

While some sellers won't necessarily be forthright about the reliability of their car, it's very important to find out how long a seller has owned a vehicle. A seller who has owned a car for several years is usually a lot more trustworthy than a seller who has only owned a car for a few weeks or months. If the latter is true, it might be a sign that the seller bought the car only to discover some issues -- and now he or she is trying to get rid of it without repairing those problems.

Once again, a mechanical inspection might help you answer this question for sure, but if your intuition tells you a seller's short ownership history might be hiding some problems, it may be a good idea to walk away.

Financial Situation

Another important question to ask the seller before signing any paperwork is: What's the financial situation of the car? For example, if the car is being financed, then the bank is probably holding the title, which means that you'll need assurances from the seller and his or her bank that you'll be the recipient of the title once you pay for the car. You also may want to pay the bank directly in order to ensure that the title ends up in your name.

Some sellers may try to hide the fact that the car is financed, which could end up resulting in a fraudulent transaction. Be sure to ask to see the title before signing the papers, and make sure there's no lien or loan on it. If there is, you may want to talk to the seller's bank in order to figure out what to do next.

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: What Questions Should You Ask a Private Seller? - Autotrader