Use these tips for buying a car from a private seller.

How to Buy a Car From a Private Seller

I have had my eye on a van to convert into a camper for awhile now. You might think I’m crazy, but scroll through Instagram (#vanlife) and maybe you’ll understand. It’s totally a thing. Anyway, more often you can get a better deal on a used vehicle if you buy one privately rather than from a dealer. Here’s a few tips to buy a car from a private seller.

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We bought a behemoth of a van.

After keeping an eye on Craigslist (check surrounding cities if you’re willing to drive a bit for your new vehicle) and Facebook market place, a van popped up we were interested in. We can stand in it. It was cheap. And it appeared to be in good shape for its age. All things we wanted in a camper van. It’s a 1997 Dodge Ram Van 3500 with a raised roof. This was our first private purchase of a vehicle. With a little Googling and advice from family, this is what we did.

Get the paperwork in order.

  • Call your insurance. I called beforehand to give my agent a head’s up. She told me that if we purchased the van, I would just need to call her with the VIN to get it added to our policy. You’ll need valid insurance for any permits and when you register/title it later.
  • Check with the DMV. You’ll be driving a vehicle that does not have license plates on it (the seller keeps those). Do you need a permit? In Virginia, you fill out a form for a prospective purchaser’s permit, pay $5 and can print it out. If you live in another state, or will be transporting the vehicle across state lines, check with their DMVs for their policies. We bought the van in North Carolina. I scoured the internet and NC’s DMV to see if I needed another permit. I couldn’t find one. We drove it home no problem. Take tape with you to affix the permit to the back window.
  • Prepare to make a bill of sale. To have a record of your transaction you need a bill of sale for your purchase. You’ll need paper, a pen, and a clipboard or book is helpful to write on. The bill of sale should include: vehicle year, make, model, VIN, mileage, name(s) of seller(s), name(s) of purchaser(s), date, price, and signature of all parties. You’ll want to write two copies – one for each party involved. You could make a printed template ahead of time to fill in later.

We ended up building out a different van for camping. Check out R2 the van!

What should I check when buying a used car?

A prepurchase inspection performed by a mechanic you trust is always a good idea. That can be more difficult to accomplish when if you buy a car from a private seller. In our case, the van we bought was purchased too far from our mechanic to take it in. Also, some seller’s might be uncomfortable with you taking a vehicle out of their possession long enough to have an inspection done. Here are some things to keep in mind when mechanically evaluating a vehicle yourself:

  • See if someone more mechanically inclined can go with you. For us, my dad helped us look over this van in person. We videochatted with him when looking over a different van that we didn’t purchase. Even having an extra set of eyes can be helpful even if you don’t have someone all that good with cars. Plus if you’re driving it home, you’ll need another person to drive the vehicle you arrived in.
  • Check under the car for rust. Taking a large piece of cardboard to lay on and a flash light can be helpful. A rusted out undercarriage or exhaust system can lead to problems.
  • Listen to the engine. Most vehicles should have an even, robust sounding engine. Rattles, knocks, misses, and belt squeaks are not good.
  • Check the fluids. Take a rag with you to wipe any oil/grease on. If all fluids are in need of changing, it might indicate the vehicle hasn’t had regular routine maintenance.
    • Pull the engine oil dip stick, wipe it, put it in and pull again. There’s a line indicating how full it should be. Low fluid might indicate a leak or the vehicle needs an oil change. The darker and grimier the oil is tells you its due for an oil change.
    • Be sure the engine is warm to check the transmission fluid. Pull that dipstick, wipe, put in and pull again. Most transmission fluid is pink, but there can be other colors. Clean fluid is light and transparent. A burnt smell or grimy appearance indicate it needs to be changed.
  • Scan the vehicle for codes. Did you know they make scanners that will talk to your car? They can be handy to have even if you aren’t actively evaluating a vehicle for purchase. This is the one we have. You plug it into the vehicle. The plugs are usually under the dash. It scans it, and sends a report to your phone through an app. Then, if you’re like me, you Google the findings or ask your dad how serious the issue is. It will also allow you to clear any check engine lights that pop up.
  • Check the tires and brakes. These can certainly be fixed, but poor tire or brake condition could provide you with a negotiation point. Look for even wear and plenty of tread on the tires. (Goodyear suggests a penny test for tire tread.) Check the thickness of break pads by looking through the spokes on the tires with a flashlight. You want at least 1/4”.
  • Windshields, doors, windows, etc. Open and close all windows and doors to verify they’re in good working order. Check the mirrors. Click and unclick all the seatbelts. Open the trunk. If it has a key fob, press all the buttons. The van we bought had a cracked windshield. It was still priced well enough that we moved forward, despite what that would cost us to fix.
  • Check all the lights. Having someone with you is helpful. Check all the running lights, break lights, and signal lights on both ends of the vehicle. Lights are typically one of the cheaper things to fix, but it won’t pass inspection without them.
  • Speaking of inspections. Does the vehicle have a current one? If it doesn’t ask why. Definitely ask if there’s a rejection sticker. Some states don’t require inspections for some vehicles. Having a current inspection isn’t a deal breaker, but might give you some insight on the soundness of the vehicle. The van we bought didn’t have one because vehicles that old in North Carolina don’t need them.
  • Test out all the electronics. Try out the radio. Turn the A/C on to full blast. Do the same with the heat. Lock/unlock all the power locks. If the car has a display, mess with that. Anything here could get expensive to fix. The van we bought would blow air, but not cold air. We’re hoping the A/C just needs recharging, but it was a gamble we chose to take.

A BlueDriver scanner can help diagnose issues under the hood.

Now drive it.

Even if you buy a car from a private seller, you should still test drive it. Align the seat and mirrors so you can drive comfortably. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • How does it ride? Lots of bouncing might indicate a poorly designed or worn out suspension system.
  • Notice how the tires feel. Check on straightaways and turning. Feel for any pulling or alignment issues. This also helps to evaluate the steering as well as the tires.
  • Check the breaks. Stomp hard on them (assuming you can find an empty road to do so). Keep in mind larger vehicles tend to have longer stopping times. Any sounds while braking could mean worn out brakes pads or rotors.
  • Accelerate. Does the vehicle move like you want it to? Accelerate hard. Does it shift gears well? Lurching or hard shifting can indicate transmission issues. If the transmission fluid was grimy, it might just need a flush. If the fluid was clean, you might have bigger issues.
  • Check the speedometer. Use a phone speedometer app to verify the speedometer is working correctly (have the person you brought with you do that so you aren’t looking at your phone). I can’t recommend a good app as we didn’t think to do this. Our van has an inaccurate speedometer we will have to have calibrated. We found that out driving it home.

For the actual transaction.

Evaluating the vehicle is the hardest, most time consuming part to buy a car from a private seller. After you decide you want it, you need to do a little paperwork and you’re done. Fill out the bill of sale with all of the things above. Make sure all parties sign and have their own copies. Fill out the transfer section on the back of the title. Each state is a little different, but most include the name, address, and signature of both the seller(s) and the buyer(s). Hand the seller the cash, and get the keys.

Before your drive it home.

Don’t forget to take the existing license plates off. The seller should keep those. Take a basic toolkit that includes screwdrivers with you.

Be sure to call your insurance agent and get your new vehicle on your policy. Because our van was so cheap, we went with liability only. Have in mind what kind of coverage you want to make your insurance phone call more efficient.

Tape any permits you need to the back window. In Virginia, it’s the lower back left window. Be sure to have any necessary accompanying paperwork, like the bill of sale, in the new vehicle.

Check and see if your new vehicle needs gas before driving it home. The gas gauge on the dash will tell you which side the tank is on. Whatever side of the gas pump symbol has a triangle on is the side the tank on.

Once you get home.

You have more paperwork to do. Time to get the vehicle titled and registered in your name. You likely need to pay sales tax on the vehicle too. The Virginia DMV is currently allowing mail in submissions due to COVID-19. If you can go to the DMV you might be stuck in line for what feels like forever, but it’ll be faster than mailing your paperwork. Remember, you really don’t want to drive it anywhere until it has valid plates on it.

I scheduled the windshield replacement to happen while we wait on plates since they can come to us. Once we get plates, we’ll take it for an inspection. Our county does not require a county sticker, but don’t forget that too if you need one.

Figuring out how to buy a car through a private seller can be more work, but it can also save you a ton of money!


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