Motor Insurance

How to Buy a Used Car from a Private Seller

If you’re in the market for a used car, no doubt you’ll have had the discussion regarding private seller versus trade dealership. For many buyers, there are too many risks associated with buying privately—but it doesn’t need to be that way. Below we explain the pros and cons of buying privately, as well as tips to make sure you're not getting scammed.

You may feel more comfortable buying from a trader—after all, there’s usually some recourse if something isn’t right, they may be able to help with financing the car, and they should offer a small warranty at the very least—but equally you’ll be paying their overhead, which includes providing for those services. However, if it’s cheap, cost-effective motoring you’re looking for, then buying privately may be the best way. Here's what to look out for.

Buying Privately—The Advantages

Whether it’s about finding the perfect car, avoiding those dreaded overheads, or even just getting a great deal, buying from a private seller does have some advantages over the traditional dealer.

Price

Price is the most obvious benefit to buying privately, but it isn’t just about the actual price of the vehicle; there won’t be any dealer fees or mark-up, the seller isn’t usually trying to make a profit (or cover overheads), nor are they likely trying to ‘upsell’ to you with warranties, servicing and trinkets.

Equally, a private seller isn’t going to be negotiating deals every day, or likely to have much interest in ‘The Art of Sales’ or some such work, so when it comes to negotiating the price, they’re likely to be much more reasonable; more like having a conversation with a neighbour, rather than a trained sales pro.

Time

For the private seller, quite often they just want to get rid of the car in the shortest time possible, with least amount of trouble, and more often than not, with the fewest people encroaching on their property.

This is a huge benefit to you. A salesperson is paid to be at the dealership regardless, they know that there will be more customers through the door, giving them further opportunities to sell, and of course, their fixed rock-bottom price is set in stone.

Yes, it’s true that at the end of the sales month or quarter, they might be a little more flexible, but they still have to make profit.

The Disadvantages of Buying Privately

Buying privately is not without risk, but providing you understand what you’re buying, and the associated paperwork or processes, you can minimise that risk.

No Warranty

This is perhaps the biggest worry of most individual buyers: What if something goes wrong after purchase?

In all honesty, there is little that you can do to change this, but modern cars are complex pieces of machinery and it’s becoming more difficult to hide problems with a temporary fix (AKA ‘bodging’). Even the more nefarious members of society will have to go to great lengths to hide a problem, and it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth.

It’s also worth noting that cars have never been so reliable; they’re capable of delivering quite literally hundreds of thousands of miles without too much trouble, providing they’ve been looked after.

No Financing Options

Buying privately will mean that in most cases, you’ll have needed to get finance in place before purchase. This could be from savings, perhaps a loan, or some other form of credit. Most car financing companies won’t deal with an individual seller, nor will the seller be able to offer such.

Risk of Repair / Lack of Rights

We’ve combined these topics because they can go hand-in-hand with each other.

Should you find yourself with a problem after purchase—the recorded mileage being incorrect, a mechanical default, or even something as minor as missing paperwork—it’s difficult (and expensive) to address the problem, although under some circumstances legal options are available.

For the main part, ‘Buyer Beware’ is the best course of action, and there are a number of things that can help to minimise that risk.

No Social Media Recourse

Social media and ‘social proof’ (sites such as Trustpilot that allow for customer reviews of a business) are an integral part of doing business in society today; experience of the business (both good & bad) can be seen by all and sundry.

Dealerships are very much aware of these tools for social proof, and they’ll usually go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that all reviews are positive, or at least not negative, giving you an excellent bargaining chip should something go wrong.

Documentation

While there are a number of documents that can help to build a picture of the car, and even perhaps the seller, the only document that’s crucial is the V5C, or ‘log book’ as it’s more commonly known. This is the document that (in theory) shows legal ownership of the vehicle.

Along with the V5C, you should always get a receipt, even if it’s just handwritten. Details should include:

  • Name and address of both buyer, and seller
  • VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and VRN (Vehicle Registration Number)
  • Date of sale
  • Price of vehicle
  • Any exceptional notes; if the car has any significant damage, or a total-loss marker against it for example

Other documentation could include:

  • MOT certificates
  • Service history & information
  • Warranty information
  • Upgrades or extras
  • Original supplying dealer paperwork

It’s worth pointing out that just the same as any other paperwork, documents can be forged or obtained with underhand methods, and just because the seller has access to the V5C, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee ownership. If the seller tells you anything other than “I have the V5C right here”, like promising to send it on, that he’s mislaid it, that he’s waiting for a replacement, for whatever reason, you should walk away. You can always make an arrangement to go back once he’s in possession of it.

Vehicle Check

Along with a mechanical inspection, getting the vehicle checked through a third-party such as the AA or RAC is always beneficial. Vehicle information records help to build up a better picture of the vehicle, its history and any potential warnings. Depending on the service (or provider) chosen, it’s possible to attain information covering:

  • Outstanding finance
  • History—stolen / recovered / written-off
  • Mileage
  • Ownership status
  • Accident damage
  • Service records
  • Colour changes
  • VRN changes
  • Previous MOT history (warnings or failures are a great starting point for inspection)

Most of the large motoring organisations offer a similar service, and there are plenty of other online service providers, often fitting within a range of budgets, starting from just a few pounds.

Locating the VIN on a car is usually straightforward; most UK registered or compliant cars will have the VIN located at the bottom of the passenger side windscreen, actually located behind the screen. Failing that, check the ‘slam’ panel (where the bonnet closes to when shut) for the VIN plate. If you’re still unable to locate the VIN, check the location with the manufacturer. If the VIN is missing, be very wary.

Test Drive

In many cases, your insurance may not cover you to drive the car, although some fully comprehensive policies allow a ‘third party’ only cover. While that gives you the minimum cover legally required to drive a car, it could leave you out of pocket should you have an accident.

Having the seller take you for a test drive is usual, although not ideal—some mechanical problems are easier spotted from the driving seat: Poor braking efficiency, vibration through the steering wheel, worn clutch, transmission problems or tracking (the steering geometry) problems are all quite easily noticed when driving.

It’s for this reason that many people choose to drive to the closest retail park, in the belief that it’s ‘private’ ground, and therefore the requirement of being road legal changes. This isn’t necessarily the case, and should you have an accident, you could still find yourself liable for prosecution.

If buying a car without physically test driving it yourself is an absolute no, a good compromise is to have it mechanically inspected by an independent third-party, who should have an insurance policy that covers them to drive other vehicles, providing the vehicle itself is legal to be used on the road.

A test drive is a good opportunity to ascertain that everything is working as it should, you should check the following:

  • Braking efficiency
  • Performance
  • Steering
  • HVAC controls (air conditioning or heater)
  • Wipers
  • All windows and locks
  • Cruise control (where fitted)
  • All lights, including reverse and fog lamps

Hints, Tips and Insider Knowledge

Knowledge is power. You should understand as much as you can about the model before inspecting it—even trivial items can tell a story if you know there’s a story to be told.

  • Are the tyre sizes correct? If not, why?
  • What does the tyre wear tell you? Worn in the middle is a sign of over inflation, worn on both edges could be under inflation, worn on one edge is a potential geometry problem
  • Does the trip computer give an average mpg? Does that fit within a range that you’d expect?
  • Should this particular model have additional features? Do they work? (Think of rain-sensing wipers or auto-lighting and the like—working manually is fine, but if they’re meant to be automatic, it’s money off the price if they don’t)

The key to successfully buying private is understanding as much as you can. While someone may tell you that a fault code reader for the ECU is a good idea, the reality is that they often deal with fault codes and not descriptions—would you know what "Fault – P0149" is? Equally, just as a code reader can be purchased for a just a few pounds, so can a code resetting tool.

You also need to understand that just because the control unit has logged a fault, it may not be that specific component that is actually at fault—it could be another failed component that’s affecting the diagnostic process.

Final Pro Tips

  • Lock down insurance early: Insurance may be the least exciting part of buying a new car, but it's one of the most important things to prioritise. Obviously, you need to have insurance in place before you drive away with your new purchase. But buying a policy at the last minute means you'll probably pay a lot more than you need to.
  • Research insurance costs before you buy: While buyers are acutely aware of the purchase price of a car before they decide to buy it, buyers often haven't done much research on the cost to insure their new car. Car insurance costs can vary widely depending on the make and model you choose, so head to a comparison site to get quotes for a make and model as soon as a car is in your sights. If you're new to the car insurance market, you may want to go with one of the biggest car insurance companies.
  • Cold car: A ‘pre-warmed’ car could be the seller trying to hide a problem (such as difficult starting or oil burning), but that could also equally apply to a cold car—perhaps the starter motor doesn’t work when it’s hot? Or the fuel vaporises? A cold car can always be warmed up to diagnose hot running problems, but a warm car will take hours to cool to ambient temperatures—ask them not to warm it up before you arrive.
  • Paintwork: Never inspect paintwork in the rain, or when it’s dark, unless the paintwork isn’t priority for you. Rain in particular will hide a multitude of sins.
  • Spot a scammer 1: An unknown seller could be trading cars as a profession, while pretending to a private seller. When you call them to arrange a viewing, be vague—“I’m calling about the car for sale”. If they reply with “which one?” you already know that they’re selling more than one car, and while that itself may not be suspicious, it’s unusual. Ask them why.
  • Spot a scammer 2: Always try and meet the seller at their home address, or at least where the vehicle is registered, and if necessary, use an excuse to get inside—whether that’s to sign paperwork or even use the facilities. It’s not unheard of for scammers to pretend they live at the address the car is registered at.
  • Don't be afraid to walk away: Finally, if something feels wrong, walk away. There will always be another car, another seller and another opportunity to buy.

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