Buying a Car from a Private Seller

When scouting for a high-quality used car, sometimes you can find better value from a private seller rather than a dealership.

But, while private sellers can offer great deals, there are some important considerations to keep in mind. Let’s look at some tips and advice on how to buy a car from a private seller safely and confidently.

Playing With Price

When buying a car from a private seller, pricing is one of the most important considerations. Unlike buying from a dealership, where prices are typically set, private sellers are more likely to be open to negotiation. Here are some tips for getting the best deal:

  • Know the numbers. Before you start negotiating, research the value of the car you're interested in on a site like Kelley Blue Book. This will give you a good starting point for negotiations and help you avoid overpaying.
  • Don't be afraid to haggle. Private sellers often set their prices higher than they expect to get, so don't be afraid to negotiate. Start with a lower offer and work your way up until you reach a price you're both happy with.

Quality Counts

Another important consideration when buying a car from a private seller is quality. Unlike a dealership, private sellers may not have access to detailed vehicle history reports, and it's up to you to ensure you're getting a reliable vehicle.

  • Take a spin. Always test drive the car before making a purchase. This will give you a chance to see how the car handles, check for any unusual noises, and ensure that it's comfortable to drive. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, ask the seller about it. You may learn something that can either make or break the deal.
  • Read the report. Use the car's VIN number to obtain a CarFax report. This report will provide you with information on the car's accident history, service history and ownership history, which can help you make a more informed decision.
  • Inspect thoroughly. Check the car for any signs of wear and tear, rust, or damage using a detailed checklist like this one provided by This includes checking the tires, brakes, under the hood and many other points of concern. You can also do a pre-purchase inspection on a vehicle where you bring the car to a mechanic to look over. Expect to pay between $100-$200.

Comparison Shop

In addition to researching the value of the car, it's a good idea to compare similar models from different manufacturers. This will give you a better idea of the overall value of the car you're interested in and help you negotiate a better deal.

You can read online reviews from respected sources such as Edmunds and watch videos on YouTube to learn more about the car you're interested in. Reviews from other consumers can also provide valuable insights into the reliability and quality of the vehicle.

By comparing similar cars and reading reviews, you can get a better idea of what to expect in terms of performance, fuel economy and overall quality. This can help you negotiate a better price and ensure you're getting good value for your money.

Protect Yourself and Your Purchase

As you consider whether this is the car for you, confirm what kind of title the car has (and if it’s worth the asking price as a result). Vehicle thefts are on the rise, so it’s important to confirm that the vehicle hasn’t been stolen. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, nearly 500,000 vehicles were reported stolen nationwide in the first half of 2023.

Titles Matter

A car can have a clean, salvage or rebuilt title. Here’s the difference:

  • Clean title: A new car, or one that hasn’t been previously declared a total loss.
  • Salvage title: When a vehicle has been totaled by an insurance company. It’s illegal to sell a vehicle with a salvage title in the US without disclosing it to the potential buyer.
  • Rebuilt title: A car with a salvaged title that has been rebuilt and deemed safe and roadworthy. You can expect to pay less for a car with a rebuilt title than one with a clean title.

Washed Title? No Thank You

Sometimes when a vehicle doesn’t have the cleanest history, scammers will “wash” the title. This involves removing information like liens, if it has a salvage or rebuilt title or has water damage. Scammers can wash a title by moving the vehicle to a different state, applying for a new title or altering the original title.

While it might not seem like a big deal, owning a car with a washed title could mean you just purchased a car hiding a host of problems. As a result, you could end up out thousands of dollars without a drivable car for your troubles.

Avoiding Stolen Vehicles

Another consideration is making sure you’re not accidentally buying a stolen vehicle. Running the car’s VIN through a VIN check service such as Carfax can help reveal if there’s anything questionable about a car.

If you feel like the seller can’t really answer your questions about why they’re selling it, the vehicle’s history or where it came from, those are all red flags and you’ll want to walk away.

Buy Securely and Safely

When buying a car from a private seller, it's vitally important to ensure that you're obtaining legal ownership of the car in a manner that is safe and secure. With a little guidance, you can avoid some pitfalls:

  • Complete a title transfer. Insist on a notarized title from the seller to ensure that you have legal ownership of the car. Avoid any seller who is reluctant to provide a title or who offers to sell the car without one.
  • Consider cash alternatives. Paying with cash can be risky, as it's difficult to trace and can leave you vulnerable to theft. Consider using a check or money order instead, which can be easily traced and are more secure. Also, avoid wire transfers or cashier's checks as these methods are difficult to trace and can be used for fraudulent activities. Be wary of sellers who insist on these types of payments.
  • Exercise caution. Scams are common in private sales. If you're buying from a private seller, do your research to make sure they have a legitimate and verifiable identity. Check their contact information and address and consider meeting in a public place to conduct the transaction.

Buy and Drive with Confidence

Buying a car from a private seller can be a great way to save money on your next vehicle purchase, but it's important to do your research and take the necessary precautions to ensure that you're getting a reliable car at a fair price.

When you finally find that stylish new ride, protect yourself and your investment with the right auto insurance by working with a local ERIE agent. You can also talk to your agent about adding extras like Auto Security1 and ERIE Rate Lock® 2 to your policy. 

ERIE® insurance products and services are provided by one or more of the following insurers: Erie Insurance Exchange, Erie Insurance Company, Erie Insurance Property & Casualty Company, Flagship City Insurance Company and Erie Family Life Insurance Company (home offices: Erie, Pennsylvania) or Erie Insurance Company of New York (home office: Rochester, New York).  The companies within the Erie Insurance Group are not licensed to operate in all states. Refer to the company licensure and states of operation information.

The insurance products and rates, if applicable, described in this blog are in effect as of January 2024 and may be changed at any time. 

Insurance products are subject to terms, conditions and exclusions not described in this blog. The policy contains the specific details of the coverages, terms, conditions and exclusions. 

The insurance products and services described in this blog are not offered in all states.  ERIE life insurance and annuity products are not available in New York.  ERIE Medicare supplement products are not available in the District of Columbia or New York.  ERIE long term care products are not available in the District of Columbia and New York. 

Eligibility will be determined at the time of application based upon applicable underwriting guidelines and rules in effect at that time.

Your ERIE agent can offer you practical guidance and answer questions you may have before you buy.


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