Should you buy a car from a private individual instead of a dealer?

Private Car Sales vs. Buying from a Dealer

Buying a used car from a private seller is very different from buying a car from a dealer. Private sellers generally are not covered by the Federal Trade Commission's Used Car Rule and don't have to use the Used Car Buyers Guide. However, you can use the Guide's list of an auto's major systems as a shopping tool. You also can ask the seller if you can have a car inspection done by your mechanic.

Private sales usually are not covered by the implied warranties of state law. That means a private sale probably will be on an "as is" basis, unless your purchase agreement with the seller specifically states otherwise. If you have a written contract, the seller must live up to the promises stated in the contract. The car also may be covered by a manufacturer's warranty or a separately purchased service contract. However, warranties and service contracts may not be transferable, and other limits or costs may apply. Before you buy the car, ask to review its warranty or service contract.

Many states do not require individuals to ensure that their vehicles will pass state inspection or carry a minimum warranty before they offer them for sale. Ask your state Attorney General's office or local consumer protection agency about the requirements in your state.

The following tips are useful when buying a car:

  • Do you homework on Carfax, KBB, eBay. Check prices. Getting a car from a dealer at Private Party price is often a good deal.
  • Ask questions. Please note Carfax, Auto Check will not always show if a car has been in an accident - so have the vehicle checked out before you buy. Almost 100% of used cars sold by a dealership will have had paintwork done (and many new ones too)- so that may not always be a useful question to ask. Better to look or inspect. Do you see poorly done work? Check hidden areas for "ridges" to indicate paint that may not have been done well. (A note on extended warranties: buy cars that are at the end of their factory warranty.)
  • There's an option where you can get great deals and it's still much safer than just buying from any private individual: repossessed car auctions (in particular, government car auctions). These are cars that have been repossessed by the bank or lien holder due to a lack of payment of the original auto loan, and then sold at public auctions so that the lien holder can make some of the money back. Even though you should always get a vehicle history report and inspect the car yourself, these are usually pretty safe environments, although they're attended by many professional dealers.
  • Another way to get great deals (and safer than buying from a private seller) is hiring a professional negotiator. If you use a service (ex: Carsala), you can get private party prices from a dealership on a car that's been reconditioned, in good shape, clean title, etc.