Buying A Used Car From A Private Seller? Here's What You Need To Know First

When buying a used vehicle, you have several options when it comes to choosing a seller. If you find the car of your dreams, but it's being sold by a private individual, you may want to jump on the deal. But there are a few things that make buying from a person different from purchasing from an auto dealer. Here's what you need to know about the legalities and other things, and what you should do to protect yourself.


When you buy a used car from a car lot or dealer, you're offered a certain level of protection. Car dealers, whether new or used, are required by law to adhere to both federal and state consumer protection laws.

But if you decide to buy from a private seller, it's a bit riskier because individuals don't have to comply with those same laws. You are essentially buying the car as-is without any sort of warranty (unless the seller offers a signed warranty).

What this means is that you won't have any recourse if any of the following situations apply to your vehicle:

  • the car was wrecked and then repaired at some point
  • the miles were reversed by rolling back the odometer
  • the vehicle was stolen by the seller and then illegally retitled to them
  • the car was damaged to the point of earning a salvage title

While any of the above situations would be a rare occurrence when purchasing from a reputable dealer, at least you can take legal action if any of them apply to you. But there are still a few great ways to bring along your own legal protection when buying from a private party.

Before even looking at the car, you can ask for the VIN number and run a vehicle history report. This will give you all the critical details needed to make an informed decision before buying. You'll learn how many owners the car has had, what the odometer readings were when the car changed hands, and whetehr there are any liens on the car. You'll also get a full accident report, a title history, and a lemon alert. In some cases, you may also learn if the car was ever sold at an auction, and you might get a breakdown of every time the car was serviced.

You can get a free report through the government or you can pay for one from a private company. The main difference between the two is that the paid reports could be more comprehensive.

If the vehicle report is acceptable to you, the next step is taking the car to a trusted mechanic to look for any potential problems. And whether you can do this will depend on the seller. If they balk at this suggestion, it's probably time to look elsewhere.


If you forego the dealership and buy from a private party, you'll be responsible for handling all the paperwork, and what you need to do will depend on what state you live in. For example, in Alabama, you'll need the following:

  • a bill of sale (that may or may not need to be notarized, depending on the county)
  • a certificate of title with both seller and buyer signatures (also may need to be notarized)
  • purchase price
  • odometer reading

If you stumble upon a situation in which the seller is missing the title, do not purchase the car. They will need to apply for the title before selling it. After you've bought the car, you've got 20 days to take care of the title and registration as the new owner.

At a dealership, all of the paperwork is taken care of for you so you don't have to worry about signing the wrong thing or missing a document.

Safety precautions

It probably goes without saying, but if you do decide to meet with an individual to look at a car, make sure you do so at a public place. If you want to test drive the car, the seller might want to tag along for their own protection. Just be sure you bring a friend or two along with you. As the saying goes, there's safety in numbers.