How to Buy a Car Online From a Private Seller

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Buying a car online from a private seller can be a nerve-racking process.  This post will give you the necessary information to make you a savvy shopper, which can potentially allow you to get a nicer car and much better price.

 In April of 2016, I was 8 months pregnant with our second child.  My husband and I were driving our 15-month old son to a routine check-up when we got in an accident, totaling our car.  I held my breath as my husband quickly got out of the car to check on our one year old in the backseat.

He was perfectly fine.  He wasn’t crying or upset.  Our incredibly safe Volvo station wagon and his car seat had protected him.  I went to the hospital for a non-stress test and my youngest son (I was carrying) was also fine.  All 4 of us walked away from the accident completely unscathed.

In the coming weeks, in addition to preparing for our second child, my husband and I had to find a car to replace the one we totaled.  It was a big expense that we hadn’t anticipated and buying a car was more time consuming than I imagined.

After a lot of research, we decided that we wanted another Volvo.  We were so grateful that we all walked away from the car accident uninjured and wanted to make safety a priority in buying another car.  We actually wanted another station wagon, but the ones with relatively low miles were extremely hard to find or far above our price range.

We ultimately decided to search for a Volvo XC60, which is a mid-size SUV.  We wanted something with lower miles (no more than 75,000). We wanted it to be a 2010 or newer. It needed to be less than $20,000 (ideally, less than $18,000).

We started our search at nearby dealerships, but they had limited numbers of cars fitting our criteria on their lot and generally tried to sell us something we didn’t want.  That’s when we began searching for a car online.

Buying a car online was a time-consuming and stressful process, but ultimately it allowed us to buy a car that we couldn’t have afforded if it had been at a dealership.  We ended buying our car from a private seller that lived nearly 5 hours away from us.  But all the time we put into searching for a car paid off, because we paid nearly $3,500 less than its estimated dealership price.

If you are thinking of buying a car online, more specifically from a private seller, there are 7 things you need to know:

 

1. Before you start looking for a car, commit to a budget.

I know this isn’t strictly limited to buying a car online, but it is so important.  As you scavenge the internet, it can be so tempting to ask what an additional $500 will get you?

  • Can you get the newer body style?
  • Can you get significantly lower miles?
  • Can you get leather or heated seats?

Pretty soon you’re looking at cars way out of your price range.  Commit to a budget before you start looking and don’t get tempted to look above that price.

 

2. Look at a variety of online sources.

There are several websites that you can use to find cars for sale online.  The main websites we used were Car Gurus, Cars.com, Carmax and Autotrader.   It’s worth mentioning that the inventory on these sites includes both dealerships and private sellers.

My favorite of all the sites was Car Gurus because they provide an “IMV” or instant market value with each car in your search.  This IMV is essentially the Blue Book value of the car, so you instantly whether the advertised price is “great, good, fair, high, or overpriced.”

It made it easy for me to stop looking at cars in my searches when I got to ones that were deemed to have a “high” or “overpriced” price tag.  Additionally, it saved me from having to look up the Kelly Blue Book Value for tons of cars just to see if they were priced fairly.

 

3. Check the Carfax report.

Many of the cars on the online sites will include a free Carfax (or similar) report, which gives the history of the car.  We found that if the Carfax wasn’t provided online and most dealerships would email us the report for free.  (Carfax reports cost $39.99 each if you have to buy them yourself.)

Our primary concern was buying a safe car, so we wanted to make sure that we bought a car that hadn’t been in an accident.

 

4. If the price looks too good to be true (like $10,000 less than what it should be,) it probably is.

Before you get too excited and think you’ve found the car of your dreams, call the seller to verify the price.  It’s most likely a typo.  (In my experience, these cases were always with cars listed at dealerships.)

 

5. If you think you’ve found a car you want, call the seller and ensure that it’s still available.

The websites weren’t always up to date and we did find a couple cars that we thought would work for our family, only to find out that “someone was currently signing the paperwork.”

 

6. Ask the seller for a CARFAX copy.

When contacting the seller, ask for a history of the car, if they can send you a copy of the Carfax (or if not, for the VIN so you can purchase the report), and for a recent pre-purchase inspection.

Additionally, you could ask for more photos to ensure that the car truly is in the reported condition.

 

7. If everything checks out, arrange a meeting with the seller.

At this point, we confirmed that a cashier’s check was an acceptable payment with our seller and that our seller possessed the title of the car.

For obvious reasons, when you meet to “buy” the car, you should bring a friend, it should happen in a public place during daylight and you should test drive the car.  Additionally, you should check with your state’s DMV office to see what paperwork you should bring along, like a Bill of Sale and temporary license plates.

Final thoughts:

Buying a car online from a private seller can allow you to stretch your budget, potentially allowing you to buy a car you couldn’t have afforded from a dealership.  The 7 tips I shared above will help you make an informed, safe, and smart decision for this big purchase.

Have you bought a car online?  What tips do you have?  If you haven’t, what is your biggest hesitation?

 

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