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10 questions to ask if buying a used car from a private seller

10 questions to ask if you';re buying a used car from a private seller.

By Wheels Wheels.ca

May 27, 2011 4 min. read

Article was updated 11 years ago

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The endangered species list goes something like this: Mountain gorilla, giant panda, Javan rhinoceros . . . and private car seller.

Longtime Wheels readers may remember seeing four or five pages of classified ads, many of them listing vehicles for sale by their owners. Times have changed.

While many private sellers today have migrated to free online classifieds such as Craigslist and Kijiji, others can't be bothered to sell their vehicle themselves.

Auto dealers will happily take used vehicles on a trade and save the buyer cash by charging the HST on just the difference in price between the two vehicles. On the down side, the seller has to accept an insultingly low wholesale value for the trade-in, knowing the car will be on the lot marked up by thousands of dollars.

Related: 10 things to watch for when buying a used car

Related: If you must buy a car now, here’s what to do

Despite the prevailing trend, there are still people who are willing to buy a second-hand vehicle from a stranger's driveway. For them, we offer 10 pointed questions they should be asking.

1. Ask the seller to describe the vehicle over the phone.

If the seller asks “Which one?” you've got yourself a curbsider — a con artist who sells multiple vehicles while posing as a private seller. There's no point rewarding criminal behaviour. End the call.

2. How many kilometres are on the odometer?

As a rule of thumb, the average car will rack up 20,000 km per year — the distance manufacturers use to determine standard warranty coverage. A seven-year-old model should have 140,000 to 150,000 km on the odo. If it has traveled considerably more, deduct cash for high mileage.

3. Are you the original owner?

The ideal answer is yes. A one-owner used vehicle is a creampuff. You can pepper the owner with questions about oil-change intervals and other maintenance habits. There should be no mysteries. One-owner cars fetch a premium for this reason.

If not, how many times has the vehicle changed hands? A Used Vehicle Information Package (UVIP) will reveal the ownership history, and the seller should have it available for review. Too many owners? Likely a troublesome car that's expensive to upkeep.

4. Do you have the service records?

Every legitimate seller should have at least some repair receipts. Take note of expensive repairs involving the engine or transmission. Beware of the seller who has no records. He may well be flipping a vehicle purchased from someone else and he doesn't want you to discover its checkered past.

5. Can I take it for a test drive?

If the answer is no, walk away. Anybody who can't surrender the vehicle for a quick drive is probably hiding something (it may not be plated properly). And demand more than just a spin around the block. Drive the vehicle on the highway to get a sense of its mechanical fitness at speed. Turn off the radio and listen for unusual noises, such as suspension knocks, or a whining transmission — or spouse.

6. Is it safety certified?

There's no need to buy the vehicle certified. In fact, it's better to have your technician inspect the vehicle and do the necessary repairs to your satisfaction. Unscrupulous garages are selling safety certificates sight unseen, since the Ministry of Transportation is not keeping track of certificate books assigned to garages that have gone out of business.

7. Why are you selling the vehicle?

If the answer is they've ordered a new car, they're obviously trying to get a higher price than the lowball figure the new-car dealer offered. If they're selling a family member's car — “My elderly father can't drive anymore” — be sure to check the ownership slip against the UVIP printout.

8. Has it been involved in any accidents?

The seller can fib and say no, but a quick examination for paint overspray will reveal the lie (inspect window and door seals, wheel wells and mufflers). Typically, the seller will under-report the collision damage. Best to have an expert put it on a hoist — if you're still interested.

9. Can I take it to my mechanic?

To be fair, don't spring this one until you're pretty sure you've settled on a particular vehicle. It takes time to arrange a garage visit, and the owner may or may not want to be without the car for a day. Best to make arrangements ahead of time with your mechanic, especially if he or she is available on a Saturday.

10. Will you take a lower price?

Don't be shy — who pays the asking price?

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