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Ten Things To Do Before Buying A Used Car from a Private Seller

Buying a used car does not need to be stressful. Simple tips will keep the purchase stress-free and enjoyable.
William Clavey
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These ten helpful tips will ensure a stress-free second-hand transaction.

You’re cycling through sites like Kijiji, CarGurus or even Facebook Marketplace for a second-hand car, but you’re not exactly sure where to begin. You’re an enthusiast, which means you’re looking for something fun, reliable and, if possible, affordable, but you’re unsure where the market is at anymore. Plus, with many people looking to make a quick buck these days, how can you avoid being duped?

I know exactly what that feels like, as I just recently acquired a second-hand, 2006 MINI Cooper, a car I have always aspired to own, but never dared to commit to due to its shady reliability record. Through my experience, here are 10 things I learned to do before buying a second-hand car from a private seller.

10) Determine Your Budget

This will be crucial in determining what your ideal car. In my case, I didn’t set out to buy a MINI per say. Although I have always wanted one, my first criterion was actually the amount of money I was willing to spend on a second-hand automobile. I began by searching for “anything” in my price range. Doing this will also gave me a scope of the kind of vehicles I could afford.

Look for cars that are a bit higher than your budget. Let’s say you’ve got $10,000 to spend on a car, refine your search to $13,000 or less. This could unlock more interesting vehicles you could potentially negotiate down to your target price.

second-hand car

9) Have Your Money Ready

Another important element to consider is having the money ready before shopping. What that means is if you need to borrow that money, or take it out from the bank, make sure you do it prior to beginning your search. Good car deals tend to disappear quickly, which means you might end up completing the purchase faster than you think. Arriving on location with money in your pocket will have you ready for a quick transaction.

second-hand car

8) Research The Model

Now that you’ve narrowed down your search to some models you can afford, try to obtain the maximum amount of information on them. The Internet is a goldmine of automotive data. In my case, this meant cycling through first-gen MINI Cooper buyer’s guides, reviews, forums, and dedicated Facebook groups.

Calling specialized mechanics for insight will also help spot common trouble spots. Finally, check out how much that vehicle is actually worth using the Canadian Black Book as a reference. Knowing what you’re buying and how much it’s worth is a crucial component to your transaction, as it will give you confidence when negotiating.

second-hand car

7) Mileage

Once you’ve narrowed down the models according to price, narrow the search even more by mileage. Typically, anything under 100,000 km is a good find, and in some cases, still covered by the original warranty. If the vehicle is over that, I recommend making sure the seller has maintenance documents that confirm preventive maintenance, things like timing belts, timing chain tensioners, brakes, wheel bearings, ball joints, or other important suspension components.

second-hand car

6) Ask The Right Questions

You’re now at the point where you’ve located a few good examples. Their mileage is good, their price is fair, and they meet your auto enthusiast criteria. Contact the seller and ask the right questions. While some sellers prefer communicating via email, I continue to believe that the telephone remains the best form of contact.

Begin by asking how long they’ve had the car for, and why they’re selling. Take notes and read between the lines. Remember, some people are out there to flip cars, which means they buy them for cheap, fix them up quickly, and try to make a profit on them. Try to discern that through the way they answer your questions. What you’re looking for is a seller that’s been taking good care of their car, not a car that’s been bouncing around from one owner to the next.

Ask if the car has been kept indoors or outdoors. Ask if it was winter driven. This will all be crucial to determining the car’s overall shape and value. If it has been winter-driven – especially in Canada – ask for confirmation of yearly rustproof treatments. Finally, ask if the car has a clean title, meaning if it has been in any accidents.

While I recommend focusing on clean title examples, cars that have been involved in accidents can still be a good buy if the accident was minor and the repair was professionally done. That said, do make sure to obtain all the documents and photos related to that repair.

second-hand car

5) Thoroughly Inspect The Car Yourself

Once on location, you’ll get a much better idea of the car’s actual condition. Look out for a cracked windshield, observe the car’s overall paint quality and, of course, look for rust. You’ll typically find rust underneath fenders, door sills, on the roof or around the trunk and gas filler areas. Open the hood and make sure the engine bay is the same color as the car. An engine bay painted in a different color reveals a car that was repainted quickly. You don’t want that.

Inspect the tires and ask about when they were purchased. If the owner has a set of winter tires, that’s another good indication that they’ve been taking good care of their vehicle. Ask to see those winter tires to evaluate their condition.

Lastly, ask for a test drive. During the drive, test basic components like brakes, steering, clutch (if manual) and the transmission’s overall behavior. Turn on the climate control system, and make sure it blows hot and cool air. Open and close windows and test out all available electronics. Make sure automatic transmissions don’t slip, that manual transmissions shift smoothly and that you don’t hear odd sounds, like a whining power steering pump (although on a MINI that’s normal), a slipping strap, or unwanted clunks from the suspension. Use basic intuition here. If it feels fishy, bail out!

second-hand car

4) Have The Car Inspected By A Pro

Any honest seller will understand the importance of having a vehicle inspected by a certified mechanic before buying. Some sellers will have performed that inspection for you. If that’s the case, make sure to obtain an official document.

If not, ask if you can bring the car to a nearby garage for inspection. Once the car is on the lift, ask if you can have a look at its undercarriage. Again, look for rust, oil leaks or anything fishy. Never buy a used car without lifting it first.

second-hand car

3) Track Its History

Once the car is inspected, try to obtain its Carfax report. Head over to the Carfax website, and enter the vehicle’s serial number, which the seller should have no issue giving you. There are some costs related to this service, but they’re worth it, as the report will reveal important information about the car’s history.

While they don’t always show everything, Carfax reports do reveal claimed accidents, how many owners the car has had, in which province or country it has been sold and, most importantly, if the owner still owes money on their vehicle. Beware of cars that have been brought over from the United States. If that’s the case, make sure to obtain all documents related to the import.

second-hand car

2) Check For Recalls

You’re ready to buy, but there’s one last thing you need to do. Since you now know where the car was originally purchased (from the Carfax report), I recommend calling that dealership and finding out if all recalls have been performed under warranty. With the serial number, the service department will be able to confirm this for you. They’ll also be able to tell you if regular maintenance was performed at their shop, and until when.

second-hand car

1) Make An Offer

Basing yourself on the vehicle’s history and condition, and from other examples you’ve spotted online, make an offer that’s lower than the asking price, without “lowballing” your seller. Be respectful in your price, especially if the vehicle is in good condition.

Negotiating is part of buying and selling, so don’t be shy to do it. For instance, if the seller is asking $10,000, offer $8,700 in hopes of getting the car for $9,000. Whatever you do, always add a reason to your negotiating. Explain why you believe their vehicle is worth your offer. For example: “This car is in good shape, and it’s what I’m looking for, but I noticed a noisy wheel bearing during the drive. I’ll need to fix that. Because of this, my final price is …”

If you use these ten easy steps, you should drive home with a fun second-hand car that fits your needs and your budget without getting fooled.

second-hand car

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