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When Buying a Used Car From a Private Seller

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Although none of the protections, including most state's Lemon Laws, apply to privately sold used cars, they can be a great bargain and a sure way to get a well-cared-for vehicle. Often, the seller is motivated to sell the car cheaply because they need to get rid of it for reasons like a move, cash to pay bills, etc.

It's not uncommon for a used car being sold privately to have a sale price lower than its book value. If you have cash to pay up front, the price can be even lower.

Here are some things to look for and ask about when looking at a used car being sold privately.

How many miles does it have and what does that equate to per year (12,000 miles per year is average use). If the vehicle has seen heavy use, it may need work or have wear and tear not normally associated with its age. If it's sat around a lot, there are similar issues and it may require replacement of rubber bushings, hoses, etc.

What kind of condition is the car in? The first question started this line of thought, of course. You'll want to see how clean the engine compartment is, if the oil and fluids have been regularly serviced, whether the body and paint need repair, etc. The condition of the vehicle directly affects its value and can indicate how well it's been maintained mechanically.

Ask the seller directly why they're selling the car. This is an honest question as it gives you their reason for no longer wanting the car and also gives you a hint as to how motivated they are to sell the vehicle. If their reasons are about money, you can probably talk them down. If their reasons are otherwise (say their grandmother died and left them her car), the price may not be as negotiable.

Ask for a test drive and to take it to a mechanic to have it looked over. Most sellers should have no problem with this, though most will likely want to accompany you while you have the car.

When you test drive, check the oil and (if applicable) transmission fluid before starting the car. Then drive two or three miles (at minimum) and then immediately check the oil and tranny fluid again. If their look has changed, there are internal problems with the car. Some sellers may know the vehicle has mechanical issues and attempt to cover them up by doing fast fluid changes in the driveway so that the fluids look clean to a buyer.

Once you buy the car, you own it and cannot take it back (in most areas). So be sure it's exactly what you want and what you expect before you sign the paper and hand over the money.

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