How to buy a car from a person
August 3, 2009 10:26 PM   Subscribe

I am looking to buy a used car for cash from a local (CA) private party, not a dealer. What do I need to know?

I am mainly looking on Craigslist, but other suggestions are welcome. I'm looking for a Toyota Echo, if it matters.

So...what should I look out for in terms of scams? (I am already aware of things like shipping cars from far away, etc.) I will of course get it checked by a mechanic but what else should I be aware of?

How should I actually pay for it? Certified check? Giant wad of cash? Goats? I'm expecting it to be in the $5k range.

I am also going to be selling my old car, which is a 1997 Corolla in "fair" condition. Is it better to try to sell it myself, or should I go to Carmax? If I do sell it myself, how should I ask for payment?
posted by exceptinsects to Shopping (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I sold my used car in California on Craigslist and specified cash only, to weed out shadiness. Sold it in a week! I met the buyers in a big, well-lit, populated area during the day, they took it for a test drive, weren't interested in having it checked out by a mechanic, and offered to buy it on the spot at the price we'd agreed over the phone. I realize carrying that much cash might be freaky/a hassle (counting that many $20s was super-annoying!), but if you met at your bank for the sale, you could just walk in and deposit it. PS - good tips on photographing your car from Civil_Disobedient in this question I asked a few years back!

The title business was pretty easy and it's explained here. Essentially, there are two bits of the title - they use one to register the car in their name, and you use the other to say that it's been sold/given to them.
posted by mdonley at 10:41 PM on August 3, 2009

Cold hard cash is best for the kinds of cars you're buying and selling.

Be sure that any potential seller has the title in hand, that nothing is fishy with the title, and that they are able to sign it over to you without problems like any remaining loans on the car.

Body work and flooding are the major things you want a mechanic to look for that would be signs of a scam. A need for major engine and transmission work might be deal breakers. Everything else that needs repair is mostly a negotiating point in the cost.

Check the VIN on Carfax for the history of the car you want, and produce a Carfax for anyone interested in buying your car from you.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:43 PM on August 3, 2009

In California, at least, you're going to pay sales tax at the DMV when you register the car. I didn't know that when I bought my bike--came as a bit of a shock.
posted by mollymayhem at 10:48 PM on August 3, 2009

In California, cars more than 4 years old need to have a current smog check before they can be transferred. By law, this is the seller's responsibility, although in practice, you'll find sellers who don't want to bother or aren't aware it's their responsibility.
You can check on the California BAR site to see if there's a current smog certificate on a car you're considering.
posted by zombiedance at 11:47 PM on August 3, 2009

I've sold 3 cars via CL. In my experience, you'll get more money selling your car via a private sale vs selling it to a dealer but you also will have to do more work (advertising, responding to queries), spend more time (showing the car, negotiating, paperwork), and bear more risks (handling large sums of money, meeting strangers oh my!).

After screening out the strange via email and phone, the serious were invited to inspect the vehicle at my home where they were allowed to take it out for a test drive. I also had the vehicle's title, original purchase and maintenance records available for review. Perhaps as a result of the later, none of my buyers took up my offer to have the car inspected by the mechanic of their choice.

Negotiation on price sometimes happened during this visit and sometimes later, via email or phone. I offered buyers a few days to think about it but informed them I would continue to show the car/field offers during that time holding the car for Buyer A only until x time/date. Potential buyers leave my home with a datasheet listing the vehicle's info (make, model, year, VIN), photos, my contact info, and a jotted note of the decision deadline.

Payment was made during a second visit. During the screening emails, I let the potential buyers know that I did not expect them to show up at an unknown address bearing a wad of cash and our first meeting was only about getting to know each other and the car. Before the buyer arrived, I would have the DMV transfer papers prepared with the buyer's info which I asked for when a sales price was agreed upon. I also filled out a bill of sale (some buyers ask that the bill of sale show a number that is less than the amount actually offered in order to dodge paying higher sales tax and registration fees. Go with your conscience here) and put all the maintenance records in a folder ready to hand over.

After the money, title, and keys are exchanged, I always (sweetly and charmingly) ask buyers if I can take their picture posed in front of the car "for my scrapbook." I don't actually keep a scrapbook but I figure having a photo of the guy who just handed you a tall stack of bills never hurts. That photo joins the ones I surreptitiously took of the license plate(s) of the car(s) he showed up in both visits.
posted by jamaro at 11:50 PM on August 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

If you are taking $100 bills as cash in trade for the title and car, you should use the many online resources which teach you how to identify counterfeit money.

Do not accept series 1996 bills. Insist on 2003 and later. This is not a problem for purchasers, if somebody goes to their bank and takes out $4000 in cash it's quite normal to ask for newer bills only.

Go to a stationary store and buy a $5 counterfeit detecting pen which turns colors on money... You can also get UV lights pretty cheap, $10 for a handheld size.
posted by thewalrus at 1:20 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

My experience is that you are less likely to get ripped off or scammed with a private sale than with a dealer. Do go with someone who knows cars even if you have to hire a mechanic for an hour or at least with someone. Never go to see a car alone even if you are a guy.
posted by JJ86 at 5:49 AM on August 4, 2009

Consider whether or not you are eligible for the Cash for Clunkers deal from the government. It's a pretty good deal.
posted by theora55 at 9:42 AM on August 4, 2009

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