Buying a Used Car Privately: Top 5 Tips

27 Nov 2013

Buying a Used Car Privately: Top 5 Tips

In this advice segment, Aidan Timmons gives us his top 5 tips for buying a car privately. Employ his risk averse methods and increase your chances of securing a great deal.


The decision to purchase your next car privately instead of buying it from a dealership is one that deserves scrutiny and proper thrashing out. From a transaction perspective, buying a car is a cinch and works along the same lines as if you were buying a pair of shoes. You search for the the product.  You call the seller. You arrange to meet. You inspect the goods. An agreement is arrived at. Cash is exchanged and everyone goes about their business with mutual happiness.

However, with cars being such big ticket items with thousands of moving and mechanical parts, it’s not always obvious what to look for when buying one outside of a reputable dealership. And so here are my ‘top 5 things to look for when buying a used car’ from a private seller. They are split between physical attributes of the car and the mannerisms of the seller; who might be every bit as shady as the car they are selling.


Body and paintwork

Always look at a car when it is dry. Wetness masks stone chips and some patchy paintwork. Making sure you have sufficient sun light is equally important. I don’t need to explain the uselessness of looking at a car in the dark. Stand a few paces back from the car and notice how the light reflects off the bodywork. The colour should be consistent for all panels. A dull or irregular patch could spell crash damage and cheap repair.

Check over each wheel arch for damage. Just like a retired footballer will have dodgy hips and knees, a car that’s had a bad tackle will typically suffer damage lower down it’s body. A dent on the roof, you say? Well walk away without so much as another glance.

Now open the doors. Look at the brackets in the door frame that bolt the door to the car. Check the paint from the factory is still on them. If not, then the door has been off at some point. Doors off, deal off.

Open the bonnet and check that the brackets holding the lights in place are undisturbed. A head on crash will usually break these. Go around to the boot and lift it open. Now take the carpet up to get at the spare wheel. While making sure the spare is present, check the metal work around the boot. All of the welds will be exposed. Make sure they are in tact and not broken.

Take a look inside the car. Does the condition of the interior match the stated mileage? If you’re looking at worn seats, a banjaxed gear knob, a rough steering wheel and eroded rubber on the pedals on a car with low mileage, the chances are that it has been clocked.



This is an easy one but takes a bit of time. Essentially use everything that is powered electrically. Some makes and models suffer from gremlins more than most but don’t let even the most reputable brands away without checking for niggles or faults. Open all of the windows and close them again. Check the headlights and indicators work. Get a friend to stand behind the car and check the brake lights. If you are on your own (you shouldn’t be but that’s for a later point) then reverse to a wall and step on the brakes. They should illuminate the wall on both sides. If the car doesn’t pass these tests, then don’t bother with a test drive.

Model Rail 2011 Barrowhill Roundhouse

Engine and Gearbox

Unless you are a mechanic, there really isn’t a whole lot you can do to diagnose potential problems so this part is all about using your common sense. Firstly, prepare the seller that you will be driving pretty irregularly. Then turn the car on and off a few times in quick succession. The idea is to check for engine flooding, rough starting and a worn starter motor. If it doesn’t flood after a couple of turns then put it in first and drive away.

Give it a good rev in first, second and third and allow it to stutter and labour in fifth gear by bringing the revs down to almost idle. Putting the engine under strain is a good way to test how it copes. Don’t be overly cautious about driving someone else’s car. In about 15 minutes it could be your car so driving it without too much restraint is advised.

When stopped, pull up the handbrake. Try balancing the clutch and accelerator in third gear as though you are about to perform a hill start. If the car can take this strain then the clutch is probably in proper mechanical condition. A better test for a clutch is to rev the car up through a gear quickly and wait for a sudden interruption in the rev range followed by an immediate jump to the red line. This is a tell-tale sign of a worn out clutch.


Seller demeanor

 Although some people are  more overtly keen to sell their cars than others, an over excitable person who becomes a sort of short-term new best friend with all of the intrigue in your own personal circumstances as a first date, is nothing more than a nuisance. Politely ask the person whom you are buying the car from to give you some time to look over the car alone. This is an expensive business and once the car is yours, your new fan won’t be shy about telling you where you can go should a nasty surprise greet you on your way home. It helps to be a skeptic. Question everything. If the seller can’t answer your straight forward questions in an instant and with relative proficiency then probe further.

When buying the car, ensure you meet somewhere convenient for you, within reason of course. If the seller is serious about selling then they must be willing to accommodate you. If you have a mechanic who can look at the car for you then you should ask the seller to drive it to the mechanics place. Tell them that if it checks out, you will talk money. If they decline the offer then it wasn’t meant to be. Put yourself in their shoes. Someone calls you. They say they will make an offer if you let a mechanic check the car out (in broad daylight of course). Would you turn down a potential sale like that? I thought not.

I have been recently privy to some harrowing stories where sellers have been lured to an unfamiliar place by a very honest sounding prospective purchaser. Use your imagination to form an unappealing ending of this otherwise rather innocuous anecdote. This is as much advice for buyer as it is for sellers. Don’t venture into the unknown. It’s only a car; don’t get beaten up over it.


Money, money, money – buying sensibly

This part should be the easiest bit but we live in a world where e-commerce is becoming increasingly normal. I usually deal in cash or bank drafts when buying and selling cars. Anything that is cleared funds is fine by me. I bought a car recently and paid for it by using EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer) online. I bank with AIB and so did the seller. We agreed that I would transfer the amount into their account as it appears immediately between AIB customers. I even made the transaction over the phone to AIB which involves a lot of 1990’s movie-style cross checking and account verifying. I felt like I was making some sort of Bond-esque transaction but it gave me and the seller peace of mind.

I have never used PayPal to buy or sell a car and to be honest there are so many traditional methods that I prefer to wait for the hard cash in my hand or the presence of the funds in my bank account and not a third party account.

As a buyer, cash is not without risk either. If it’s a large sum then you are exposed as the seller knows you will have a handsome wad of cash on your person. Perhaps make “the drop”, I mean sale, outside a Garda station. Yes, I know it sounds severe but you’re talking about spending thousands of euros. There is a lot that can go wrong.



I am perhaps, overly risk averse. I tend to obsessively scrutinize every facet of the car. But there is a saying within the motor trade that constantly rings in my ears whenever I approach the critical moment of buying a car and it is that; “sometimes it’s the deal you don’t do that is the best deal you will do all day”. This is more for sales people to not get caught trading in or selling a car on unfavourable terms but it is something that I think has great use in transactions between buyers and sellers privately too.


Aidan Timmons


About the Author

Aidan is the co-editor and senior analyst with Motor Trade Publishers ( , Ireland’s most accurate vehicle valuations provider. He is also a presenter on Driving Seat on TV3 and offers advice on used cars as well as reviewing some of the latest and most important new vehicles to hit Irish showrooms. He contributes regularly to radio and television debates on motoring topics such as; the return of petrol cars, why some vehicles fall in value more than others and how best to change the motor tax system.



Images from Flickr users: Stevenharris, buddawiggi, Thunderchild7, Elsieesq and Yugenro
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