There's nothing wrong with buying a used car from a private party - in fact, that's often a way to get a cream puff at a bargain price!
However, since you're "doing business" with an individual, private party purchases lack the legal protections that cover transactions at licensed used car dealerships. That leaves the door open to all kinds of automotive fraud, from installing lower-mileage odometer modules to selling cars that were salvaged in other states. It's up to you to make an informed buying decision.
Here are nine specific recommendations to help make sure you're dealing with a genuine by-owner sale, and not a curbstoner - an unlicensed or unethical used car dealer posing as a private party.
1. Do an online search for the phone number.
Pay-as-you-go mobile phones and call-forwarding services give curbstoners phone numbers that are disposable and hard to trace. However, a quick Internet search for the phone number listed on a car or classified ad will reveal whether that phone number has been used recently in the sale of other vehicles. If it has - beware!
2. Snoop around.
Because curbstoners usually have several vehicles to sell, many use special software to quickly post several online classified ads at once. As a result, their listings may appear close together if you view all the ads chronologically.
So, it might be worth your time to call the phone numbers in the listings above and below the one you actually want. If the same person answers, even though the phone numbers are different - you're probably talking to a curbstoner!
3. Don't reveal too much at first.
When you call, one smart gambit is to say, "I'm calling about the car."
If the seller replies, "Which car?" - then you have to ask yourself how many private parties have more than one car for sale.
Yes, people get deployed, families get relocated, and car buffs downsize their collections - all reasons someone may be selling two or three vehicles at once. But if it seems like a person is selling several popular automotive models and nothing else, that's a warning flag.