How to Navigate a Private Sale: The Ins and Outs of Buying Your First Car

The time has come. Maybe you’re 16 and have been scraping your pennies together from when you were five years old and just strong enough to pull weeds or walk dogs for your neighbors. Maybe you’re 22, fresh out of college, and have been saving your dimes from filing paperwork or serving spaghetti at your local restaurant. Whatever the case, it’s time to buy your first car and hit the open road. Where do you start? Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re buying a car through a private sale (i.e. from an individual person rather than a dealership).

First, what kind of car fits your lifestyle best? Are you going to be shuttling groups of friends around on the weekends? Are you just in need of a vehicle to get you to and from work and maybe the grocery store? Manual or automatic? Two-door or four? Is all you need four wheels and an engine that won’t give out on you? Then simply do research into the most reliable makes and models that fit your budget.

When hunting for your first car, it’s a good idea to see if you can find any friends or family members who are selling their old one. If you buy from a person you know and trust, they’re more likely to be honest about the state of the car, inform you of any mechanical issues, and of course, give you a better deal. I purchased my first car from my buddy Grant, who told me upfront that he’d let it go for $200 less if a friend bought it from him so he didn’t have to go through the hassle of listing it online. It helped that he described his 2006 Mazda station wagon as “a road trip machine,” since that’s exactly what I was looking for.

Once you’ve contacted the owner of a car you’d like to look at, take someone with you to go check it out, preferably someone who knows even just a little bit about what to look for. Your friend Amanda, your Aunt Sally, Mr. Lakeman from down the street: anyone who can kick the tires and look under the hood while you talk to the seller, or vice versa. Having another person with you helps you stay safe if you’re meeting with a stranger and gives you time to look over the car more thoroughly without feeling as awkward.

It’s important to know what to keep an eye out for when you’re contemplating what’s likely one of the biggest purchase you’ll make as a young adult. Bring a penny with you to check the tire tread. If you insert the penny upside down between two of the tire’s grooves, and you can still see the top of Lincoln’s head, the tire is badly worn down. At the very least, the tread should cover Lincoln’s forehead, preferably down to his ear. Ask the owner about the car’s history: what work they’ve had down on it since they bought it, how many owners it has had, and whether it’s ever been in an accident, either under their care or a previous owner’s. If you know a car’s VIN, you can check its accident report history online. Even if you’re not familiar with the mechanics of how to fix something under the hood, take a look under there anyway to check for obvious red flags such as rust, cracks, or leaks. Have someone turn on the engine so you can listen to see if it runs smoothly. You don’t want knocking or clunking sounds or a fan that seems to be working too hard. Ask the owner if you can take the car for a drive around the block. Listen for screeching sounds when you brake and check to see that the car handles well (e.g. the gearshift doesn't stick and the steering wheel turns easily).

If all appears to be in working order, and you’ve found a car that you like at an affordable price, whip out your pen and get ready to have that sweet sweet registration signed over to you. Before you sign, however, make sure you are aware of ALL the rules and regulations specific to the state or province in which you’re registering the vehicle. If you purchase a car from one place and plan on registering it in another, or buy it from someone who last registered it somewhere else, go online and check to make sure you’re prepared for any extra fees that may arise if you have to have an inspection done to ensure the vehicle complies with your region’s standards, because if it does not, you may have to pay for repairs that would otherwise be unnecessary. Once ownership is signed over to you, the seller is under no obligation to take the car back or pay any inspection fees, so buyer beware!

Once everything looks all well and good, you’ve checked over the car itself and all the paperwork, head down to the DMV to get it registered and ready to go. As you sit or stand in line for the next several hours, bask in the anticipation of your very first car. What an accomplishment! A car can mean freedom, status, possibility. Congratulations! You can go anywhere, do anything. Everyone remembers their first car. Now it’s time for you to make some great memories with your new ride.

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