10 Private Seller Red Flags to Watch Out for When Buying a Used Car
I've searched through hundreds of listings to find my used cars. I've bought three used cars in my life, and I noticed patterns I consider red flags from sellers that deterred me from pursuing certain listings further. It might take time to find the right car and seller, but from my experience it's worth it. The transactions are easier and typically results in a better quality car worth the price without wasting your time.
If you're not sure what to watch out for while searching for a car, look no further. Here are private seller red flags to watch out for when looking to buy a used car.
1. They list little detail about the car.
The seller could be using a tactic where less information forces you to message them directly asking questions, but in my experience that seems like a waste of time. Preferably, a seller would list as much detail as possible, including the good, the bad, and the ugly - unless they simply do not know the answers. If a seller lists a lot of detail, then their credibility and honesty are higher, and that's a good thing for you as a buyer.
2. They refuse to answer detailed questions.
The seller could simply not know the answers to your questions. There are many people who are not automotive savvy. However, it's important that they at least read and try to answer questions to the best of their ability. Even better if it means putting some effort into finding the answer for you.
3. They say, "I know what I got."
I totally sympathize with people who dealt with terrible buyers. Unpleasant experiences and straight up insulting offers can really make a person skeptical of any future buyers! However, this mindset can also deter great buyers and people who know what they're talking about which is a terrible loss for the seller. Also, beginning a for sale ad with this kind of attitude can come off as just rude. When they say, "I KNOW WHAT I GOT NO LOW BALLERS" in all caps, they may as well have signs all over their yard that say KEEP OUT.
4. They refuse to provide the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).
The maintenance history on a CARFAX or other car maintenance report should not be the sole factor in purchasing a car, but it can be very helpful for cross-referencing information. If the seller already has a CARFAX available, that's great! If they refuse to provide the VIN, there could be something they are hiding. While it's not required that a buyer must purchase a CARFAX, it is generally not considered unusual to request this or similar information. In my experience, people sometimes simply ignore the request altogether or answer all questions except the VIN number, which is questionable.
5. They ghost you.
If you message a seller and they ghost you after a message or two, it's probably not worth continuing the conversation. They may have already sold the car or, for whatever reason, are not interested in your business. Just move on.
6. They question if this is the car for you.
People should be respectful toward you, no matter who you are. If you reach out interested in a car, then you are interested in the car. If they express a bias against you or are resistant to taking you seriously to begin with, it's not worth your time. Their loss.
For example, I was interested in this car with a detailed modification list. The car was never tracked or drifted, and given my background, I personally did not consider the car "very" modified - maintained and upgraded at best. I felt confident I could handle this car.
However, upon expressing interest and signing my name as Rachel, the response felt uncomfortable. They immediately ghosted me after I once again confirmed my interest and offered to schedule a time. Although I was ready to buy the car, I'm glad I didn't because I found a better car and seller later.
Pictured: A response I received after expressing interest in a Nissan 350z for sale posting.
7. They claim it's been in an accident, but that the frame isn't bent.
I admit that plenty of people don't know what to look for when it comes to the frame of a car. If they have detailed photos of prior or current damage, that's awesome. Regardless, I recommend always checking the frame yourself in areas where there were previous accidents. If you're not sure, bring a mechanic or friend who might know what to look for. If it's minor, it may not bother you depending on your use of the car, but if you're looking to build a full race car, it sure helps to have a solid foundation to build on.
For example, the impression I received from this seller and for sale listing is that they did not know very much information about the car or they did not want to describe the condition in detail. Without much up front detail it did not feel worth the time to see the car in person to check the condition.
Pictured: A response from a seller with a Nissan 350z that was priced considerably low but was in an accident. The details of the accident were not shared by the seller.
8. They have been unable to sell the car for a really long time.
There are two archetypes that come to mind. There is the seller that is really attached to their car and is struggling to let go, and the seller who has had a listing up for months.
For example, my favorite is the seller that ghosted me after asking for additional information and photos of the car and proceeded to not sell it for three months onward. The original asking price was $10,000. Yikes.
Pictured: A listing that I responded to that continued to go down in price from not selling.
9. They say it "just needs..."
You know the type. You probably even know a guy who is like this. They try to sell you on a car because it just needs new brakes or just needs an oil change. Heck, the car was even running before they last parked it! Make sure to do your research by looking up the car history or CARFAX as mentioned in point #7 and look closer at the car in person. If you can also bring a professional mechanic to look at the car as well, do so. Never take what the seller says at face value because chances are the seller doesn't actually know everything the car needs to be in good shape.
✨Bonus for Californians ✨
10. The California seller says you need to smog the car.
The Smog Inspections - Frequently Asked Questions section on the California DMV website states, "you need to give the new owner a valid smog certification when you sell the car." Once in a while I've seen for sale listings where the seller claims you, as the buyer, need to smog the car. This is definitely a red flag. If you have any uncertainty about smog inspection exceptions as a seller or buyer, contact your local DMV to be certain before purchasing a car.
Pictured: California DMV Smog Inspections Frequently Asked Questions section answering, "If I sell my car, do I have to get it inspected first?"
Pictured: A for sale listing where the seller says the car is ready to be smog inspected but says you need to smog it.
In conclusion, it's important to watch out for potentially bad listings. But remember, this is just a list of suggestions and not a definitive guide. It's totally possible you can work with a seller with some of these qualities and still result in a good purchase. However, for me personally, I've been much happier when I avoid them.
What are some red flags you've experienced? Anything that I missed?