So you’ve found the ideal car – but it’s 500 miles away in another state. It doesn’t mean it’s out of the question, but it pays to be cautious and follow some of my tips for buying a used car online to avoid being burnt and losing your hard-earned cash.
1. Car Listing
When you read through the car advertisement, does it have a description, and if so does the description give appropriate information relating to the car for sale? Many dealers will just put their terms and conditions, while dealers and some private sellers will either put down generic useless blurb like ‘perfect first car’ or ‘first to see with buy’. If the listing only has one or two photos (or none at all), then move on. Likewise, if a private seller puts down that they prefer to be contacted on an email address for replies then avoid this again. They are usually scammers and want to deal privately so they can work their cunning plan without any chat history on the car listing website. The best listings are those with plenty of photos, first-hand information and history about the car, what’s been done as far as servicing goes and what (if any) modifications have been done. Private sellers should supply a phone number.
2. Start a Conversation
Make a list of all the questions you want to ask the seller, then either send a contact email through the used car website or phone the contact number. To get you started (if you don’t know the following information) – find out the license plate number and the 17-digit VIN (vehicle identification number) to check with Carfax or Autocheck, whether it has been written-off or whether it has a ‘branded title’. Also ask for the number of previous owners, how long the current owner has owned the car, if there is a full-service history (or at least some service history), and most importantly if there is outstanding finance on the vehicle. Outstanding finance is a no-go as the finance company owns the vehicle until fully paid for by the current owner in an agreement. This would mean they can take it away from you. If there are any company recalls on the particular model you’re looking at, ask if they have been updated. A tell-tale sign you are dealing with an authentic seller is to ask for more photos of the car highlighting areas you want to see more of. At this stage, you should only supply your first name and phone number – don’t under any circumstances provide bank details or your address, and don’t put down a deposit until you are fully satisfied with the car and who you are dealing with.
3. Face Time
If you’re satisfied with the answers you have received so far, organize a time during daylight hours when you can have a video call to see the car and have the seller take you around the car pointing out any defects such as car-park dents or advantages like great tire tread or immaculate interior. This shows the seller is real and is not hiding anything. This is also a prime opportunity to confirm all the ownership papers and of the owners full name. If you are happy to proceed, then now is the time to ask about a final price and what payment option would suit. You may have an idea of how you want to exchange money online, so discuss this in this face-time call before organizing an inspection so everything runs smoothly once the inspection has been done. The seller may want a deposit before the inspection to hold the car, so it might be a good idea to do a ‘test run’ first with a tiny amount ($1-$2 dollars) to ensure everything works transaction-wise before committing to larger amount.
Even after you have had a ‘face-time’ call, it makes sense to have a detailed pre-purchase inspection undertaken by a reputable, qualified mechanic or company. A couple of good established companies that operate nationwide across America are Lemon Squad and AiM Certify. Most reputable dealers will already have had a pre-purchase inspection done and as such offer a warranty, so you should be pretty safe unless the car is being sold ‘as-is’.
5. Payment Methods
If you have been through all the four steps above, then you should be in a trusting position with the seller of the car. Tried and tested for more than two decades, Paypal still holds a great reputation for secure online payments without giving away too many details about your own bank. If however you want to go down the path of a bank transfer, ensure the bank you’re dealing with is an American institution with plenty of branches across the U.S. Always check the spelling is correct of the bank and the account (as there are scammers who have similar accounts with a slight spelling error). You may also decide at this point to fly across and pick up the car yourself, in which case you could pay cash in person upon arrival and drive the car back yourself.
These steps cover the essential tips for buying a used car online, and if you have gone this far, then all that’s left is to organize transportation of the vehicle (if you’re not picking it up in person). Just make sure you get at least three quotes from companies that have a good reputation and great online feedback. Happy hunting!