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The ins and outs of buying cars from private sellers

July 2015

What could be more exciting than buying a new car? But with all the daydreams of cruising down the highway in your new set of wheels comes a certain amount of trepidation, especially if you are buying from a private seller. Not only are you handing over a lot of money on a car that has to get you from A to B safely and reliably for years to come, but there are also safety concerns when buying from a stranger.

In this blog we take a closer look at the risks involved in buying a car from a private seller - and how you can mitigate them. 

The questions 
After hours of surfing the web - or paging through car magazines - you have found a car which interests you. What next? Before you arrange a test drive, ask the seller the following questions to ensure that the car is not a lemon: 

  • Why is the car being sold?
  • What was it used for?
  • How old is the car and how many kilometres has it done?
  • Has it been in any accidents? 
  • Does the car regularly transport pets or children?
  • Does the car have a full service history and original registration papers? 
  • Does the car have a roadworthy certificate that is less than 60 days old?
  • Would you object to the car being taken for an independent investigation?
  • Would you object if I check if the car has been stolen? (this can be done with TransUnion’s Vehicle Enquiry report)


The answers the seller gives to these questions will obviously determine whether or not you want to take the car for a test drive. The absence of registration papers and a roadworthy certificate is a deal-breaker as you cannot put the car in your name without them, as are any objections to questions about independent investigations or stolen vehicle reports. 

The test drive 
If the car, and seller, make it through the round of questions above, your next step will be to take the car for a test drive. This is where your safety should be top of mind. The following safety tips are a must: 

  • Don’t do the test drive alone – always take someone with you 
  • Tell a friend or family member where you are going, and if possible ask someone to follow you in another vehicle
  • Meet the seller at a police station or at another busy, safe location
  • Do not invite the seller to your home or place of work
  • Ask the seller to bring along his/her ID book 


If the seller is anything other than above-board, they’ll be put off by your requests and probably come up with an excuse not to meet you. This is a sign – move on!

The initial inspection 
Give the vehicle an inspection as part of your test drive and check it for signs of accident damage - for example, inconsistent paintwork. Be sure to check the body panels for blotchy or dull areas and ‘orange peel’ or ‘fish eyes’ – they are also immediate red flags. Lastly, check the seals around the doors and under the edges of the bonnet – respray jobs tend to get messy and you can’t get paint off rubber too easily. 

You should also check that the air conditioning, CD player, speakers, electric windows and other switches are in working order – these can be costly to repair once the car is yours. Lastly, check that the spare wheel, jack and wheel spanner are all in place and in good order as well.

The top to toe with DEKRA 
If you are still interested in the car after a test drive and initial inspection, take the car to a reputable inspection facility like DEKRA for a top-to-toe check. Any visible major faults with the vehicle – including potential accident damage such as a bent chassis or damaged suspension – will be picked up during the inspection

The deal 
Once the car has passed its inspection you might well be ready to take the next step and purchase it. If possible, do the financial transaction with some legal assistance. Ask your lawyer, or someone with the necessary knowledge to assist in drawing up documents and letters – and arrange a payment agreement with the seller. Request that they send you copies of all their particulars; ID, driver’s license and even proof of residence. This will show them you mean business. Remember, if anything goes sour and you only have a he-said/she-said situation, you won’t have much recourse, if any at all. 

Most importantly, do not pay for the car until you have the key and the spare key. Of course, a deposit of some sort will probably be requested by the seller, but paying for the vehicle in full before you have it is extremely risky. 

You could also consider making use of an escrow service to pay for the car. This means that instead of paying the seller directly, you pay the necessary funds into a trusted third-party account. These funds are only released to the seller by the escrow service once certain conditions are met, for example once you have received and inspected the car. 

The drive 
And now, at last, you can take your new set of wheels for that cruise on the highway, confident that you have spent your money wisely and invested well for the future. Just make sure that the car is insured before you get behind the wheel.


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