Buying a car privately

For most people, buying a car is a major purchase, second only to buying a home. It can also often be the first time a person has borrowed money from an institution. With so much at stake, you don’t want to buy a lemon.

How can you play it safe? There are some great second-hand cars out there but it pays to do your research. There are certain things to watch out for. These include making sure that all necessary documentation is available from the seller and all the information is correct. Make a mistake and you could be thousands of dollars out of pocket, without a car to show for it.

Know what you are looking at

Obviously, step one is to compare prices and mileage for the particular model of car you are looking to buy. Get a feel for prices so you’ll know when you find a good deal. Dealer prices are different, so compare apples with apples by looking at prices between different private sellers. The Internet is a great way to do this – there are some great car sites available. Be prepared to haggle – most private sellers ask for more than they expect to get, anticipating negotiations, so don’t be afraid to make a reasonable offer.

How well does it run?

If you’re not mechanically minded, consider having the vehicle checked out by someone who is. If you don’t have friends or family who can help consider paying for a professional to come and have a look. For a small financial outlay you can save yourself from many problems down the track.

In Queensland all sellers must, by law, have a safety inspection completed on the vehicle before it is put up for sale. However, Queensland is the only state in Australia with this stipulation so it’s worth getting your own, private, mechanical and safety check done.

Even if the car is mechanically sound, you should always check other incidental, features for defects as well. These include:

  • air conditioning
  • radio / CD player
  • alarm
  • other internal lights, cameras (such as reversing camera) and
  • other internal entertainment units (such as built in DVD player).

Each car will have its quirks so take your time familiarising yourself with each one and make sure you are okay with them.

Do you like it?

It sounds too basic to worry about it but, with the amount of time people spend travelling in their cars these days, the car you buy needs to be comfortable and suit your driving style. Make sure you take it for a test drive and check out how it handles, the visibility and suitability for you and your family. Your dream car might have poor visibility that turns driving into a chore. If the seller doesn’t want you to take it for a test drive then they possibly have something to hide.


It’s important to check the identity of both the seller and the car. Ask for photo identification from the seller and check that it matches the name and address on the registration documents. They should have a current registration document for the car and certificate of safety (if applicable). To check that the documents are legally valid you can contact the Road Traffic Authority in your state or territory.

Registration documents also detail specific information regarding the vehicle itself. Check that both the registration plate number and vehicle identification number (VIN) match that on the car. The VIN can be found on the compliance plate located on the windscreen side of the engine bay.

The Vehicles Securities Register can advise you whether the car has any money owing on it or if it is stolen. For a small fee a certificate can be issued which will cover you and your purchase for a short period of time following the sale. The Vehicles Securities Register can be contacted on 13 11 71.

Warranty, receipt and cooling off period

When buying from a private seller you will not be covered by a warranty. Once the sale is finalised, any problems must be paid for by you.

To ensure proof of purchase, make sure you get a receipt from the seller.

When you purchase a vehicle through a dealer you are entitled to a statutory cooling off period. Private sellers are under no obligation to offer this cooling off period so make sure you are totally convinced that this is the right car for you. Once you’ve handed over the money there is no turning back.

Safe and happy driving!

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