Top Issues on Private Sale Used Cars

Buying a used car from a private seller comes with a host of concerns:

Is there any hidden damage? Will I have to pay for repairs? Am I buying a lemon?

Scouring used cars online from the comfort of your own home is easy and exciting – it gets a lot more serious when you start talking dollars with sellers.

In this article, we go over some of the top issues on cars from private sales – and some tips to deal with them.

If you’re thinking about buying a car from a private seller, go in smart…

Paint Damage

Buyer: “The scratches aren’t visible online”. Seller: “Yeah, they are, you have to look closely”.

This conversation is all too common when buying private sale used cars. They look stunning in the photos, but scratches and stone chips become visible in person. Paint damage is a tough one because some light scratches can be simply and cheaply repaired with polishing compound and elbow grease. Other scratches are labour intensive and cost a lot to fix.

If you do a little research and fancy your negotiating skills, you may be able to use a few paint blemishes to push the price of the car down.

Tip: Make sure to view the vehicle in daylight hours so you can see the paint clearly.

Interior Trouble

Buyer: “The seats look a bit rough”. Seller: “Yeah, you just need some seat covers”.

Cigarette burns, pet hair, spilled food and drinks – they can be tough to spot while you’re having a quick look on a Saturday afternoon. If you’re buying a family SUV for example, the likelihood of interior damage from kids or pets increases. Old food and drink can result in bad smells but often it’s easily repairable.

Tip: Talk to the seller to find out what kind of life and use the car has had. You may be able to get some clues, or better yet – some honest answers.

Repaired Write-offs

Buyer: “Has it ever been in an accident?”. Seller: “Well I’ve never crashed it”.

Buying a car and then finding out it’s previously been crashed and repaired can be a crushing feeling. In Australia, there are two basic kinds of ‘write-offs’:

Statutory Write-Off: This means the vehicle is a total loss. The car is not repairable due to major damage. This can happen for a number of reasons; fire, flood or submersion in salt water or a major accident for example. Statutory write-offs can not be reregistered again in Australia.

Repairable Write-Off: This means the vehicle has been considered ‘damaged, but not beyond repair’. For example, hail damage or minor accident damage. These cars can be repaired by a licenced repairer per the manufacturer’s guidelines. They can be re-registered if they meet government requirements and inspections. Check your state laws.

Generally, repaired write-offs have a far lower value than undamaged examples. Some private sellers can be tempted to sell repaired write-offs at undamaged-car prices.

Make sure you get a PPSR report ( These can be purchased online and tell you if the car has ever been written off, reported as stolen or has any money owing on it from a car loan. You’ll need the VIN number from the seller to purchase the report.

Tip: Some signs of damage appear when the car is driven which is why you should do a test drive. For example, the steering and suspension may be uneven and engine and transmission may struggle.

Home Servicing

Buyer: “The last service in the logbook was 2 years ago”. Seller: “Nah, I did one last month”.

Some car owners prefer to carry out maintenance and servicing themselves. For example, oil changes and installing new brake pads in the driveway. Whether you see this as a negative or not is up to you as a buyer but always make sure the car has been maintained and serviced with correct parts.

Ideally, the original service log book comes with the vehicle and has been kept up to date and with all manufacturer recommended specifications.

Hidden Faults

Buyer: “Is there anything wrong with the car?”. Seller: “Nup”.

Every buyer fears hidden faults and problems. Parting ways with a large amount of money and driving away only to realise the engine light has come on, things have been repaired with tape and cable ties or funny noises have started.

The best solution is to check out the vehicle as best you can. Some things become noticeable on hard acceleration or high speeds which highlights the importance of why you should do a test drive.

Tip: If you’re not confident with checking the engine, transmission and other parts of the vehicle, consider paying a professional to carry out a thorough inspection. You’ll receive a detailed report and get an idea of repair costs.

End of the Day

Higher risk, higher reward is one of the attractions of buying a used car privately. More often than not, great deals on quality cars are found through private sales. Make sure you take the above into consideration to limit the risks as much as possible. If the cars you’re looking at aren’t cutting the mustard, increase your budget with a car loan. After comparing car loans, many people find the benefit of buying a more reliable car makes the loan repayments worth it.