There's no question about it; you can definitely find a bargain if you buy a used car from a private source. However, you need to exercise a great deal of care at the same time, or you may well come away with a lemon. While most sellers are honest and want to do the right thing, you cannot always rely on this either, so you do need to make sure that you inspect the vehicle very carefully before you shake hands. What areas do you need to look at in particular?
One 'Careful' Owner?
You can often tell a lot about the likely condition of a car by looking inside at the upholstery. This will generally tell you whether the owner took good care of the vehicle through its life. If the upholstery is very badly worn or frayed, or if you can see cigarette holes on the side of the seats, then this tells you that you need to look even more closely at the rest of the car.
Have a good look at the outside of the vehicle next. If it is an older car, don't be too worried about the odd ding or scratch here, but you can always use those to negotiate the price. You will need to ensure that the panels fit together closely and that there are no gaps in between. If there are, this could indicate that the vehicle has been involved in an accident in the past and may have been badly repaired.
Tyres and Wheels
Have a look at the wheels and tyres. Carefully check the condition of the rubber on the outside and the inside and look at the tread depth. You may need to budget for replacements and will have to take this into account in your discussions. If you can see that there are a lot of scratches on the outside of each wheel, this may indicate that the driver was not too concerned about the condition of the vehicle and did not pay too much attention when they were parking it.
The Colour Comparison
Next, open the bonnet. The first thing to check is the colour of the paint on the bulkhead to make sure that it matches the colour on the outside. If not, this is a tell-tale sign that the car has been re-sprayed without too much attention to detail, and you need to ask why. Has it been involved in a major accident of some kind, and if so, is it structurally sound?
Quick Engine Check
You may not be the world's best mechanic and may not be sure what you're looking at, but you can begin by removing the oil filler cap from the top of the engine. Have a look underneath to see if it has any white residue with the same consistency as mayonnaise. If so, this could be a bad sign, as it may indicate that coolant has mixed with oil, and the head gasket may be at fault.
Getting a Proper Report
Of course, there are many other areas to look at, and you should leave no stone unturned, as you probably won't get a guarantee from the seller. In these circumstances, it may be better to get a pre-purchase inspection report drawn up by a qualified mechanic, after you've done your initial appraisal.