Wednesday 17 July 2024

10 Red flags when buying a used car from a private seller

The internet has made it a lot easier for people to sell their car privately. Unfortunately, it has also led to an increase in private car sale scams. Keeping your wits about you is important when choosing to buy a used car from a private seller. But just what are some of the main red flags to look out for? This post lists 10 examples – along with some advice on how to stay safe when buying a used car.

10 red flags to watch out for

The images in the ad are generic product photos or are taken from odd angles

Many online ad platforms require you to post images. However, you can’t always trust these images. It’s important that the photo is not a generic product photo, as this tells you nothing about the condition of the car (or if it really exists). Photos taken from odd angles could also be a red flag – they could be done deliberately to hide damage or to conceal the number plate (so that you cannot look up information on the car online). Blurry photos should also not be trusted.

They ask you to pay before seeing the car

One of the simplest and most effective scams involves sellers asking to receive payment before you’ve even seen the car. Once the payment is made, the scammer then deletes the ad and disappears without a trace – and you never get the car. Always see the car first before making any payment to ensure that it’s a real ad.

They want to meet at a location that isn’t their address

The seller should always provide their address and arrange to meet you there. If a seller wants to meet in a random car park, it could be because they don’t want you to know where they live so that you have no way of chasing them down for a refund. Alternatively, the seller may not actually be the true owner and they may be trying to flog a stolen car!

They don’t allow you to take a test drive

Test drives are essential for getting a feel for the car. They can also help reveal any hidden faults like weird noises, leaks while driving or warning lights. If a seller refuses to let you test drive the vehicle, it could be because they’re hiding something. Always do a test drive – and make sure it’s done before any payment is made.

There are obvious undisclosed issues when you inspect the car

An honest seller should be upfront about any major issues – if not in the ad, then at least in any messages/phone call prior to meeting. If you show up and there are major issues such as major exterior damage or the car not starting, you should consider how trustworthy they really are. Some sellers may genuinely forget to notify you of minor issues, but major issues aren’t something that can realistically be overlooked.

There’s a lack of vehicle documentation

There are certain key documents that an honest seller should have. These include a V5C logbook, service history documents, recent MOT certificates and ideally an owner’s manual. If the seller isn’t able to provide any of this documentation, you may have no evidence that they are truly the owner or that the car is in good condition. Always ask to see this documentation if a seller does not willingly offer it to you.

The car’s details online don’t match

There are many sites that offer free vehicle checks. These allow you to check details such as tax details, MOT history and the most recent vehicle registry. These databases can also notify you if a car has been stolen or written off. Make sure to use these resources while shopping for cars and be wary of anything that doesn’t match up with information provided by the seller (check out this Auto Express guide to best car checker websites).

They’re trying to rush you into a sale

If a seller is pressuring you to make a quick sale, it could be because something dodgy is going on. They may be trying to secure a sale before certain information comes to light (such as the car being stolen). Or they may just be rushing you so that you don’t notice other red flags like missing documents or undisclosed damage to the car.  Whatever their motive may be, don’t let yourself be unduly pressured. If they use excuses about needing to be somewhere and you feel you haven’t had enough time to inspect the vehicle, arrange to meet up another time before committing to a sale.

The mileage and price is suspiciously low

‘Clocking’ – the process of illegally changing a car’s mileage – isn’t easy to do on modern cars, but is still something that happens. This can result in a car that’s driven 100,000 miles only displaying 20,000 miles. A true low mileage car is usually priced higher because it is seen as more reliable and attractive. If the price and mileage seems too good to be true, it’s probably because they are too good to be true. Consider the age of the car and check for any heavy wear and tear, as these can help you determine whether the mileage displayed is accurate.

The seller does not speak English very well and cannot answer basic questions

There may be genuine cases where a seller cannot speak English well, and where patience is required. However, pretending to not speak English well is also a common tactic used by sly sellers to avoid answering basic questions about the car and its history. If you are unable to get all the necessary information you need, consider calling off the purchase. Either that, or take someone along who can help interpret (they then have no choice but to answer questions accurately).

How to safely buy a used car

The safest way to buy a used car is often to avoid private sellers altogether. Dealerships are a much safer option. While dodgy dealerships also exist, it’s harder for a dealer to disappear once they’ve made a sale – allowing you to get your money back if you’re scammed. You can also check the reviews of dealerships. Many of the most trusted dealerships such as Scottish Borders used car garages will have good reviews and will also offer warranties for peace of mind.

Cars bought from dealerships can be a little more expensive. You do have the option on finance when buying a car from a dealership (which you don’t get from a private seller), but some buyers may not want to borrow money. If this is the case, you should consider private sellers – but watch out for the red flags.

You can avoid most scams by not being afraid to ask questions and inspecting the car thoroughly before you buy. Sometimes sellers will accidentally display red flags, however you can usually get to the bottom of the truth by gathering as much information as you can (such as asking for additional photos if ones provided are poor, or confirming exactly why the mileage is low on a car). If sellers seem hesitant to cooperate with you, it’s best to walk away.


Knowing all the red flags can help you to safely buy a car from a private seller. Try to trust your gut and get as much information as you can before you transfer any money. Most private sellers are honest and genuine, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

** This is a collaborative post

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