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FSBO: Is a For Sale by Owner Used Vehicle the Best Deal?

If you’re seeking a used vehicle, is it better to buy a car for sale by its owner (FSBO), or from a dealership? How can you be sure to ask the right questions and get the best price?

The answer, as with most questions regarding a car purchase, is “it depends.” Many variables go into pricing cars these days, particularly on the internet. For example, many car dealers are now using vAuto software to help them set and manage online auto pricing. This means that when you use a search engine to find a used or pre-owned vehicle at a dealership and then contact the dealership to discuss the price, you may find that some dealers won’t negotiate. Alternatively, you could pore through Craigslist or other online marketplaces to see which interesting FSBO cars might be available. However, it can be difficult to determine a private seller’s trustworthiness. A dealership’s reputation is generally far easier to research.

What’s a reliable resource for used vehicle pricing?

At Car Pal, we measure selling prices using Kelly Blue Book as a baseline pricing guide. While this site isn’t 100% accurate (particularly on certain models, such as Toyota), if the sales price at a dealership or on a FSBO vehicle is close to the KBB private party value, it is generally a reasonable price. If you are lucky enough to find an even better price than the KBB private party value, pat yourself on the back—but then make sure the vehicle meets and/or exceeds your expectations by getting as much information as you can, and having a trustworthy mechanic inspect the vehicle. If a deal seems too good to be true, it may not be a good deal at all.

What details should I look for in FSBO vehicle listings?

Here are the main components to look for when searching for a vehicle in any FSBO listing:

  • Clear photos and specific details about a vehicle—year, make, model, number of miles, transmission type, title status, general vehicle condition, asking price
  • Location of vehicle
  • Details about remaining manufacturer’s warranty (if applicable)

What should I ask when contacting a private seller?

Some private sellers include lots of information in their ads. If an ad doesn’t include the vehicle information you need, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions such as:

  • What is the VIN?
  • Are the vehicle’s maintenance records available?
  • Was the vehicle ever in an accident?
  • How many owners has the vehicle had?
  • Has anyone smoked regularly in the vehicle?
  • What was the vehicle’s primary use?
  • Are there two sets of keys?
  • Does the vehicle include a spare tire?
  • What kind of fuel does the vehicle require (gas or diesel)?
  • Why is the vehicle for sale?
  • May I have my mechanic inspect the vehicle?

Which FSBO ad details might be a red flag?

Occasionally you’ll encounter an ad that raises red flags about a vehicle. Beware of ads that include:

  • No vehicle photos, or photos in which you cannot see enough detail
  • An urgent reason for selling, such as “must sell quickly, need a work truck”
  • An artificially low selling price (for example, far lower than the KBB private party value suggests)
  • Urgency of any kind in the listing, such as “call right away—this deal won’t last long”
  • Anything that causes you suspicion, such as “needs TLC” or “a little rust but runs great”

In the end, trust your gut

While you don’t need to rely on a car buyer’s agent to make sensible decisions, we can help you by performing diligent research and handling the time-consuming interactions that typically occur when you seek to buy a car, truck, or SUV. (If you’re lucky enough to find a great FSBO vehicle, you’ll also want to read our article on how to complete the FSBO purchase process.) But if a potential vehicle causes you doubt, don’t make the deal. Trust your gut when you’re deciding whether a previously owned vehicle—whether it’s at a dealership or FSBO—should become your “new to you” vehicle.

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