If you are contacting a private party, it's important to find out why the vehicle is being sold. Ask them to describe the condition of the car and how it was used, if they have all the mechanical and maintenance records for the vehicle and if they have any objection to you taking the car to a private mechanic for an inspection. This is extremely important, as private party sales are almost always "AS IS" and, once you've bought the car, it's yours, period. If your state requires a smog certificate, insist the car pass inspection before you go to view it. Smog checks are the seller's responsibility; don't fall in love with a car only to find that it fails a smog check. Also be certain the car is still current on its registration. If the registration has expired, it can be costly to re-instate it, and that should also be the seller's responsibility. Registration fees and requirements vary from state to state so be sure to consult your state's Department of Motor Vehicles for details.
If the seller says all the right things, set up an appointment to see the vehicle. Always try to view the vehicle while there is still daylight and bring along a friend. If you have to go alone and are feeling a bit uneasy, ask the owner to bring the car to a convenient location, such as a local shopping center parking lot or the DMV. One last word on private party sales: A private party in this context refers to an individual selling his or her personal car. You must be very alert to private party ads placed by professionals. These are individuals that purchase used cars, usually in poor shape or with questionable titles, and then sell them cheap without disclosing their past problems. Also referred to as "curbstoners," these shady characters can often be found with a few vehicles parked in a shopping center parking lot or in front of their places of business. Do not confuse them with reputable dealers. They cannot provide the warranty, inspection and accountability of an established used car dealer.