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Used Car Buying Tips

In Virginia, nearly one out of every three car sales is between two individuals, rather than between a buyer and a licensed vehicle dealer. DMV has some suggestions for those who are buying a car from anyone other than a licensed dealer.

Do the Research

  • Before you start shopping, know how much you are willing to pay and stick to your budget.
  • Research the value of the vehicle you may purchase. Several websites offer vehicle value estimates if you type in the year, make, model and mileage including the Kelley Blue Book website at and the National Automobile Dealers Association Used Car Guide.
  • Obtain information on the vehicle you plan to purchase through DMV's Prospective Purchaser Inquiry (PPI), through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), or purchase a vehicle history report from a company such as CARFAX or AutoCheck.

Online Shopping Tips

  • Websites that require the seller to pay a fee to post their vehicle advertisement are recommended rather than free websites that are more likely to attract scams.
  • To check a seller's reputation, look for other customer reviews on the website about the vehicle's seller.
  • Websites such as Craigslist and eBay are meant to connect local buyers and sellers; for example, Craigslist advises that offers to ship vehicles are fraudulent.
  • Ask for larger, better pictures of the vehicle's exterior and interior from different angles to decide if it is worth seeing in person.
  • Do not give the seller your street address and arrange a test drive in a public place.

Inspect the Vehicle

  • Ask the seller for the vehicle's maintenance record and verify the car was properly maintained.
  • Get the vehicle inspected by a licensed mechanic.
  • Make sure the vehicle has a spare tire, jack and lug wrench. If the vehicle has locking hubcaps, make sure the seller has the key for removing them.
  • Check every light, all gauges, windshield wipers and washers, power windows, seats and locks, audio systems, and every other electronic component on the vehicle for proper operation.
  • Ask the seller to provide the title for the vehicle. Not providing the title could indicate that the vehicle has liens against it.
  • Verify that the person who signs the Bill of Sale is the actual owner of the car by comparing the owner's name on the title to the seller's identification.
  • After a price for the vehicle is agreed upon, create a written contract including sale price, car condition and method of payment. Get the contract notarized while both parties sign it.
  • Never pay for a vehicle with cash.

Checking for Water Damage

  • Look for signs of spray paint on moldings; also check the edges of the doors, hood and trunk to be sure they are all the same color. Fresh paint may cover rust that will continue to progress.
  • Inspect for rusting on the inside of the car and under interior carpeting.
  • Visually inspect all interior upholstery and door panels for any evidence of fading, discoloration or stains.
  • Check for any dampness in the carpet and upholstery or moisture inside interior lights and dashboard gauges.
  • Check for new or mismatched interior components and loose or poor-fitting carpet, upholstery and panels.
  • Check for any musty, sour, or mildew-like odors from the carpet and upholstery and the trunk area.
  • Check for rust on screws in the console or other areas where water would normally not reach unless submerged.
  • Complete a detailed inspection of the electrical wiring system looking for rusted components, water residue or suspicious corrosion. Check wiring under the dash to make sure it is flexible and bends without cracking, rather than brittle and hard.
  • Check for silt, gravel and mud in the trunk, in the glove box and ash trays, and around the dashboard.

After the Purchase

After purchasing your vehicle, as required by Virginia law, you must:

  • Purchase liability insurance or pay the $500 uninsured motor vehicle fee.
  • Obtain a vehicle safety inspection sticker.
  • Title, register and purchase license plates for your vehicle from DMV; the vehicle's current plates remain with the seller.


The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) does not endorse or recommend any commercial products, processes or services. The companies and products/services referenced herein are provided as examples solely for the convenience of DMV's customers. DMV makes no representations or warranties of any kind regarding such companies or their products/services, including the quality, customer service, security or reliability thereof. You assume any and all risks and responsibilities in any way associated with your use of such products/services.

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