Buying your next used car: private sellers, dealerships, and auctions

Where Can I Find the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number)?

The vehicle identification number (VIN) is composed of 17 characters (digits and capital letters) that act as a unique identifier for the vehicle. A VIN displays the car's unique features, specifications and manufacturer.

The VIN can be found in a couple of places including on the car's registration label (1), on the compliance plate in the engine bay (2) or on the passenger side windshield (3), or on one of the door posts (where the door latches when it is closed) (4). See the image below:

Look for the VIN in these other locations:

  • Insurance card/Insurance policy
  • Vehicle title and registration certificate


Looking for the best place to buy a used car? You have a few options: private sellers, dealerships, and auctions. In this article, we'll explore each option, highlight their pros and cons, and give you useful tips to help you get the car you're after at a price that suits your budget.

Buying from private sellers

Private sellers are people who sell their own used cars directly to buyers. You can find them on online car sale websites, noticeboards, and community groups or by simply keeping an eye out for 'For Sale' signs on cars during your daily travels.

To buy from a private seller, you'll need to contact them and arrange a time for an inspection. It's a good idea to do your research beforehand so you know what to ask and what to look for. Once you've found a car you like, you'll need to negotiate the price with the seller and arrange payment and transfer of ownership.

One of the major advantages of private sellers is that they often offer lower prices than dealerships. This is because they don't have overhead costs or sales targets to reach, which makes them more flexible and willing to negotiate on price.

However, it's important to be aware of the potential risks involved when buying from a private seller. There is a higher chance of buying a car with hidden problems or undisclosed issues. Additionally, private sellers generally don't provide warranties or guarantees.

Tips for buying from private sellers

  • Doing your homework is essential, as this will give you a better understanding of a fair price.
  • Ask detailed questions about the car's history, maintenance records, and reason for selling. This information will help you gauge the car's condition, the seller's credibility, and what you think the car is worth.
  • Inspect the car carefully and consider hiring a mechanic for an inspection if possible.
  • Use your market research and any identified issues or necessary repairs as leverage during negotiations.
  • Be prepared to walk away if the seller is unwilling to negotiate or you have concerns about the car's condition.

Buying from used car dealerships

Used car dealerships are another option offering several perks private sellers don’t, such as:

  • A wide selection of cars on display, making it easier to find the right one for you
  • Access to salespeople who can offer expert advice
  • The option to trade in your current car
  • Financing options to help fund your purchase
  • Potential for a warranty or guarantee, depending on the car's age and type
  • With some dealers, access to a car history report that dealers buy on behalf of prospective buyers.

The downside of buying from dealerships is that you often pay a premium. Dealerships need to cover overhead costs and make a profit, which can limit your negotiating room. Trade-in rates may also be lower than what you could get by selling privately. And while salespeople can be helpful, they can make you feel some pressure to make a decision.

Tips for buying from dealerships

  • Look for established dealerships with a good reputation by checking online reviews, ratings, and customer feedback.
  • Find dealerships specialising in used cars or those associated with specific car brands, as they may have more relevant expertise.
  • Ask about the vehicle's history, service records, and previous accidents or damage.
  • Find out if the dealership offers additional services like financing options, trade-ins, or extended warranties.

Have you thought about buying a demonstration car?

Buying a demonstration (demo) car can give you the best of both the used and new car worlds. Demo models are cars that were used as test-drive vehicles or by dealership employees, so they're typically driven less frequently and in good condition. And because they aren’t brand new, you could save a lot of money compared to buying a new car. To find demo models near you, you can search car sale websites or check out new car dealers.

Buying from car auctions

Car auctions are events where a range of cars are sold to the highest bidder. These auctions can be held in person or online. Typically, cars sold at auctions come from a variety of places, such as government agencies, fleet companies, finance repossessions, and trade-ins.

If you're looking for a good deal on a car, car auctions can be a great option. They offer a large selection of vehicles to choose from, and you can easily access detailed information about the car's condition and service history reports.

One downside is that the inspection periods can be short, so you may have less time than you'd like to research and test drive the car before making a decision. Additionally, because auctions are competitive, prices can sometimes be driven up, making some cars too expensive for your budget. Finally, keep in mind that cars sold at auctions generally do not come with warranties or guarantees.

The car auction process

  • Find car auctions online and visit reputable auction websites such as Pickles or Grays to see detailed information about upcoming auctions and the cars that will be available.
  • You can inspect cars at dedicated preview days, but you won’t be able to test drive them. You can arrange an independent vehicle inspection at your own cost, but this must be completed before the auction day. Some auction houses provide car history reports for a fee, so check if this option is available.
  • On auction day, you'll need to register as a bidder. Once the auction begins, cars are presented one by one, and bidders have the opportunity to place their bids. The highest bidder at the fall of the hammer wins the car. If you’re successful, most auction houses require a 10% deposit or $500 once you win the auction, so have these funds available on the day.

Tips for buying at auctions

  • There is no cooling-off period when buying at an auction, so it’s important to understand the terms and conditions before the day. Note details around fees, buyer's premiums, and payment methods.
  • Auctions can be fast-paced and competitive, making it easier to get caught up in bidding wars or spend beyond your budget. Be clear on your budget before going in, and try not to let the atmosphere on the day influence your decisions.
  • Be prepared for what happens if you’re successful. Familiarise yourself with the processes around finalising payment, organising transport, and transferring ownership so you can come prepared.
  • If the auction house doesn’t provide a car history report, consider ordering one yourself. For a small cost, you can get reassurance that you’re buying a reliable car and avoid the costly mistake of buying a lemon.

Choosing the best option for you

Ultimately, the choice of where to buy your used car comes down to your personal preferences. And regardless of which option you choose, it’s important to remember to do your research, ask the right questions, and be prepared for the buying process.

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