Buying a Car Sight Unseen - Your Go-To Guide

Black sedan on the road

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

For many people, buying a car is the second biggest investment they’ll ever make in their life. Generally, part of the buying process is first inspecting and then test-driving the car. Not doing this might seem ludicrous, but with an increasing number of people shopping for cars online, it could be a necessity. 

Buying a car sight unseen from a dealer or private individual may seem daunting, particularly the first time you do it. To help you out, we’ve put together some tips on buying a used car sight unseen to explain the process and hopefully reduce the chance of you buying a lemon. 

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What does buying a car sight unseen mean?

When you buy a car sight unseen, it means you’re buying it without inspecting it in person. It might seem very risky, but there are things you can do to reduce that risk. Here are a few quick tips:

  • Research the car: Learn as much as you can about the make and model. Find out whether there are mechanical or technical issues that tend to surface. 
  • Financing and payment: Work out how you’ll pay for the car and how you’ll finance it. 
  • Shipping and delivery: Determine how you’ll get the car to your home. If you buy a car online and want it delivered, there is the option of booking a car shipping service. 
  • The bottom line: Make sure all the necessary paperwork and documentation is available before you finalize your purchase. 

The pros and cons of buying sight-unseen

If you’re thinking about buying a used car sight unseen from a dealer or private individual there are more advantages than you might think. However, as you might expect, there are also disadvantages too.

Pros

  • Buying a vehicle sight unseen opens up a much wider search area
  • You’re also going to benefit from a larger variety of vehicles
  • You’ll be able to exploit regional price differences

Cons

  • There are steps you can take to check the car is as described, but you won’t be able to drive it until you’ve paid your money, and the car is in your possession
  • The onus is on you to look out for fraudsters

How to buy a car sight unseen - a step-by-step guide

If you want to keep the chance of buying a lemon to a minimum, the following steps should help when buying a new car sight unseen from a dealer or privately.

Step One: Read the advert carefully

When it comes to a sight-unseen purchase, information is your friend. The more you can get from the seller the better it is for you. 

Ask about the vehicle’s age, mileage, number of owners, engine size, and specifications, and be sure they meet your requirements.

The advert should also provide details of any equipment or accessories and let you know when the car is due for its next MOT and service.

Something else to consider is how the advert is worded. If the sale is private, it’s likely the seller will be an enthusiastic owner who can explain how meticulously they cared for the car. An honest seller will also be transparent about any blemishes and faults, giving you a fair idea of the car’s condition. 

Step Two: Look closely at the pictures

Buying sight unseen means you’re not going to see the car in person. Therefore, you need to have a suitable selection of pictures. The images should cover the car from every angle, and if anything is missing, don’t be afraid to ask for more pictures.

There should be photos under the bonnet and inside the boot and you want to be able to zoom in to check for signs of excessive wear. If there is worn seat fabric or cracked leather, a written description that states the car has done 50,000 miles might not be honest. 

Step Three: Talk to the seller in person

If you’re happy with the process so far, now might be a suitable time to speak with the seller by phone. You’ll be able to ask any questions you might have. In addition, you’re also giving yourself the chance to get a feel for their character (private sale) or customer service (dealership). 

You need to listen to their answers and decide whether they sound genuine. Don’t forget to ask the seller why they’re selling the car, and whether it’s been reliable. If you’re still happy and the seller appears genuine, it’s time to start talking about making a deal. Your caveat should be that any price is subject to an inspection and history check.

Step Four: Perform a history check

It’s recommended that you run a vehicle history check whenever you buy a car. Many online providers offer such a service, including:

A vehicle history report from a reputable company will tell you if the car has been involved in an insurance claim, has been clocked, or has outstanding money owed on it. 

A thorough vehicle history check will check over 80 different points, including whether the vehicle has ever been recorded as stolen or scrapped, what its VIN should be, and whether the car is imported. 

Step Five: Organise an inspection

You might have to pay for an inspection, but a couple of hundred dollars will be worth it. An inspection by a third party could cost between $100 and $200 but is money well spent and could help avoid costs further down the line. 

Shop around for a good inspection and consider the following:

  • Will the car be placed on a life?
  • Is there a road test?
  • Will the mechanic note the condition of the brakes and tires?
  • Will the written report be easy to understand?
  • Can you speak directly with the mechanic who performs the inspection to ask follow-up questions?

There are several sources for vehicle inspections:

  • A brand specialist: Try to find a mechanic who specializes in the make of the car you want to purchase. You should be able to find a specialist garage near the seller with the help of Google or Yelp.
  • A mobile inspection service: A service like Lemon Squad will inspect the car at your preferred location. However, the vehicle won’t be placed on a lift to check for leaks and other problems.
  • A local mechanic: If you have a trusted mechanic, they would be a good choice to inspect the car, but they might not travel if you’re purchasing a car out of state. 
  • National chain stores: Some tire stores and oil change shops might perform an inspection, often at a much lower price.
  • Auto Club and AAA members: You can search these websites for inspection facilities, and you might be eligible for a discount if you’re a member. 

Step Six: Work out how you’re going to pay

Let’s assume all has gone well so far. Now it’s time to organize payment for your new car. If you’re buying the car from a private seller and they’re asking for a holding deposit, the sensible thing to do is use a secure money transfer service. PayPal, for example, records the payment and can hold onto funds until you have the car in your possession. 

A dealership will likely prefer a credit card or debit card payment. In such cases, it’s a good idea to get it in writing that the deposit has been paid on the condition that the vehicle is as described. Whichever way you pay the deposit, try to keep it to a minimum. 

This is also the point at which you’ve got to determine how and when you’re going to pay the balance, and commit to a collection or delivery date. 

Step Seven: Arrange shipment

Cross-country shipping used to be difficult to arrange for the average car shopper. However, thanks to companies like SGT Auto Transport, car shipping services are now open to everyone. 

What this means for you is that you can shop nationwide for the car of your dreams and have it shipped directly to your door. 

If you want to know how much it will cost, use our instant online quote calculator

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You must provide a few basic details such as the type of car, location of the pick-up and delivery, type of service, and first available pick-up date. 

When you’ve bought your car and are ready to make your booking, speak with our shipping advisors at (864) 546-5038 or use Live Chat

FAQs

Is it OK to buy a car sight unseen?

Buying a car sight unseen can be a risky endeavour. While it might seem convenient, there are potential pitfalls to consider. You could miss crucial details about its condition, such as hidden damage, mechanical issues, or cosmetic flaws. 

It’s therefore recommended to thoroughly research the seller, request comprehensive photos, vehicle history reports, and consider arranging a third-party inspection before committing to the purchase. Doing so can help mitigate the risk associated with buying a car without a physical inspection and increase your chances of making a more informed decision. 

How to securely buy a car online?

To securely buy a car online, you should follow these steps:

  1. Set a budget
  2. Get a pre-approved loan
  3. Find the right model;
  4. Check for car deals
  5. Search the inventory at multiple dealers
  6. Chat online with an internet sales manager
  7. Take a test drive
  8. Finish up at the dealership or get the car delivered
  9. Be wary of too-low prices
  10. Take care with interstate sellers
  11. Don’t disclose any personal details too early
  12. Be suspicious of ridiculously low offers
  13. Check out KBB.com to find out what the car’s market value is before buying it

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