Edmunds: Avoid these 3 mistakes when buying a used car sight unseen

FILE - Used models are shown a Mini dealership on July 21, 2023, in Highlands Ranch, Colo. The average used car price is up 16% from three years ago. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

It’s easier than ever before to buy a used vehicle online. Unfortunately, that also means it’s easier than ever before to make a purchase you might later regret.

Buying a vehicle online and sight unseen allows you to potentially shop the nation’s entire inventory of cars rather than what just happens to be sitting around at your local dealership. That’s a big advantage whether you want something very specific or simply the best price or the lowest miles.

Many shoppers, though, forget the basics when shopping online. Edmunds ′ car experts examine the three common mistakes people make when buying a car online and explain what you can do to avoid them.


Most auto retailers are invested in the business and they do their due diligence to protect you and themselves throughout their buying, reconditioning and selling process. But that doesn’t mean a vehicle will be perfect. Rushing into a purchase without conducting thorough research or seeking expert advice increases the likelihood you’ll regret your decision.

Make sure to get a vehicle history report from a reputable third party like Carfax or Experian. Many dealerships offer these reports for free in the car listing. You’ll likely need to purchase the report on your own if you’re buying from a private seller or an auction site. Spend time reviewing the report. Accidents and repairs in a car’s history are rarely obvious in photos, even if they’ve been poorly repaired.

Talk to the seller directly before purchasing. Ask the seller for more pictures of interior scuffs, door dings and scratches. A video call that includes a walk-around of the car is a great idea as well. Ask that the car be in a well-lit area and ask to be shown specific aspects of the vehicle that are of interest to you.

Think carefully about the seller’s reputation. If it’s a dealership, make sure to carefully read its recent online reviews. More importantly, is the seller willing to help you be comfortable with the transaction? Take your time to gather information, compare options, and make an informed choice.


Certain online auction sites offer a detailed description of the vehicle for sale that’s intended to reveal specific flaws and defects. But most car listings from dealers or resellers are templated and only reveal features, specifications, price and mileage. In those cases, due diligence is crucial.

However, in the absence of a detailed description, many resellers and some dealers offer a return policy designed to bring security to the transaction. Understanding the terms of this policy, which is usually between one week and one month long, will help you make an informed decision about a long-distance purchase. Shipping fees are almost always nonrefundable.

Some resellers and some dealers will offer a very limited warranty with their cars. Most are for several months or several thousand miles. But it’s worth reading the exclusions sections of these warranties carefully. You may need to ask for the specific warranty terms if they’re not made available in the listing. And then you’ll need to judge how much protection against future costs those terms provide for you.


In instances in which a car has been in a prior accident, some large resellers will recommend an inspection by a third party in their vehicle history report. Take that seriously and be prepared to part with $150 to $400 to have the car inspected. More costly prepurchase inspections should involve tests on the engine that will give you a picture of its health and likely durability. Less costly inspections will still have someone under the car doing all the things that many sellers have already done – looking for leaks, inspecting axles and tires, and giving the car a good once-over.

Paying for an inspection increases the chances of discovering problems like underbody rust that will rarely be obvious in standard photos. Cars from northern states might look great in superficial photos, but even a few years on icy roads treated with salt will cause surface corrosion on suspension and underbody components. That’s worth knowing about before you write a check.


In the end, sellers should respect a buyer who’s serious, prepared and diligent whether in person or thousands of miles away. Taking your time, knowing as much as possible about the car, and understanding the terms of the sale will ultimately make your car buying and ownership experience a good one.


This story was provided to The Associated Press by the automotive website Edmunds.

Josh Jacquot is a contributor at Edmunds.