Should You Seal the Deal Without Seeing the Car First?


What you need to know about buying a car sight unseen

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What Does ‘Buying a Car Sight Unseen’ Mean?

Buying a new car sight unseen in 2021 - is it a good idea? Buying a car at the best of times presents a number of challenges. You have to inspect the car thoroughly to ensure that you're not getting ripped off, that the car is as advertised, that the car drives well and safely with no funny noises, and that all the paperwork is up to date. But when you've found your ideal project car, daily driver, or workhorse in another state, it can be uneconomical and impractical to drive or fly all over the country to determine if the vehicle you're looking at is well cared for. Thus, this article will discuss some of the things to look out for and how you can protect yourself from some of the risks of interstate shopping. That being said, this article is only a guideline, and even if everything seems to check out, you may find yourself with a lemon. Always use your instincts and trust your gut if something doesn't feel right, but also keep in mind that used cars are rarely in perfect condition.

Broken Car
Vehicle History

Important Processes

This section covers a list of many of the basics to bear in mind when considering the purchase of a vehicle not in your immediate locale. This isn't a hard and fast playbook that will tell you every last thing about how to buy a used car sight unseen. Always remember that even if everything seems to check out, buying a vehicle sight unseen is always risky, and unlike with new cars, there aren't reviews for every single unit of a type of used car posted for sale. Different types of people treat a car differently, so follow these tips, but proceed with caution unless you're willing to sit with a troublesome purchase that you'll lose money on.

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1. Research

Before initiating negotiations with the seller of the car that you are interested in, it's important to know the common faults of the particular vehicle, what these faults cost to repair, how much time and labor they will take to remedy, and if any of them are recall-related. Once you've armed yourself with this knowledge, it is time to contact the current owner. If there are any details not covered in the advertisement, now is the time to call the seller to determine if any of the issues that this car may have been plagued with - common or otherwise - have been addressed. Speaking to the person can also give you clues as to their reasoning for selling the car. Is the person likely to be fraudulent (since scams are common these days)? Is the car a money pit? Or is it simply no longer needed? Taking someone's word isn't always good enough, although it can be if you're purchasing from a dealer. If not, it's best to request proof of repairs and maintenance. Although most online deals are usually handled via email or instant messaging, we advise speaking to the owner on the phone. This can reveal any hesitation in disclosing certain details and can give you an idea of whether the current owner knows how to take care of that particular vehicle or not.

Different Types of People Treat a Car Differently

2. Price Variations

Before biting the bullet on a vehicle, and before even looking at ads, it may be worth your while to explore the price trends of the car you're after in various states. For example, in California where EVs and hybrids are very popular, you may find that secondhand EVs and hybrids are more prevalent and therefore cheaper. By contrast, trucks will be a dime a dozen in somewhere like Alaska and less commonplace in New York. This is also helpful for determining the average market price of the vehicle across the country, thus allowing you to figure out if a car is overpriced, or if it's so cheap that it seems to be a scam. Sometimes an advertisement at a bargain price is not a fraudulent post but is going to be too expensive on repairs to be viable either.

Engine Bay

3. Reading the Advert

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's important to read the details of the adverts you're looking at carefully. Consider year models, specs and features, upgrades made by the current owners of each option, locations, and, of course, the prices of each listing. Then you need to check if the owner has had a recent Carfax inspection done, if any recall issues have been addressed, if proof of work done on the car is provided, and if the price is negotiable. It's also important to determine if there is a clean title or if you need to do more work to get the car into your name.

4. Inspecting the Pictures

It is also imperative that you examine the pictures in detail. Through this, you can pick up color differences that would indicate prior spray work. You can also tell if body panels line up, if the engine bay has any obvious leaks, if there are any aftermarket parts, if there are any signs of rust, and if the car appears to be cleaned regularly. If the pics are of good quality, you can also tell if the brake discs are ridged, if there are excessive paint chips, and if interior switches and touchpoints are worn. These are the kinds of things you would normally inspect closely in person, but if you know what to look for before buying a car sight unseen, you can usually generate a good idea of if the car is any good.

Examine the Pictures Closely for Defects

5. Vehicle History

This is part of the first point in this list and forms part of the research that should be done before you make a purchase. When you check the vehicle's history, you can determine what work previous owners have carried out and also see if the maintenance of the car has been carried out timeously. From service invoices, you can also research whether the workshops responsible for the care of the vehicles are reputable and if they specialize in that particular make and model.

Does the Photo Correspond to Reality

6. Pre-Purchase Inspection

Of course, this is one of the trickiest yet most important parts of the entire sale process, and sure, a pre-purchase inspection is neither a certification of excellence nor a death warrant. That said, getting a Carfax or similar inspection carried out, although an expense on a vehicle you may not even buy, can alert you to the smallest of issues that even your own personal inspection may not reveal. The downside to this is that if a dealer inspects the vehicle and provides a quotation for repairing every last defect on the vehicle, it may make even a decent vehicle seem like a poor investment. This is where your earlier research on common problems and their fixes can help you out and make it easier to determine a car's pros and cons on a more realistic level. For example, while a dealer may quote thousands of dollars to respray chipped body panels, a body shop near you may be able to rectify the issues at a lower cost. Finally, the inspection can help with negotiating a lower price for the car.

Inspecting The Pictures

7. Additional Costs

It's very important that you consider all of the above points, and where possible, try to work out a rough dollar value for what it will take to get a car back to full health based on the work you've done assessing the vehicle. Getting the car shipped to you can be pricey, especially if you want insurance on the delivery, which you certainly should opt for. Of course, you could hire a trailer and tow it yourself or get a friend to drive with you and drive the car home once you've bought it, but that's also an additional cost on fuel. If you do decide to pick the car up yourself and it's located far away, you may also have to budget a little extra for a motel room. You also need to register the car once you buy it, obviously.

You Need to Ensure That the Car You’re Buying Complies With Those of Your Home State


We've gone over a lot of what to know before buying a car sight unseen, but there are a couple of other things to remember, too.

  • Emissions regulations vary from state to state, and you need to ensure that the car you're buying complies with those of your home state. The same applies to other minor details like whether the car will need to have a front license plate fitted.
  • It is also advisable to bring a mechanic with you when you collect the car if you intend to drive it home after payment, just in case something goes wrong on the way. Bringing some tools and fluids can also be beneficial.
  • If you opt to have the car shipped across the USA on an open-air multi-car truck trailer, ask the towing company to place your car on the highest level, if possible. This will help minimize the chances of damage from road debris and stone chips while the car is being transported to you. If the transporter offers a system that allows you to track the truck, that's also a bonus.
  • If you're buying a classic, it's also valuable to get an expert with lots of experience to find out if he or she can get it certified as the model advertised before you initiate negotiations.


In conclusion, it's important to remember that buying a used car sight unseen is never the recommended route for car buying in the US, or any other country for that matter. But if you must, try to learn as much as possible about the vehicle beforehand and always make telephonic contact with the seller in addition to other channels like email and instant messaging. Sticking to these principles minimizes your risk, but even then, you may need to spend more than you intended to get a car to the level you want it. We've covered many of the things you need to look out for in detail above, but as a recap, the following are the most important bits to keep in mind:

  • Spend more time on research than anything else
  • Look at more than one option before jumping the gun on a purchase
  • Look for the best-quality ads and work your way down, as those with plenty of information and pictures are usually ads for decent cars
  • Examine the pictures closely for defects
  • Try to go for a car with a documented history of good maintenance
  • Always over-budget when buying a car sight unseen
  • Don't let your heart make decisions for you, but rather ask for multiple opinions
Danger Buy Wrong


Should I buy a car sight unseen?

As a rule of thumb, it's usually a bad idea. However, there are often bargains to be found when you look for cars in more rural areas or if you find a car that hasn't been used much.

What do I need to know before buying a car sight unseen?

Keep an open mind - while some cars are only worthy of ending up in a junkyard, many others can be in brilliant shape. Either way, you need to learn as much about that particular model as you can, and never, ever send money without some sort of guarantee or without having the title in your hand. A site like can help with this, acting as an intermediary between you and the seller.

Can you buy a car out of state and have it shipped to you?

Yes. There are many companies and private individuals who can provide such a service, but try to go for those that have a good reputation and insurance.

Is it better to buy from a dealership or from a private seller?

Both have their pros and cons. Cars at dealerships are generally better cared for since the dealer's reputation is on the line and you can find some recourse if you are dissatisfied. However, dealers also have greater overheads due to staff, rent, and operating costs, all of which can push a car's price up slightly. Conversely, private individuals generally sell cars at lower prices. This does mean that you may end up with a car that has been poorly looked after, but sometimes, you could also come across an enthusiast who has maintained the vehicle better than a dealer, with shorter service intervals and fewer generic consumables. Ultimately, the answer to this question depends on the specific situation and vehicle.

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