5 Tips for Buying a Car on eBay

eBay is the ultimate used car lot

A woman accepting the keys to a car she's purchased.

Getty Images 


eBay is an increasingly popular place to buy a car, new or used. Like any car shopping experience, though, you need to do your homework before you put down your money. Here's what you need to know about buying a car on eBay.

Before Buying A Car on eBay, Do Your Homework

Car dealers on eBay can vary widely from a private seller unloading their old sedan to a professional sales department at a major used car lot turning over stock. No matter who they are, there are some basics you should know before you start shopping:

  • Safety and Emissions Requirements: You should go to your state's department of motor vehicles website and look up your state's safety and emissions requirements. Even if you're only going to shop within your home state, it's still worth having this information handy. This can easily be found by entering a search term such as the name of your state and “car inspections.” Look for information directly from state websites instead of websites like DMV.org.
  • Title and Registration Forms: On the state's DMV website, you should look up what forms your state requires you to file to transfer the title and registration. If you're working with a dealership, they may handle this themselves, but it's good to be familiar with the process.
  • Taxes: You should know your tax burden. Generally, sales tax is calculated based on the car's current state. If those rates are different, you'll likely be responsible for the difference, which can be a nasty surprise come tax time if the rates are higher. 
  • Inspection and Delivery: Keep in the back of your mind that for a car you can't easily get to, you'll need to arrange for both a separate inspection by an expert and pickup or delivery, which can cost several hundred dollars. Research companies offering this in your area, or discuss this with a local dealership. Have all this noted and written down in a place that's easy to get to, and you'll be ready to search.

    Find Cars On eBay

    Finding a vehicle on eBay is fairly simple, as eBay has a dedicated site for it, eBay Motors, with a search window at the top.

    The eBay Motors main page with the search panel highlighted

    If, for example, you only want to find vehicles within your state, or an easy drive to look at, you can simply enter your zip code and a certain radius of miles around it. You can also narrow down the listings by make, model, and range of model years. For our purposes, let's look at this listing for a 2008 Honda Fit.

    An eBay Motors listing for a 2008 Honda Fit

    eBay does quite a bit of the research for you. If you scroll down to the bottom of the listing you'll find three tabs:

    • Description: The first is the vehicle description, labeled “Description.” This features information collected by AutoCheck, eBay's verification service, which gives you a wealth of information about the car, including its Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN. A VIN will allow you to independently check the history by running it through a service such as Carfax.
    • Vehicle History Report: This is second tab, and is a vehicle history report for that VIN.
    • Shipping and Payment: This tab offers quotes from various vehicle shipping companies.

    Let's say, for now, everything about the vehicle checks out. You have two options:

    • Buy It Now: Buy the car and avoid the whole auction process.
    • Make Offer: Try to bid on the car.

    Some listings will mention they're selling with a consideration "or best offer", called "OBO," so contact the seller and ask them what range of offers they'd consider. Also, check the rules of the auction. Some are “no reserve,” meaning the car sells regardless of the final bid, while others require a certain minimum for the sale to clear.

    Check The Price

    When buying any car, it's important to compare its price to what others are paying. To do this, first search Kelley Blue Book to ensure it's at a good price in the first place.

    The Kelley Blue Book website revealing the average price range of a 2008 Honda Fit

    The KBB website will ask you a few questions about the condition of the car, whether it's a dealer or a seller, and the location, and will give you a price range, like the one shown above. Keep this range handy; if your bid plus your associated costs start falling into the high end, it's time to step away from the auction.

    You should also look up what others have paid on eBay for similar cars. To do this, from the eBay home page:

    1. Select Advanced in the upper right-hand corner, next to the search button.

    2. On the next page, select On eBay Motors, then fill in the data.

    3. Under Enter keyword or item number, select Completed listings.

      An eBay Motors advanced search page, with
    4. Select search and you'll see what others have paid for similar listings. Those that sold will have prices listed in green, while those where the auction ended without a sale will be listed in black.

    Remember that prices can be affected by mileage, so there won't be a perfect match. Still, this will also give you a good range to consider as you bid.

    Is It a Good Car?

    If the price checks out, next, research the car thoroughly.

    Start with the seller and their eBay history

    1. On the right-hand side of the listing, you'll find their username and a number next to it.

    2. Select the number and you'll go to their feedback profile, which includes what other users have said about buying from them and selling to them. This profile may be sparse, especially if this is somebody's first time selling.

    3. You can, and should, contact them directly and ask to speak with them over the phone or email. If the seller is a car dealer, or is willing to provide you with their real name, you should also run them through Google to find results. 

    Does the seller have the title?

    One thing you absolutely need to know is whether they have the title. Legally speaking, the person who has their name on the title owns the car. If there's no title, that's going to be a big legal problem and the sale itself may be suspect.

    1. Ask for a copy of the title. The information should match, exactly, the information the seller has provided you.

    2. If the name does not match, ask the seller about the situation. In some situations, this isn't an issue a seller may be a relative who has not transferred the title to the seller, so ask for this to be completed before you finish the sale.

    3. Once you have the story, run a title check through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System or NMVTIS, which is provided through private sellers. 

    A "salvage" title marks a car that has been "totalled" by an insurance company. If this is all the seller has, proceed with extreme caution.

    Have the car inspected

    Next, the vehicle should be independently inspected.

    Look closely at the text of any certification documents to see just what's certified. If, for example, they only inspected the powertrain and have given it a warranty, there may be other issues.

    1. If the seller claims the car has been certified pre-owned, have them provide copies of the documents via email or snail mail. The documents should include a warranty provided by the inspector, the VIN, and the name of the dealership that performed the inspection. Call to independently verify this was done.

    2. If there's no certification, arrange for the seller to take the vehicle to a dealership, or you can hire an independent inspector.

    3. Have the inspector check the VIN and send you a photo of it to confirm it's the same.

    4. If the car is close to you, ask to give it a visual inspection and a test drive.

    5. See if your purchase falls under eBay's Vehicle Protection Program, which, if you wind up with a lemon, means you won't be out the money.

    Bid and Drive

    With all that done, you can start the buying process.

    1. If you're going to bid on a car, keep a close eye on the overall price, and don't forget you'll have to arrange delivery or pickup, taxes, and any state paperwork fees, likely adding hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the cost, depending on the final price.

      If that price starts to edge over what the car is actually worth, walk away. If the Buy Now cost is on the low end for the vehicle, consider buying it outright.

    2. Once you've made the sale online, contact the seller and discuss their signing over the title and registering the car in your state.

    3. If you've gotten financing for the car, you'll also need to connect the seller with the institution.

    4. Finally, arrange a pickup or a delivery and enjoy your new car.