Buying a used car can be a little intimidating if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Even if you know what sort of car you want, and have found a private seller who’s got one in decent shape, it may be hard to tell if the price is right.

It doesn’t help that there’s no standard to go by, like a new car’s MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price).

“Comparing new cars is like comparing apples to apples, but because used car’s often don’t have similar characteristics, it’s more apples and oranges,” says Mohamed Bouchama, director of Car Help Canada.

Car Help Canada is one of several non-profit consumer help groups that offer Canadians advice on buying used cars.

He’s counseled many of the organization’s 20,000 members with used car questions.

“Used cars are cheaper to buy privately, but of course you have no legal protection [as opposed to at a used car dealership],” says Bouchama. “You’re taking a risk, but if you do your homework, you can get by.”

Many of the tips that apply to buying a new car – know how much you’re willing to pay, don’t get emotional during the deal – work in a private used car purchase, too, but there are some important differences.

First, the value of a used car can vary wildly depending on things like its mileage, history and state of repair.

“To get a rough estimate of a car’s worth, go to a site like and compare it to similar vehicles,” says Bouchama. “Figure out a price range. The offer you want to make should probably be somewhere in the middle.”

The approximate retail value of the car may also be found at Canadian Black Book or in the seller’s UVIP, or Used Vehicle Information Package. This package – which all private sellers are legally required to supply buyers in Ontario – also includes the car’s registration history and odometer information.

This background info lets you know exactly how much negotiating room you have in terms of price (e.g. the more kilometres on the car, the cheaper it should be).

It can also tell you whether the vehicle is worth buying at all.

“If it’s a newer vehicle that’s transferred ownership five or six times, just forget that car. Something’s not right, there,” explains Bouchama.

A UVIP might not tell whether a car has been in a major accident, though. For that you want to turn to a service like CarFax or CarProof. These online vehicle history reports can cost you $50 or $60, but more often than not, they’re worth it.

Of course, they’re no replacement for a pre-purchase vehicle inspection at a trusted garage.

Our guide to avoiding fraudulent sellers has a few other ways to avoid a bad deal, depending on where in Canada you’re buying the car.

If the vehicle’s history checks out, and you’ve figured out how much you’re willing to pay for it, keep in mind you will have to pay tax on the car (in Ontario, HST applies to used car sales). You’ll want to factor that in, too.

Don’t be scared to ask the buyer questions directly, either.

“If you’ve got a tough question you’re afraid to ask – if you notice damage and suspect the vehicle’s been in an accident, for example – just pose the question nicely. Use diplomatic language, but get to the point,” says Bouchama. “If they deny it, don’t press them on it, but try to get all the information you can.”

And when that’s all sorted out, make an offer. Whatever you do, keep it respectful (that includes respecting the seller’s initial price by not throwing him an unrealistically low-ball offer, too).

If you’re really lost, you might want to enlist the services of Car Help Canada or the Automobile Protection Association.

Yeah, buying a used car can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.

Follow these tips and you’ll not only have a better chance of finding a car that fits—you’ll get it at the right price.