All used cars are not created equal,and not every buying experience is the same. 

The most significant factor is who you buy the car from: a private seller trying to move an old car out of his or her driveway, or a dealer looking to make room for more inventory on their lot. There are advantages and disadvantages, to both.

Here are a few of the pros and cons: 

A respectable dealer will be a member of a dealer association, usually a provincial one.

These organizations ostensibly represent the interests of the dealers, but because part of their mandate is to “enhance the image of the used vehicle industry,” as the Used Vehicle Dealers Association of Ontario (UCDA) website suggests, they have an interest in making sure their members are upholding certain standards.  

At the Alberta Motor Vehicle Industry Council’s website, you can search the name of a salesperson to see if they’re registered with the council. 

A number of other provinces have similar organizations. Also, used vehicle buyers tend to be covered under consumer rights laws, as the Canadian Bar Association website explains with regard to British Columbia. Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act also has a detailed section outlining the rights of used vehicle buyers. In 2010, Nova Scotia passed a law requiring dealers to declare if a vehicle sustained previous damage or has been rebuilt.

A few provinces have organizations that deal specifically with used vehicle dealers; others have umbrella groups that look after dealers of both new and used cars and trucks.

The upshot is this: if you have a complaint about a vehicle bought from a licensed dealer, or about the dealer itself, the organization that represents dealers in your province or territory is a good place to start. 

You will pay for this security blanket of legal recourse, in the form of a higher purchase price, compared to a private sale. The dealer is in business to make a profit, and if
they’re legitimate, they’ve earned the right to charge more for a car than a private seller would. If a dealer knows what he or she is doing, they will stock only vehicles that are worth selling. 

They will ensure the car is in good mechanical shape, and the really good dealers will replace tires, brakes and other wear items that are barely good enough to pass a safety check. 

Most used car dealers, even smaller “dirt lot” operations, only sell cars that are road-ready, with all necessary safety inspection and emissions test certificates. 

Just as buying a car from a dealer doesn’t guarantee a quality vehicle, purchasing one from a private seller doesn’t have to be a bad idea. In fact, we’d argue that it rarely is, as long as you’re careful about it. 

Buying privately is attractive mainly because you’re likely to get a better price than you would buying the same car from a dealer, by taking the dealer’s profit margin out of
the equation. 

Many of the same rules found in our guide to avoiding “curbsiders” apply here. You want to make sure the person selling the car actually owns it. Ask them for identification, and compare that to what’s on the car’s registration.

When you’re scouring classified ads for used cars, look for ads that include plenty of detail about the car.

The basics you want to see include the vehicle’s mileage, whether it has a manual or automatic transmission, if it has recently passed a safety inspection and, if applicable in your province, an emissions test. 

It’s even better if the seller includes information about recent repairs and maintenance, and seems honest about the car’s condition, mentioning things such as rust, dents, faded paint, etc.

If the seller doesn’t care enough to include at least the most basic of pertinent information in the ad, what does that say about how they cared for the car while they owned it? 

If the seller says they still use the car regularly, that’s a good sign. For one, it means the car still works, and suggests that it hasn’t been parked for months, which in an old car can lead to more problems than might be caused by the wear-and-tear of regular use. 

Never buy a used car without having it checked by a trusted mechanic, and ask if the vehicle comes with detailed service and maintenance records. These will tell the story of how diligent a vehicle’s previous owner(s) were about taking care of it. 

No service records doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker—a good mechanic can tell you, within a reasonable doubt, if a car is in good shape—but call it an insurance policy of sorts against neglect.