The Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council (OMVIC) uses the term “curbsider” to describe used car dealers who pose as private sellers in order to sell vehicles that have been stolen or rebuilt following a serious collision (or other damage), or whose odometers have been tampered with.

The term “curbsider” is derived from the fact that these unscrupulous sellers tend to want to meet potential buyers in a place that can’t link them to any particular address, such as a parking lot or even streetside. 

You might be able to identify a curbsider before you meet a seller in person. The Used Car Dealers Association of Ontario (UCDA) suggests that when you call a purported private seller who has placed an ad, say you’re “calling about the car you advertised.” If they ask you to clarify which car, you may have found a curbsider. 

There are other giveaways to be wary of once you meet a seller in person. Does the seller’s name match the one on the vehicle’s registration? You’re entitled to ask the seller
for proof of identification, and proof that they own the car they’re trying to sell you. 

If there is a mismatch, ask why. Don’t be afraid to be nosy; you’re the one looking to potentially spend thousands of dollars on a vehicle. If the seller refuses to produce proof of ownership, and the reason doesn’t satisfy you, walk away. 

Also walk away if the seller refuses to, or can’t, provide you with a used vehicle information package (UVIP) from the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO).

According to the MTO website, this document is “required to transfer ownership of an Ontario-registered vehicle sold through private sale.” The UVIP shows the vehicle’s ownership history and any liens (unpaid bills or fines related to the vehicle) that would become your responsibility if you buy the car. There are very few exceptions to the MTO’s UVIP requirement, such as when a car is transferred between “linear” (immediate) family members. 

Ontario’s UVIP is apparently unique in Canada, but a few other provinces provide some sort of mechanism to reassure used car shoppers that a vehicle being sold privately has a clean history.

Alberta might have the closest equivalent, in its Vehicle Information Report, available through the Alberta Motor Association. Also, any provincial registry office can check for liens against a vehicle you’re considering buying privately.

The process is similar in Saskatchewan, where car buyers can check the Saskatchewan Personal Property Registry to check for liens against a vehicle. The provincial government’s website also suggests checking with Saskatchewan Government Insurance, or a license issuer, to see if the vehicle has been previously registered in Saskatchewan. If not, the vehicle will need to pass a safety inspection before you can register it.

Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) will also tell you if a privately-sold vehicle has any liens against it, through the Personal Property Registry. MPI can also tell you if a vehicle you’re considering has been reported stolen.

Quebec used vehicle buyers are protected by the province’s Civil Code of Quebec, which stipulates that a seller must disclose any latent defects in a vehicle to a buyer. If a buyer discovers an undisclosed latent defect, they must report it to the seller immediately, and if the seller refuses to rectify the situation to the buyer’s satisfaction, the buyer then has three years to “bring proceedings” against the seller. A latent defect is defined as anything that renders the vehicle “unfit for the use for which it was intended, or which so diminish its usefulness that the buyer would not have bought it or paid so high a price if he or she had been aware” of it.

The Nova Scotia government recommends checking for liens with the provincial personal property registry.

In Newfoundland, you are apparently on your own.

In British Columbia, ICBC.com and the Motor Vehicle Sales Authority of BC are good resources for used vehicle buyers.

Vehicle history reports are available from a number of other sources, too. CarFax.com is a well-known source; so is CarProof.com, which offers the added bonus of being Canadian, and may be able to provide more accurate information for vehicles that were originally sold in Canada. These go a bit deeper than the UVIP, including information about collisions or serious damage. These are paid services, and while such a report won’t necessarily reveal a vehicle’s every dirty secret—like a fender bender that went unreported to insurance—it can be a worthwhile investment. 

Ask the seller if he or she has complete service and maintenance records for the vehicle. This isn’t required by law, nor does it provide much protection against an illegitimate seller, but it does offer some reassurance that the vehicle has been properly cared for. 

If the seller has maintenance and repair receipts, take some time to look through them, paying attention to common things like oil changes and other routine maintenance. Before going to see a car, do some research to learn that vehicle’s common trouble spots, and see if these things show up among the repairs that have been made to the car. 

Even if the vehicle’s documented history looks clean, have any car you plan to buy from a private seller inspected by a mechanic that you choose and, preferably, one you know and trust. Again, this will cost you, probably whatever the shop charges for an hour or two of labour, but a good technician will notice any obvious signs of abuse, neglect or undeclared damage. 

If a seller is evasive or vague about anything you ask about the vehicle’s history, be suspicious. Go with your gut: if the deal doesn’t feel right, walk away. 

Finally, and most importantly: don’t let yourself be pressured into buying a vehicle you’re not sure about.