Official State of Iowa Website

Buying a Vehicle

This page focuses on buying a vehicle from an individual in person or online. Iowa Legal Aid has a helpful page on buying a used vehicle from a dealership.  If you have purchased a newer vehicle and are having issues, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office provides a helpful page on Iowa’s Lemon Law.

Craigslist, AutoTrader, and CarMax are all places where individual sellers can list their vehicles for sale online. Make sure you watch out for car sale scams, especially if you want to buy a car from an online posting.

After you find a vehicle you are interested in buying, there are several things you should do before handing the seller your money.

Check the vehicle history report and the vehicle title

Icon of an eye looking through a magnifying glassBy using the vehicle’s vehicle identification number (the “VIN”), which should be listed on the dashboard or on the driver’s side door jamb of the vehicle, you can check the vehicle’s history report. As part of your inspection of the vehicle’s history, you should also inspect the vehicle’s title. Iowa Legal Aid has more information on car titles here. You want to make sure that the seller has the right to sell you the vehicle. provides low cost vehicle history information through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). Their disclaimer, available here, is helpful in understanding the limits of these reports.  Companies like Carfax and Autocheck also sell these reports and car dealers should be able to provide this report to you at no charge. The report should tell you if the car has been reported as damaged in an accident, flood or fire; alert you as to whether the odometer has been rolled back; tell you the number of previous owners; and may include the vehicle’s maintenance records.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) offers a free search option that allows you to enter the VIN and find information about past theft insurance claims or if the car has been reported as a salvage title, which would indicate that the vehicle has been in a serious accident. The results are limited to incidents reported by participating NICB member insurance companies.

Regardless of where you get your vehicle history report, keep in mind that vehicle history reports do not usually capture entire vehicle histories, nor do they tell you how the car is currently running, so you should still have the car inspected, as discussed below.

Ask for the damage disclosure statement

Under Iowa Code section 321.69, the seller (including the seller of a motor home) must disclose damage about the vehicle.

The disclosure is not required if the vehicle is:

  • More than seven model years old
    • Under Iowa Administrative Rule 761-400.55(2), the model year formula is the current year minus 8. That means, if the year is 2023, subtract 8 to get 2015. This tells us that in 2023, model years 2015 and older do not require damage disclosure statements.  
  • A motor truck or truck tractor with a gross vehicle weight rating of 16,000 pounds or more
  • A motorcycle, moped, or scooter
  • Special mobile equipment
  • A new motor vehicle with a true mileage of 1,000 miles or less, unless the vehicle has been damaged and the cost of repair is more than 50 percent of the fair market value of the vehicle

The disclosure is made through Iowa DOT Form 411108. You will need to give this form to the county treasurer to switch the title into your name.

For more information:

Test drive and visually inspect the car

In addition to checking the vehicle history report, you should visually inspect and test drive the vehicle, making sure to pay particular attention to the brakes, steering, and dashboard.  Be sure to listen for unusual noises and vibrations, which could be a sign of issues with the car.

Have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic

If you are not a seasoned auto-mechanic, you should, with permission from the seller, have the car inspected by a mechanic that you trust.  Paying the inspection free up front could potentially save you from making a very costly mistake.

Finalize the paperwork, insure the car, and register and title the vehicle

If you and the seller come to an agreement and you buy the vehicle, the final step is the paperwork. Hand pointing to documents with a gold ribbon

  • Get the Certificate of Title from the seller (with appropriate signatures and dates), which should be signed over to you
  • Get the Damage Disclosure Statement from the seller, if necessary
  • Title and register the car (visit the Iowa DOT’s Registering a Motor Vehicle in Iowa page for helpful information and forms)
  • Add the vehicle to your insurance
    • Iowa Code section 321.20B requires that you at least have liability insurance on your vehicle
      • Depending on your circumstances, you may want additional insurance coverage on your vehicle
    • More information on automobile insurance is available through the Iowa Insurance Division

For more information on buying a used car, visit the Iowa Attorney General Office’s Buying a Used Car page.