Cars For Members

What to know if you are buying a used car in Germany

Jörg Luyken
Jörg Luyken - [email protected]
What to know if you are buying a used car in Germany
Photo: DPA

The pandemic has changed how we are living. Many countries remain inaccessible, the cultural life of big cities is in hibernation. Having a car offers an escape from the stress.


By the end of May last year I couldn't take it anymore. With little else to do in Berlin other than take my bike for another circuit of the Tempelhofer Feld, I decided I needed to get out.

Having a car had never appealed to me before, but with so little to do in the city - and so little opportunity to go abroad - I decided to swap my life on two wheels in the inner city for a life on four that embraces the countryside around the German capital.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about getting a German driving license

It was a great decision. Since becoming a card-carrying, Volkswagen-driving German a week ago, I’ve already been to the Czech Republic and toured the lakes of Brandenburg.


But I had no idea how much work buying a car would be - or how much it would test my German skills.

This is what I learned.

Security or price?

You basically have two options if you are buying a used car. You can go to a car dealer and buy or you can look online for a private seller.

Buying from a used car salesman, despite their reputation, gives you greater security. By law in Germany they have to offer a guarantee of at least one year. If something goes wrong in the car's engine - or some other technical failure arises - the dealer will have to cover the costs - so you largely eliminate the potential for nasty surprises.


That downside of buying from a dealer is that the car is more expensive, often considerably more so. 

That’s why many people try their luck on the private market. There are two main websites in Germany were people offer used cars: and Ebay Kleinanzeigen. The former is a bit more user friendly, often rating the price of the car in comparison with a database of similar offers.

This was the route I went down. I got myself a good deal - but I had to buff up on my car knowledge to ensure that I was prepared.

Avoiding scammers

If I have one piece of advice about private buys it is: watch out. There are a fair few people selling cars “privately” who seem suspiciously like they have done this more than just once.

My advice would be to ask as a very first question how long they have owned the vehicle. If they bought it in the last six months you have to ask yourself if it really is the family car they claimed it to be on the advert.

If you want to know that someone is trustworthy, ask them to send you photos of the results of its last Hauptuntersuchung (commonly known as its TÜV) and get them to list what repairs have been done. 

Also, call them up. I found that speaking to someone on the phone gives you a good sense of who they are and how well they looked after the vehicle. 

One guy I spoke to told me he had just lost a fortune on Wirecard stocks - and then pestered me with text messages - neither of which helped establish trust.

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Watch out for the TÜV

In Germany, cars have to go through a Hauptuntersuchung every two years. In common parlance this is called a TÜV (named after the companies that carry it out).

If the advert states that the car has a new TÜV, this is a good sign. All going well, you won’t need to take it in for repairs for two years.

A new TÜV is a good start, but you should research the typical weak points of the car you’re buying and find out when they were last replaced.


Also important, if the car's TÜV has run out, you won’t be able to do a test drive. There are plenty of cars being sold whose TÜV is overdue. I chose to completely ignore these adverts as they cost that might come down on you just to be able to get the car on the road could be more expensive than the vehicle itself.

Similarly, if the car is “abgemeldet” (de-registered) you won’t be able to drive it on public roads during a test drive. So again you’re basically buying blind.

Environmental stickers

Something easy to overlook but very important is whether you are allowed to drive the car where you live. This generally isn’t a problem with petrol engines, but is something you have to keep in mind if you’re in the market for diesel.

The car needs to have a so-called grüne Plakette for most inner cities. In some cities even this isn’t enough. Stuttgart has banned all diesel engines that don’t meet the Euro 5 standard.

You can have a particle filter installed in an old car’s exhaust system, qualifying it for the grüne Plakette, but this will set you back at least €800.

The test drive

Photo: DPA

The usual rules for buying a used car apply here. You should know how to check the oil gauge, double check mileage, look for rust and all the other things involved with buying a used car anywhere in the world.

I found it useful, though, to do my research in German and to learn a few specialist words that I wanted to check up on. It is very likely that the person you are dealing with only has rudimentary English, so asking “wie neu sind die Reifen?” (How new are the tyres?) and then checking this against the tyres’ number signature can help establish how trustworthy the seller is.

Even better, take a German-speaking friend with you who knows a bit about cars. It's good practise to take someone else with you (there will always be something you forget), but if you are not a native speaker this is doubly important.

In terms of paperwork, make sure that the owner can present both parts of the permit. (This is referred to as the car’s Brief or Schein, although its officially called the Zulassungsbescheinigung.)

Does the car have summer and winter tyres? This is important to know as you are required to kit your car out with both in Germany. A set of winter tyres will cost around of €200 - so keep this in mind when negotiating the price.Also ask to see the results of the last Hauptuntersuchung and receipts for repaired parts.

German car experts, like the ADAC automobile club, advise you to drive on the autobahn during the test drive to get a feel for the vehicle at high speeds.

Negotiating the price

General rules about buying a used car apply here. List the defects and use them to try and push the price down.

Importantly, the adverts often have the letters VB next to the price. This is short for Verhandlungsbasis (negotiable) and shows that the price is just a starting point. 

I found that had a very useful tool that allows people to estimate the value of a car based on mileage, production year and various others factors. This gave me a good starting point for a negotiation.

Signing a contract

So you’ve found your dream set of wheels, you've negotiated a good price, now you need to sign under the dotted line.

There are a few things that you’re advised to watch out for.

Legal experts say that the contract should always detail the mileage, the number of previous owners, the price, and a history of accidents (if any exist).

It could be better to be ahead of the game and print out a standard contract, such as this one offered by the ADAC, yourself.

My contract also set out the time in which I would transfer the money into the seller’s account.

Photo: DPA

Registering the vehicle

I never considered that registering the vehicle would be a problem, but with bureaucracy running on standby due to the corona epidemic, it was the sting in the tail of the purchase for me.

Registering your vehicle is not as simple as you might think - especially if you live in Berlin. Waiting times in the capital for an official appointment are around six weeks - that’s six weeks in which you own a car but won’t be able to drive it!

Luckily there are private agencies - called Zulassungsdienste - who get it done quicker. But even these have a waiting time of three weeks in Berlin at the moment.

In most other parts of the country, where state administration is more typically German, the waiting times are normally only a matter of days. Even now, a private agency will sort it out for you in three to four days.

So that’s it. Buying a car in Germany can be scary. You will end up handing over quite a lot of money based on superficial knowledge of a foreign country's car culture. But in the end you might have the keys to a VW, BMW or even Mercedes - it doesn't get much more German than that.

Important words

Vehicle inspection - (die) Hauptuntersuchung

De-registered - abgemeldet

Environmental approval sticker - grüne Plakette

Vehicle registration ticket - (der) Fahrzeugschein

Contract - (der) Kaufvertrag

Registration office - (die) Zulassungsstelle



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