How to buy a car on Craigslist

Thursday, July 17, 2008


The auto sales section on Craigslist can sometimes seem like the used car showroom floor of your dreams or, more often, a vast, unrelenting junkyard. But if you live in an area with an active community, this can be a great place to begin your search for a used car.

There is always a great deal of uncertainty when shopping for a used car. But if you do a bit of research, ask appropriate questions, and take a few sensible precautions, you’ll be in the best position to find a good deal. If your area’s Craigslist isn’t very active, most of these tips apply for buying a car through the online or printed classifieds as well.

Don’t commit to one specific model. Decide on five or six kinds of cars you'd be willing to accept, and do a keyword search on them every day. At the Craigslist site, after you click the “cars & trucks” tab, select "by owner" - don't buy from dealerships unless you're willing to overpay.

Find out what a typical car of that year is really worth, and decide if the one you’re looking at is a bargain or overpriced. The most popular sites to check are:

  • Edmunds (
  • Kelly Blue Book (
  • Nada Guides (
  • Black Book (

Estimated values at Kelly Blue Book and Nada tend to be unrealistically high, while Edmunds and Black Book estimates are fairly accurate or even slightly low. What does this mean for you as a buyer? Rely more on the lower numbers from Edmunds when negotiating, and don’t take seriously a seller’s claims that “I’m selling this for below Blue Book value.” Almost all vehicles sell for less than their Kelly Blue Book value.

When you e-mail or call the seller, mention only that you're interested in “the car” or “the truck” he is selling. If he asks you “which one?” then you know that you're probably dealing with an auto salesman posing as an owner, or with a “broker” - someone who sells a small number of cars part-time for local owners who prefer not to deal with the hassle of selling. In either case, you'll be facing a slightly greater sales expertise than with a private seller.

In order not to waste time looking at bad cars, ask for photos of the car and be sure to clarify, over the phone:

  • Whether this is a salvage title car. With a salvage title vehicle, your insurance company will probably refuse to offer collision coverage, and you may face difficulties in settling a claim even when a wreck was another driver’s fault. Insurance companies often will insist that the damage was due to a pre-existing condition or made worse by prior damage. Safety is also an issue; you should assume, for example, that you will not have functional airbags in a car with a salvage title. Also, your resale value will be about half of what a good car with a “clean” title sells for.
  • How many owners the vehicle has had, and whether the car has service records you or your mechanic can review. Too many owners or incomplete service records often indicate a problem car, so either significantly reduce what you're willing to offer, or keep looking.
  • Whether the air conditioner, CD player, etc., are working. Does it need new tires? None of these by itself may be a deal-breaker, but fixing several different minor problems can often be very expensive or lead to a dissatisfying experience with the car, so by asking these kinds of questions over the phone you can weed out the ones that aren't worth your time to check out in person.
  • Any other sort of work the vehicle needs if you want to make it drive well and look nice.

Tell the seller that you want the engine to be cold when you arrive to inspect the vehicle. If someone has warmed up the engine, you may be unable to detect certain problems it exhibits when starting up.

Always ask the seller if the car has been in a wreck, but to check the answer, get a CARFAX report. CARFAX’s main limitation is that it only has access to accidents that have been officially reported. CARFAX reports sketch out a repair history, and also reveal where the vehicle came from, which can be very important if it's an older model. Winters in the Midwest or Northeast are much, much harder on a car than they are in, say, California or Texas.

Most important, pay a mechanic to examine the vehicle. Your mechanic can check for frame damage, paint overspray, and other signs of a crash that was not reported to an insurance company or to a state motor vehicles department (DMV). If you don't know any nearby mechanics, while you're on the list, Craig can also help you find mechanics who can inspect the vehicle. Keyword search “mobile mechanic” in the auto repair section. CarTalk also has a forum that tries to identify trustworthy mechanics.

Paying a mechanic $75-$100 to inspect the vehicle is your single best insurance policy against winding up with a lousy used car. Don’t skip this step!

There is an abundance of information on user-generated discussion forums. Every mass-produced vehicle, it turns out, has a vocal group of enthusiasts who believe their car is the greatest ever, and most of these sites include invaluable buyer guides on which brand-specific red flags you should look for when buying a used Civic, Mustang, F-150, etc. Do a Google search under the make and model of the vehicle, along with words such as “board,” “forums,” “enthusiasts,” or “discussion forum” and you should be able to find one.

You often can buy at a cheaper price if you pay cash. However, if the seller asks over the phone if you will pay for the vehicle in cash, don’t disclose that you will be bringing cash. Say something ambiguous like, “if I’m going to buy it, I should be able to get the cash for you within half an hour.” Then go ahead and bring cash if you prefer. The chance of being robbed with a few thousand dollars in your pocket is extremely small, but the chance goes up if you announce that you're bringing cash.




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