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10 Ways To Avoid Getting Burned Car Shopping On Craigslist

Posted in Car Buying, Used Cars by Ryan | December 2nd, 2008 | 8 Responses |

So you’re looking for a used car, and you may have used craigslist to find your coffee pot or a new couch, but never for a car before. Many of the same tips for buying used cars on craigslist are the same for buying a used car from any private seller, so this list should be helpful to anyone looking to buy a used car. There are however some special circumstances to to be aware of when using craigslist, so beware of the limitations to this online free posting service. With any luck, you can find a good deal using craigslist, due to the fact that many people who might otherwise only advertise locally through signs and word-of-mouth can now sell to a broader market. Enjoy these tips and good luck car hunting!

1. Know the value of the car

One of the key elements to shopping in shopping for a used car is to know what it’s worth, so that you can appropriately decide how much you are willing to pay. There are several great websites out there for determining the value of used vehicles, and I would suggest checking all of them to get a realistic estimate for the value of the car you are looking for. Most sellers know this information as well, so they’re not going to let you lowball them, but depending on their reasons for selling the vehicle, you should be able to get the car for less than these estimates. Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com) Edmunds (www.edmunds.com) NADA (www.nadaguides.com) are all good places to look.

2. Ask for more pictures

The limited resolution and max. size of pictures posted to craigslist provides a good quick view of the vehicle in question, but in order to decide whether it is worth seeing in person or not you will need larger, higher-resolution pictures. E-mail the seller and ask for as many pictures of different angles as possible. Sellers should be able to come up with pictures, surely they know someone with a digital camera they can borrow. Ask for interior pictures as well as exterior, to help you get a feel for the total condition of the car.

3. Ask for service history

Ask the seller if they have service records for the car, receipts for work done, or at least a record of how often consumable items were replaced. An owner who has done all the work on their own car will probably be able to provide at least a list of dates and mileages when things were changed. Look for regular maintenance, adherence to the factory schedule of upkeep. You can get a good feel for how well the person took care of their car from the records they keep.

4. Ask about known problems, damage, noises

This is a step where many sellers will give you false information, but it is worth a shot at finding out something which may be a deal-breaker for you. As far as damage and noises go, the seller pretty much has to tell you these things as they will easily be discovered when you see the car in person/drive it, but underlying problems may be able to hide during these brief inspections, and these sorts of problems are the ones sellers often cover up or simply don’t know about.

5. Check all local craigslists

Craigslist postings are sorted by city and include listings within a fixed radius of that city. If the car you are looking for is somewhat harder to find or you don’t mind driving to find the right deal, check several other craigslist sites for nearby cities. Checking multiple sites daily can be a little bit of a hassle, but if you find the car you want, it will be worth it. Checking the sites daily is recommended as new cars can go up at any time and can be sold within a matter of hours if the right person sees the posting.

6. Consider getting a carfax report

When buying any used car, via craigslist or not, it is never a bad idea to get a Carfax report on the vehicle in question. You simply need to ask the seller for the VIN number of the vehicle, and if they are not willing to give you the number, then the car wasn’t worth the risk anyway (VIN numbers are public information, anyone can walk up to the car and find it.) The report will only cost you around thirty dollars, but will tell you any service done at dealerships, any accidents the vehicle has been involved in (that were reported), and any changes to the title, along with some other good information. If you plan on buying used vehicles in the future, it is only around ten extra dollars to sign up for unlimited Carfax reports. If you are buying a beater car on craigslist, maybe you don’t want to spend this extra money, but if you’re spending any significant amount of money, the investment is well worth it.

7. Consider having the car inspected at a local shop

Once again, if the car you’re buying is worth a significant amount of money and you want to make sure it is in good shape, you should ask the seller to accompany you to a shop and have them inspect it for any problems. An inspection should run you less than $100, and if the seller wants to re-affirm the quality of the vehicle they may even offer to pay for part of the inspection, so that if you do not buy the car they can have proof of an inspection for other people who are interested. Take the car to a local shop who has experience with the particular make and model, and they will know all the right places to look for common problems with the vehicle.

8. Watch out for signs of a scam

Unfortunately, there are a variety of people who post vehicles for sale on craigslist, and some of them may be out to scam you. One common scam involves the seller or someone working with them stealing the car back mere days after completion of the sale. To avoid this, use your judgment of the seller’s character both in e-mail correspondence and in person, and try to avoid giving the seller your address. The BMV will need it to transfer the titles, but this is the only time your address should be made known during the transaction. Another common scam is when a buyer goes to test drive a car, they are simply robbed of the cash they brought to make the purchase. To avoid this, if possible arrange your test drive in a public area, where others are around, and never take cash payment with you to the test drive. If the seller asks how you will pay if you want the car, tell them that if you decide to buy the car, you will be able to obtain cash payment within an hour of your decision, and provide it to them at the BMV when you go to transfer titles. This keeps the chances of them robbing you for your payment cash low, and will scare off potential thieves.

9. Research commons problems with the car

The internet is a giant resource for finding out other people’s experiences with the car you are looking to buy. For many popular cars, there exist forums for owners to chat about their cars and share experiences. A quick query in a search engine with the make, model, and “common problems” may work, or you may need to do a little bit of investigation. Either way, the collective experiences of many owners can guide you to ask the right questions to the owner and to a shop technician if you choose to have an inspection done. If there have been recalls, check with the owner to make sure they have been remedied, and if there are problems which have occurred in a large number of the same cars, ask directly if the car you are buying has had them.

10. Arrange to see the car in person and test drive it

This is by far the most important step in evaluating whether this is the car you want to buy or not. You need to try to test out every aspect of the car’s workings, so pick a test drive route which involves city driving, highway driving, lots of turns, and uphill and downhill slopes. Ask the seller to have the car’s engine be cold if possible when you arrive, so that if there are any troubles with how it runs cold you will be able to tell. Before you drive the car, take a good walk around it, looking around every angle and trying to look for any damaged spots or rust. Get down close to the ground and look up underneath the car, pop the hood and look for wet spots. This is your chance to find anything wrong and either abandon the purchase or use it as a negotiating point for your pricing.

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8 Responses


    i will try those inspection thank you i am just starting to look

  2. Good article. It covers all the points of buying car off craigslist or any similar web listing.
    Although I just come across your article but when I was shopping for car on Craigslist I followed almost all of the points you mentioned. Lot of car ads on craigslist are just scams. Out of laziness and to save me lot of time I created a Firefox Extension ( https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/6142 ) for personal use and later released it for public.

    This extension covers some of your points:
    1. Know the value of the car
    Gives idea of price range, provides easy links to kbb and other sites. Shows price from automotive and also on top shows what other people on craigslist are selling same model/year car for.

    4. Ask about known problems, damage, noises
    Shows car Recall information for the particular car. Shows MSN car reliability information which tells frequent issues of the car.

    5. Check all local craigslists
    Again it shows list of ads of same car model/year on top.

    8. Watch out for signs of a scam
    Creates easy link on top to search for given phone number on all craigslist to see if seller is selling other stuff also. This is useful to find out if the person is reseller or is moving etc.
    Highlights on top if the car was in accident or is a rebuilt.

    9. Research commons problems with the car
    Again MSN reliability info is shown. Shows owner Reviews of car. Car Reviews are very useful as that gives good idea of what to expect from that particular car. Also shows useful information from Edmunds.

    Basically all the information is on one page, right along side the actual ad. Saves user many clicks of research effort.
    I guess I made a long comment.

  3. Matt says:

    Great article. I think if more people were educated about how to buy a car the correct way, there would be less people with horror stories. I also like to compare the price of cars that I’m looking at to what other people have paid for the same car. If you find a good deal on craigslist you can post it at http://www.foundoncl.com or you can search what other people have paid for cars.

    • pedro adamson says:

      i’ve found comparing kbb, carmax prices, and completed auctions on ebay gives me a pretty good idea of fair market value. i read a great book on buying and selling on craigslist. it’s on amazon under “how to buy and sell a car on craigslist ebay and autotrader”

  4. Maggie says:

    Great advice! We just narrowly missed getting burned by a dealer that buys at auctions and then meets you in a walmart parking lot.
    My advice is
    – Don’t travel really far from home to buy it, if anything goes sour and you need to track the person down or just need a signature on something, you will have to travel crazy distances. Also if you just drove 1 or 2 hours to get the car, you will feel additional pressure to buy it because you already invested the time and gas.
    – Definitely pay a mechanic to look at it if you don’t know squat about cars, some will come out to meet you, or you can take it to a shop. Best thing is to have it put on a lift if you are paying an amount that could really hurt you to lose.
    -Walk away walk away walk away! IF the seller tries to pressure you, says things like, what you don’t trust me? Gives you a bad gut feeling, comes across as slick, is too busy to let you have it inspected, or will not let you leave the parking lot to test drive it.
    – You don’t have to get totally scammed to get burned on a used car purchase, you can just be a bit impulsive and not dot all your i’s and cross your t’s. The law is totally on the seller’s side, for the most part, you are the one that is stuck with the giant paperweight that needs more repairs done than its worth. Take the time to do it right, you will lose in court 99% of the time if not.

  5. Warner says:

    I found a 2004 Ford Lariat on sale for 2600 in my area and when I emailed the seller he responds back that the car is in New York at a military pov storage ready to be shipped. This is crazy.. I began looking around to see if it was a possible scam and I saw another vehicle listed that I got a email about…. this is crazy.

  6. Marc says:

    Great points here. Scammers and con artists are getting more creative by the minute! Although risky, Craigslist is a great place to find a bargain. I use http://clcarz.com when searching craigslist for cars. It allows you to search multiple craigslist cities at a time.

  7. Kev says:

    The most crucial part is always the inspection because you want to see it and test drive it. I know that there are a lot of people trying to go through that ebay thing, payment protection program, don’t trust those.I say deal everything with cold hard cash or check, at least if you change your mind the next day, you can put a hold or stop payment on the check.