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.