Inspired by my current quest for a sub-$5,000 daily driver, I’ve decided to publish a companion piece to the generalized buyer’s tips I outlined months ago specifically geared towards purchasing from Craigslist. Unlike other digital automotive marketplaces (Vehix, AutoTrader, etc) Craigslist provides the unique opportunity to find both rare treasures and immensely entertaining, often poorly executed scams. As a matter of fact, so prevalent is the latter it would likely be prudent to offer a few tips to avoid losing your shirt to the crown prince of Nigeria, but if the giant banner at the top of the auto classifieds proclaiming “OFFERS TO SHIP CARS ARE 100% FRAUDULENT” doesn’t serve as enough of a warning, you should probably be sterilized. So, moving on.
The first and most solid piece of advice I can offer is this: lower your standards. If you’re shopping for a used car with the same kind of operating budget that I am then your search is going to be not entirely unlike that of the skeezy guy/fat chick’s at the single’s bar. Your options are going to be limited, so you can’t afford to be too picky. At this stage in the game (10+ years old, 100k-ish miles), barring any miraculous discovery of a Granny-driven, garage-kept Benz, the cars that you’ll be looking at will have seen much better days. The “Service” indicator will probably be stuck on because the local garage didn’t have the right code reader needed to turn it off, there’ll be a couple dings from lost battles in cramped parking garages, and the leather might be ripped from where the K-9 unit started smelled the coke. What you need to determine is which defects you’re willing to let slide and which ones will be a deal breaker. For example, I need: air conditioning, a tape deck, no leaks, and rear windows that roll all the way down. I can live with: blood stains, minor dents, and awful aftermarket rims. I can also live with a wealthy beneficiary whose willing to buy me a decommissioned military-spec Gelandewagen and/or a Land Rover Defender…but I digress.
My second piece of advice is equally as simplistic as the first: get a clue. Kbb.com and Edmunds.com offer excellent used car appraisal services – use them. I’ve found that often times owners will demonstrate a particular soft spot for their aging piece of crap by pricing it for thousands more than it’s worth, so it pays to be aware of exactly how delusional a seller may or may not be. With the ’93 Volvo 240 I discussed below, the seller wanted literally double what the vehicle was worth – though to be fair that wasn’t so much an example of die-hard loyalty as it was a blatant rip-off. At any rate, the likelihood that you’ll run into a comically priced vehicle on Craigslist is actually much higher than if you’d gone the dealership route since most of these guys have a personal attachment to their rides. Keep this in mind when you march in to meet them with your KBB print out in hand and try not to piss all over their hard work. Gently yet firmly explain to them how much the vehicle is worth, how much you’re willing to pay, and if all else fails offer to perform sexual favors. I jest, of course. You should offer the favors up front.
Finally, and most importantly: be safe. If you call up a guy and ask to see his drastically underpriced Volvo V70 and when you show up to meet him he suggests you head upstairs to what you can only imagine is a shag-carpeted, dimly-lit bachelor pad to discuss the final terms of the sale, run like hell.