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A Brief Guide To Successful Car Shopping On Craigslist

Posted in auto industry, Car Buying, Car Deals, Cars, Guide, Tips, Used Cars by Suzanne Denbow | November 9th, 2009 | 4 Responses |


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.

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4 Responses

  1. tehllama says:

    “the K-9 unit started smelled the coke”

    As the editor-in-chief, I’d expect better proofreading out of you. Please, clean up the grammatical errors in your blog. Your business is communication, and the errors are becoming very distracting.

  2. Mad_Science says:

    Any interest in a 1979 Hurst/Olds with the 6.6L from a Trans Am swapped in?

    70-something-k miles, great condition. Boxy, just like you like ‘em.

  3. Mad_Science says:

    Oh, sorry: it’s $4500 that’s not remotely firm.

  4. Daddy Dave says:

    Suzanne – You are dead wrong about the wheels and Service Indicator. Custom wheels indicate the owner is not the careful grandmother type which is what you should be looking for. A lit Service Indicator could be the start of a series of problems that have been ignored and will be passed on to You, the new owner. The sub-$5k market is full of reliable cars that have been taken care of. I bought a 1998 Toyota 4Runner sight unseen 900 miles from my house this summer because I took the time to communicate with the seller and do my homework and learn that he was a trustworthy person. I sent a son with $5k in a backpack to drive it back. 7000 miles later and I’m convinced it was the best buy on the market and will last another 200k miles. Target a reliable vehicle in your searches and be willing to pay more than market value if you find a cream puff! I’ve also made a mistake of buying a 10 year old Chevy Cavalier with 100k miles that I sold for junk after owning it 4 months. I ignored the “reliable vehicle” part of the search.

    $5k for a cream puff 1993 Volvo 240 is definitely Not out of line! Those are great cars that can last forever with minimum care. However – people who are completely ignorant about cars should not own one. They’ll probably pay several times the price of the car to keep it maintained by a ripoff mechanic.