How to Buy A Car Off Craigslist

buying a car off craigslist guide information random automotive
If you’ve seen my series Craigslist Car Crap, then you know that there are some interesting finds in terms of the cars listed on Craigslist.  However, there are some really good deals and decent cars on there, regardless if you are looking for your first car, a beater, or even a nice or classic car.  You just have to ask the right questions and look for the right things.

Here is a complete guide to help you make your transaction go smoothly and hopefully help you get a good car!

Looking for the Car
You obviously have to first look for the car you want.  When you find one that is interesting, make sure it has pictures of every angle of the car, and the interior.  If a picture of a certain location is missing, either the seller is lazy, or something could be wrong with that side of the car.

Look at the price, condition, and hopefully listed mileage.  If the car is newer then 1992, enter that information into Kelley Blue Book to determine the value to see if the seller is asking a reasonable price.

A good step is to also check for common problems.  If you are unfamiliar with the car you are looking at, do a quick Google search for common problems.  For example, say you are looking at a 2005 Ford V6 Mustang.  Google search, “2005 Ford V6 Mustang Common Problems”.  And see what many people (not one or two) say on forums and places like that.  Note those, and ask the seller later if they are problems on that vehicle if not listed already.

Be on the lookout for strange or little information.  The less information someone lists about a car either means, again, that they are lazy, or there are too many things wrong with it to list.  Look out for phrases like “need gone ASAP”, or “new fender”.  Why does it need to be gone?  Why did you replace that part?

Contacting the Seller
If you are interested in the car, and have done your research, contact the seller through email, or call if a number is listed.  I would suggest email so you can ask more questions.

Ask some basic questions like, how many miles are on the car (if not listed), has it been in any accidents, do you have the title (walk away if they say no), how frequently have you changed the oil (should be every 3,000 miles), any mechanical problems, any damage, have you had to replace anything, and so on.

You may also want to ask vehicle specific questions as well that may have come up during your research.  For example, if that car had a factory recall, did the work get done?

Agreeing to Meet
If you are happy with seller and his/her communications, then it’s time to meet.  Pick a time that works best for both of you.  Remember, you don’t want to waste the seller’s time, and you don’t want the seller to waste your time.

Make sure you meet during a sunny day!  Night or rain can hide defects in a car.  Now, if you are serious about buying the car, I would bring a method to do so.  Either bring the amount of cash asked for, or bring a blank check if the seller will take a check.  Again, you don’t want to waste each other’s time, so if you decide to buy it, be ready to.  However, don’t tell the person you are bringing cash for the following reason:

IF you are bringing cash, I would ALWAYS suggest bringing someone along with you.  The world can be a messed up place, and the last thing you want is for someone to know that you are bringing a large amount of cash.

Looking Over the Car
It’s very important to look over a car before buying it.  I would suggest contacting your local auto shop and seeing if they provide a service where a mechanic can come out with you to inspect a car.  If you can’t find that service, or don’t want to pay a fee for that if they charge one, there are some simple things to look out for.

The first thing is the seller: if they don’t want you to bring a mechanic, or don’t want you looking too closely, then walk away.

Look in, on, and around the car for rust.  Rust will destroy a car.  If you are planning on keeping the car for a while, you don’t want rust.  Look under, inside, and all around.  Look for mismatched paint or discoloration.  That could show that something was replaced.  Bring a refrigerator magnet.  This may seem silly, but this can help you find body damage.

ASK the seller first before you do this (because it isn’t your car yet).  Place the magnet on random sections of the car’s body.  If it sticks, you’re good.  If it falls off or has a hard time sticking (since refrigerator magnets are weak), that means there was damage done to the vehicle there, and body filler has been used.  If the owner didn’t tell you about that, he or she may be hiding something.  Keep in mind, the seller also may not have known if he or she wasn’t the original owner.  Continue this test all around the car.

Look at the interior and smell it as well.  If it smells like an air freshener was just put in, yet it doesn’t seem like a well cleaned car, it could be trying to hide the smell of mold or something else.  Look for cigarette burn holes, rips, cracks, pet hair, and anything else that may lower the value.

Look under the hood as well.  Even if you don’t know what you are looking for, look for any leaking fluids, listen for any rattles, and just use common sense and your best judgment.

When looking in, on, and around the car.  Look for anything that looks new, discolored, or out of place.  This could mean something was replaced, and you should ask why.  Was it broken, did it get damaged, was it a recall, an upgrade, and so on.

Test the lights, A/C, heat, powered/manual seat adjustments, trunk, doors, door locks, hood, and anything that moves or turns on (or should).

Test Drive
Never buy a vehicle without taking a test drive.  Bring your friend along as well if one came with you.  Do some simple driving, but ask the owner if you can also (legally) get it up to highway speed and maybe some heavy braking.  Again, ask first because this is still not your car or your gas, and you don’t want to waste the seller’s time.

If the owner says no to a test drive, walk away.  They also may just not want everyone driving the car that shows up, so let the seller know you are seriously considering the car, but can’t make on offer unless you drive it.

Making the Deal
If you are happy with the car, it’s time to make a deal.  You’ve done your research, and you’ve seen and driven the car.  Make an offer.  DO NOT low-ball (make a very insultingly low offer) on the car, or you may be told to go home.  If the asking price is 100% fair, give it to them.

Depending on the asking price, and if you bring cash, always bring the last few hundreds in smaller bills such as fifties and twenties so you can negotiate, but still have the asking price at the same time.  Point out the flaws, BUT ALSO point out the good things to make the seller feel better.  Negotiation is an art, and unfortunately will take too long to explain in this section, so basically I leave it to you to make your best judgment.

Buying the Car
Congratulations!  You have decided to buy the car.  Now you have to deal with the paperwork.  This varies by state to state (and country to country) so I unfortunately have to leave this to you to figure out.  Just remember to have completed a bill of sale, and make sure you get the title!

Buying a car off Craigslist can be shady, but it can also be a great experience.  It all depends on the seller, and how prepared you are.  If you follow these steps and make sure you do as much research as you can before meeting the seller, you’ll be golden!

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