Craigslist can be a great source for buying a used car, especially if you need one quick. Many private sellers list their vehicle online in hopes to sell the vehicle for more than they would get from a trade-in. But because Craigslist sellers have to compete with businesses, or may simply be wanting to get rid of a vehicle, often times they will sell their car for less than dealership price. For you, that means buying a car on Craigslist can save thousands of dollars compared to what you would spend at a dealership, whom build in a profit margin into the selling price.
Of course buying a used car from a private seller has its risks: they’re likely not a licensed business, the car may or may not necessarily have gone through any kind of inspection before being sold, as they would at most professional dealerships, and you won’t have access to a vehicle’s history report on the spot.
And aside from mechanical risks with the car you’re wanting to buy, there’s of course still a concern over personal safety. You are likely meeting with a stranger to conduct a business deal. And though in most cases there probably isn’t much reason for alarm, best online practices and personal safety should still be remembered.
If you’re looking to buy a car from an online site, such as Craigslist, follow these steps to both get the best deal and to keep yourself protected.
1. Research your cars first
Before you even begin shopping, do some online homework and pick a car model with a good reliability record. Consumer Reports have online ratings that rank brands and models by their reliability and provides details on common problems found in specific cars. Some cars are more trouble-prone than others, and you don’t want your purchase to end up making you need to take time off to fix it and pay for extra maintenance repair fees.
2. Get a lot of pictures
If the person doesn’t post multiple pictures of the vehicle, interior and exterior, that should already be a red flag of concern. Get quality images of the car, from multiple angles, so you can have a first look of the vehicle’s condition before taking time to see it in person. “Good condition” is rather generic and also subjective. Get a picture of the odometer reading so the mileage can be confirmed. Looking at detailed pictures of the car will allow you to determine if the car is even worth looking at in person.
Having pictures will also give you an idea beforehand of what to look out for and potentially use in the price negotiations. If you point out specific issues with the car, you could try to haggle a lower price. The seller may drop the price if they’re looking to unload the car quickly.
3. Check the location or meet in a public spot
If you’ve found the car you want online, contact the seller expressing interest to see the car and ask for an address. Research the location online using a service such as Google Maps and additionally use the Street View feature. If the area feels remote, or if you’re uncomfortable with the location, ask to meet in a more public area close by, such as a gas station or convenience store. This is an extra precaution for personal safety and could be applied to both you and the seller.
When meeting in a public space, have the person bring the car an hour ahead of the meeting time so the car can be properly inspected. If the person is unwilling to meet in a public space, or if they’re unwilling to drive the car, that should be a sign of concern and it may be best to pass.
4. Bring a mechanic friend
In the case of a private sale, the car is likely being sold as-is with no guarantees of the working condition of the vehicle. Any problems that arise afterwards will be your responsibility. So to reduce risk, always thoroughly look over the car before committing to a purchase. If you have a mechanic friend, see if you can ask for a favor and have them join you to help inspect the car. If not, then ask the seller to allow you to take the car to an independent mechanic. Even if the seller states the car has gone through an inspection, find a different repair shop. A thorough check may cost about $100, but may be well worth the cost if it means avoiding having a lemon on your hands.
If you want to inspect the car yourself or have your mechanic friend do it, the inspection should be done during broad daylight on a dry day. Both floodlights and night darkness could hide defects of the car. Have the car parked on a flat surface and make sure it has not been driven at least an hour before the inspection.
Here’s a list of things you’ll want to inspect.
Body condition: Look for scratches, dents, and rust. Minor scratches and dents are not a major issue, but larger dents could be a problem, as the original cause could also have affected the integrity of the car. If you feel a larger dent was patched with body filler, place a magnet over the area. It won’t stick to the main body of the car if it was filled in.
Look for consistent coloration and panel fitting on the car. Panels that don’t fit or have abnormal gaps could indicate either poor assembly or a previous accident that was repaired. Paint color and finish should be the same on every panel of the car. Inconsistency could also indicate a previous accident that was repaired.
Rust is a cause for concern. Look for blistered paint or rust on the body, rocker panels, beneath the doors, under the door, and in the wheel wells. Bring a flashlight.
Open and close every door, the hood, and the trunk. If these feel loose, the car has probably seen long, hard use. Open and close the windows. Check the sunroof, too. If the car is a convertible, open and close the roof and look for any tears. Look for any water stains in the fabric around these areas or roof sag, as these could be indicators of water leaks and bad seals.
Glass: Make sure there are no cracks or large chips in the windows. Small cracks will worsen and become a costly repair.
Lights and reflectors: Check to see if the car has all of its reflectors and if they are intact. Turn on all the lights at different settings and step out and look to make sure they are working. Check to see if the turn signals and tail lights are working, as well. If you have a friend with you, have them check the brake lights for you when you press down on the brake. Look for water droplets or fog on the inside of the lights. That indicates a bad seal or a crack.
Suspension: The car should be level when parked. Push down each corner of the car. The car should only rebound once if the shock absorbers are in good shape, not bounce up and down. Grab hold of the top of each tire and pull it towards you, back and forth. If you feel it jiggle or hear a clunking or tinking noise, the bearings or suspension probably needs replacement.
Tires: Feel the tread depths of each tire. Tread depth should be pretty even across each tire to show the tires are regularly rotated and properly maintained. Tires are also an expensive maintenance cost. If the treads are low, ask for a lower price. Open the trunk and make sure the spare tire and tools are there, too.
Odor: Trust your nose. A musty, moldy, or mildew smell could indicate water leaks, improper cleaning, or heavy use from messy kids and pets. Sniff for smoke and check the ashtrays if you don’t want a car previously owned by a smoker. If you don’t like the way a car smells, look for another option.
Seats: Sit in every seat of the car to make sure they are conformable and can still be adjusted properly. Make sure you can find a driver’s seating position that’s conformable for you as well. Check the upholstery for wear and tear.
Dash and controls: Turn the ignition to “On” without starting the engine. For a few seconds, all the lights on the instrument panel should illuminate, including the “Check Engine” light. Try every switch, button and lever in the car as well to make sure they work.
Turn on the engine. Check the AC, heater, radio, CD/MP3 player, and any other instrument on the car. Bring a CD or MP3 player to test with the car if that’s a feature you’re interested in.
Under the hood: Dust and dirt in the engine bay is normal, but look for corrosion around the battery, loose wires and hoses, wet areas around seals and tubing, and drip spots underneath the car. If you are at the seller’s home, inspect the driveway and garage for spots. Depending on the color of the droplets, the car may have different leaks.
Squeeze rubber hoses. They should be firm and supple, not dense, cracked, or mushy. Feel belts to see if they are frayed.
Fluids: Check the oil, coolant, and transmission fluids. Pull out the engine oil dipstick. The oil can be dark brown, but it should not be black and gritty. If its honey colored, the oil was likely recently changed. If there are water droplets in the oil, if the oil is gray, or if the oil is foamy, that’s a sign of a serious engine problem.
Pull out the transmission fluid dipstick. The fluid should be pinkish, not brown or burnt smelling. When wiped on a rag, it should not leave metal particles. If so, that’s also a serious problem.
There should be a plastic reservoir connected to the radiator by a hose. Inside the container should be your coolant, which should be a green or orange color. If it’s milky or rusty colored, there may be issues with the vehicle that could lead to overheating.
Tailpipe: Feel the tailpipe residue. Black and greasy means the car is burning oil. The smudge should be dark and dry. Some rust is normal, but heavy rust might mean excessive water and that the exhaust system needs replacement.
5. Test drive
The last step should be to take the car for a drive and pay close attention to the feel of the car, the sounds it makes, and how it handles. Do NOT rush this step. Drive the car for at least a few miles on both slower roads and, if possible, on the highway. Make sure the car both accelerates and brakes properly. Listen for knocking and squealing sounds. Take a few turns or drive on a curvy road to feel how the car handles and if there are any sounds when turning. Drive on a straight path, too. See if the car drifts toward one side too heavily. Check all the gauges as you’re driving to make sure everything is within normal ranges.
If these things check out, and you feel comfortable driving the vehicle, then you should be good!
6. Think about payments and paperwork
Before paying for the car, make sure the owner has a state-issued car title, which provides proof of ownership. The title should be clear of any liens, which indicate an outstanding loan on the vehicle. The seller should sign the title on the back confirming the sale and note the exact odometer reading. Make sure it’s an exact number, not a rounded number, or you could be responsible for any parking tickets or other infractions that happened before the sale.
Don’t bring cash. Use a bank check instead. It’s both unsafe to carry that much cash around and it can’t be traced. If the deal ends up being a scam, you might be able to stop the payment with a check. Some sellers may want you to go to the bank to confirm the authenticity of the check. This should be a positive sign, as that means the seller is also worried about being scammed and is just as responsible as you.
You do not necessarily have to purchase a privately sold used car in savings cash. Even if you buy a car on Craigslist, lenders and loan options are available. If you need a car immediately and don’t have the cash on hand, speak with a lender to see if you qualify for a used car loan. Alternatively, you can also consider a personal loan to fund your Craigslist car purchase.
Once the sale is done, your last steps are at the DMV. You’ll need to retitle the car under your name and registration and taxes will need to be paid. Taxes include sales tax, which vary by state. Be sure to keep those costs in mind before you purchase your car so you know how much cash you’ll need.
Mike is a PR manager, writer, and content editor for LendingTree focused on creating informative and digestible financial content for the everyday consumer and reader. Mike graduated from College of Charleston and received his MBA from Winthrop University. Follow him on Twitter @MikeOuyangTweet
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