9 Tips For Buying A Used Car On Craigslist

A screen capture of Craigslist

Craigslist has thousands of used car and truck listings and can be a great place to find your next vehicle, but, Craigslist is also an ever-changing marketplace populated by honest folks, licensed car dealers, inexperienced sellers, and downright crooks.

This implies that you should approach the Craigslist classifieds with something of a plan, and what follows are nine tips to help you find and buy a used car or truck from Craigslist.

Tip No. 1: Use Filters

When you look for a car or truck on Craigslist, the results you see are listed in chronological order. Thus, you see the most recent listing first. And unless you really have no idea what you want, just slogging through the listings page-by-page isn’t likely to lead you to your next vehicle any time soon.

Instead apply filters to narrow your search.

“Craigslist users have the option of limiting their search to include dealers, private sellers, or both,” wrote Andrew Wendler in a February 2019 Car and Driver article about this same topic.

“If you’re the type who prefers the convenience of a one-stop shopping experience, you’ll want to restrict yourself to dealer listings. Often, they can provide in-house financing options and warranty coverage as well, and eliminate the hassle of scheduling meetings with individual sellers. On the other hand, adventurous types who find the chase just as exciting as the catch might get a kick out of poring over [Craigslist] for hours and then driving for two hours to snag the ‘perfect’ vehicle. Still, the ‘both’ setting can be handy when looking for an older commuter car or winter beater, although most dealers tend to stick to late-model iron.”

In addition to filtering for private sellers and dealerships, you can also select:

  • How far away the car or truck is,
  • How much it costs,
  • Its make and model,
  • Its model year,
  • How many miles it has.

Tip No. 2: Estimate The Value

Once you have narrowed down your Craigslist search to a few target vehicles, take a moment to estimate the value of each one. To do this, you have at least three options.

A screen capture of the Kelley Blue Book home page
Services like Kelley Blue Book provide an estimate of the fair market value of a car or truck in your area.
  1. You can use services like Kelley Blue Book (KBB) to get an estimated fair market value. This should give you an idea of what the vehicle is worth, but you will need to take into consideration any upgrades or extras the seller may have done or added.
  2. You can check automobile marketplaces like AutotraderCars.com, and CarGurus. On these classified marketplaces, look for similar vehicles selling in your area. Most of these listings will come from dealerships, and dealerships almost always price their vehicles at fair market value, since they know everyone will be looking online.
  3. You can call someone. If you’re planning to finance your purchase, your bank or financial institution will also be able to look up a fair market value for you.

Tip No. 3: Avoid Poor Listings

The quality of a Craigslist ad can tell you a lot about the seller and the car. As the Shift Blog noted in an October 2016 post, watch out for Craigslist vehicle ads that:

  • Are “suspiciously short…with numerous misspellings, all caps, and a general lack of details about the car.”
  • Have only one or two photos or that have blurry photos. Today anyone who can use Craigslist can also use a mobile phone to take several good quality photographs. Thus the lack of good pictures is a strong indication the post could be a fraud.

Tip No. 4: Call The Seller

a photo showing a woman holding a mobile phone up to her ear
Talk to the seller on the phone before agreeing to meet. Photo by Taylor Grote.

Fraud and scams are a significant problem on Craigslist —as they are on many other classified websites. In fact, a few years ago, Jason Lancaster, who was the editor of AccurateAutoAdvice.comwrote that on Craigslist you should “assume that the person selling the car is a con artist unless it’s a licensed dealer.”

Of course, this won’t always or even often be the case. The point is to be careful.

To this end, “use the phone to your advantage and ask the big questions before you drive,” wrote Car and Driver’s Wendler. “Are there any check engine lights on? Do you have the service records? How many owners? This also gives you an opportunity to pick up on the seller’s character. Do they sound composed or sketchy? There’s nothing worse than carving an hour out of your busy schedule to drive across town only to be greeted by a seller who says, ‘Well, I was just kinda throwing out a feeler, not sure if I really want to sell it at this point.’”

In addition to avoiding scams and getting answers to the questions Wendler recommended, consider getting the vehicle identification number (VIN) and ensuring that it has a clean title.

Tip No. 5: Meet On Neutral Ground

“It’s generally accepted that it’s the buyer’s responsibility to go to the seller. That said, asking the seller to meet you at a mutually agreeable location is not out of the question; if the seller agrees, make arrangements to meet at a public space, preferably one with lots of credible witnesses or foot traffic,” Wendler wrote.

Many other industry experts agree. While it could be a convention to go to the seller you need to make sure you feel comfortable going to the seller’s neighborhood and that you feel good about the seller. If not, only agree to meet in a neutral public place.

Tip No. 6: Get An Inspection

Here is an idea, ask the seller if he or she will meet you near your local garage or favorite mechanic’s shop.

If you’re considering purchasing a car from a private seller, you want to have that vehicle inspected. This is going to cost you something like $75 to $150 dollars in some cases, but it is a lot better to spend money on an inspection than to purchase a car for $7,500 only to find out that it needs $2,500 in repairs almost immediately.

Tip No. 7: Take A Test Drive

There is a scene near the end of the 2019 film Ford vs. Ferrari wherein Carroll Shelby, who is played by actor Matt Damon, watches a potential customer get out of a car after a test drive and say how much he liked it.

Shelby whispers to himself, “you drove it for less than an hour. You can’t tell [expletive] after an hour.”

a screen capture from the movie Ford versus Ferrari
Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, who, it would seem, thought an hour was not enough time for a test drive.

The point is that you will want to test drive any vehicle you plan to buy, and it should be a reasonable test drive that lasts more than just a couple of moments.

Before you get in a car to test drive it, make certain it is registered and insured. It can also be a good idea to snap a photo of the seller’s ID.

Tip No. 8: Make An Offer

If you’re dealing with a private seller or a dealership that negotiates (versus a best price dealer, see, for example, Maverick Car Company’s pricing philosophy), you will be expected to make an offer that is probably lower than the vehicle’s asking price.

At the same time, it should not be your goal to try to nickel and dime a private seller. In fact, many, if not most, private sellers will simply become annoyed with you and sell their car or truck to someone else.

“When negotiating, try not to be too emotional (or rude) and be able to explain your reasoning with facts,” said the Shift blog. “For example, you can use information gleaned from the inspection to help support your case for a lower price. If the car needs a $300 brake job, you can see if the seller will accommodate for that in the price. Or, if the seller has the car priced well above book value …you can see if they are willing to reflect that discrepancy with a lower price.”

“That said, don’t let it ruffle your feathers if they don’t want to come down on their price. It’s their car and they are not obliged to do so.”

Tip No. 9: Don’t Pay Cash

Bringing cash money to a Craigslist meeting can be less safe than other ways of paying.

“When it comes time to trade green for pink, consider using your personal bank. In addition to being the home turf for your money, banks generally have a notary public on staff who can witness signatures and emboss the bill of sale or other paperwork with their all-important official seal,” wrote Wendler. “Building a sound paper trail is a great way to protect yourself in any transaction, so don’t be afraid to ask the seller to take a certified check if the selling price is more than a couple of grand.”