Tips for Buying a Used Car From Craigslist

Craigslist has earned a bad reputation as a haven for scammers and malcontents, but if you use some common sense and a few tips, it can be a great place to find a killer deal on a used car. Here are a few things to consider before you pick up that new-to-you vehicle on Craigslist or another classifieds website.

Be Skeptical

Even if your seller is the most honest person it the world, you have no way of knowing it for sure. That means it’s a good rule of thumb to always go into any car sale with a healthy amount of skepticism. A few good things to remember:

  • Meet in a public place and don’t go alone. It might sound paranoid, but it’s important to be safe when you’re dealing with Craigslist. A great place to meet is in a police station parking lot. That will scare away any scammers.
  • Don’t bring cash. See the above statement about paranoia. If you decide to buy, have the seller meet you at the bank for the purchase and title exchange.
  • Know what the car is worth. A dishonest seller might try to sell you a car for more than what it’s worth. Be informed — check out the Kelly Blue Book and Edmunds websites to get a good idea of what the car is actually worth.

Check the Paperwork

It is essential to check and double-check the paperwork when you’re purchasing a car from a private seller. If the sale is on the up-and-up, the seller should have no problem providing their ID, insurance and registration, as well as a title in their name if you do decide to buy.

If they question why you want the information, tell them that your insurance agent advised you to verify it. If they refuse or seem upset that you’re asking, leave. That’s a sign there’s something unsavory about the sale or the seller, and you don’t want to get mixed up in it. Don’t get caught up in that exact car, there are others out there.

Insist on a Test Drive

If all the paperwork looks good, the next step before you consider purchasing the car is to take it for a test drive. This is why you need to make sure the car is properly insured before you take it out. Spend some time driving it on highway and in traffic — if you live in an area that actually has traffic — and test out all the features that the car is supposed to have. This includes power windows or locks, air conditioning, radio, 4-wheel drive, if equipped, and anything else you can think of.

If there’s anything that doesn’t feel right, there might be a problem that indicates you should pass on this car.

Get an Inspection

If you’re handy with a wrench, you can easily give the engine a one-over to make sure there aren’t any obvious leaks or problems. If you’re planning on committing to buying this car, though, then it’s a good idea to have an inspection done by a professional. Here’s a list of things they should be looking for:

  • Fluids: Are the fluid levels where they’re supposed to be? Do they look like they haven’t been changed since the Stone Age, or do they look like the car was fairly well maintained?
  • Codes: Is the Check Engine light on? Even if it’s not, plug in a code reader to see if there are any stored codes in the computer that might indicate a problem.
  • Brakes and Rotors: Check the brakes and rotors to make sure they’re in good condition. If they’re worn down to nothing or it’s going to cost you another $300-400 to replace all the parts, you might want to look for another car.
  • Belts and Hoses: Are the belts badly worn? Do they look like they’ve been left to dry-rot? Inspecting the belts and hoses can save you from being stranded with a broken belt or a blown hose in the future.
  • Misfires: This might show up when you run a code scan, but it’s important to turn the car over to see if any of the cylinders are misfiring.
  • Tires: Are you going to have to drop the money for a new set of tires as soon as you buy this car? Are the tires safe to drive on, or are they showing signs of uneven wear that could indicate another problem?

If everything looks good, then congratulations! You’ve found yourself a good used car on Craigslist. If not, walk away and find another car from another seller.

When it comes down to it, the most important thing to remember when you’re looking for a car on Craigslist or from any private seller is to trust your gut. If something feels wrong, it probably is, so take a step back and reconsider your options. If you’re careful and mindful, you can find a great car for an unbeatable price.