Buying a Car on Craigslist: What to Watch Out For

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Updated on Thursday, February 21, 2019

Buying car on Craigslist
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Few of us consider buying a used car as a fun experience. It can mean countless hours visiting car dealers or combing through used car ads from private sellers on websites like Craigslist. Buying a car on Craigslist isn’t a bad thing — you’ll typically get a lower price from a private seller than you would at the dealer. But you also have to be on your toes for possible scams. Here’s what you need to know when looking to buy a used car on Craigslist.

Things to be wary of in Craigslist used car ads

As you look for vehicles, it’s important to understand that Craigslist is simply a place for private sellers and car dealers to list vehicles. There are no guarantees that you’ll be dealing with reputable people, and Craigslist doesn’t offer buyer protections. You could check the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker, which tracks all types of scams, including those involving auto sales. Here are a few red flags that should warn you away from a seller:

You can’t get a vehicle history report. When answering a car dealer ad, it’s important to find out if you can pull a vehicle history report, according to Justin Osburn, a consultant with the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association (NIADA) — Carfax is one popular website offering such reports.

“The dealer should email it to you,” Osburn said. “And if you’re working with a private seller, they should provide you with a vehicle identification number (VIN). If they won’t give you this number, it’s a red flag.” For more, check out our used car checklist.

There aren’t any available pictures. “If there aren’t images, what are they hiding?” said Geoff Cudd, whose years of experience buying cars led him to found the education website Find the Best Car Price. He warns that a lack of pictures — or the use of only stock images — could mean problems down the road.

Too-good-to-be-true pricing. Osburn noted that sometimes used car dealers list a price that seems very low, and when you show up, you find out that it’s just the down payment. “We all have a sense [when] something’s off,” he said. “Pay attention to that.”

Dealer invoice or MSRP. According to Cudd, these phrases relate to buying a new car — so if you’re in the market for a used car, listings that include these terms probably aren’t going to fit the bill.

Seller asks to be paid by wire transfer. When a seller asks to be paid by wire transfer, that should set off alarm bells — especially if they want a portion of the money before they’ll meet you. They could easily take the money and leave you with nothing.

While combing through Craigslist, focus on listings with authentic images, and specific details about the car. You want to verify as much as possible ahead of time.

Tips for communicating with a Craigslist car seller

“You really don’t know what you’re getting with a private seller on Craigslist,” Cudd said. “You want to make sure you’re clear in your communication.” He also recommended starting out by using the seller’s preferred method of communication. Here are some of his other tips for communicating with a Craigslist car seller:

Communicate in writing when possible. Messages via email can be a good way to make sure that you understand what you’re getting. It’s easy to forget things or misunderstand what a seller says. However, when you communicate over email, you can refer back to information and terms.

Be polite and ask questions. Whether you’re on the phone or communicating over email, it’s important to be polite and ask questions. Keep communication professional and don’t be afraid to ask questions — you want to get all the information possible before making a transaction.

Find out why they want to sell the car. One of the best things you can do is ask why they want to sell the car. The answer can be instructive — and may even throw up a red flag.

Be sure to follow up quickly as needed. A truly good deal can be gone fast on Craigslist, so if you find something that looks promising, call or email as soon as possible.

Researching a car for sale on Craigslist

When you research a car for sale on Craigslist, you need to do more of the legwork. At a dealership, you have the ability to ask for a vehicle history report and see the cars immediately. When buying a new car, you have the posted price to start from. But with a private seller on Craigslist, you may or may not know the asking price or the vehicle’s history right away.

As you research a car on Craigslist, there some things to pay special attention to, according to Osburn:

Ask for the VIN and pull a vehicle history report on your own. For a fee, you can check out a car’s history through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System or sites like Carfax or AutoCheck. “It’s worth getting this information so you’re aware of any problems,” said Osburn. “You might even be able to see service records and find out how well the car has been taken care of.”

Check for a “branded” or “salvage” car title. At a dealership, you can be fairly certain you’re working with a clean title. However, when you buy from a private seller, that might not be the case. Osburn advised to watch out for a “branded” or “salvage” title, words that indicate a car might have been totaled, or written off, in the past. “These cars should be worth less because of this situation and some sellers will try to hide that.”

Have the seller show you the title. Another problem, according to Osburn, is that some buyers don’t register the cars they bought. “It might have been a cash deal and the seller didn’t bother to go through the hassle of registration,” he points out. “However, you can’t register the car with the state if you don’t get the sign off of the person on the title.” Make sure the name on the title matches the name of the person selling the car.

Take the car to a mechanic. If you’re buying from a dealer that sells “certified pre-owned” or has some other guarantee, it might not be as important to take the car to a mechanic. However, when you work with a private seller, it’s vital to have the car checked out before you hand over your money. “Many mechanics will review the major components for a small price,” said Osburn. “They’re invested in doing a good job and maybe earning your service, and they can help you be reasonably confident you’re not getting a lemon.”

Research the price. Whether you buy from a dealer or a private seller, get an idea of the value of the car ahead of time. Use a website like Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book to enter car details and see what price range you can expect. This will help you decide how to proceed when you negotiate a final purchase price.

It’s also important to remember that sometimes used-car dealers post listings on Craigslist, points out Osburn. “Most dealers identify themselves in the ad,” he said. “Do a quick Google search to find reviews. You can find out a lot by the reviews and experiences of others.”

How to close the deal on a Craigslist car

Now that you’ve done your research, you know which car you want and you’re ready to complete a deal, it’s important to make sure you’re safe. You don’t want to get scammed — so as Cudd suggested, on the day of the deal, you should take the following precautions:

Don’t tell the seller you’re bringing cash. While robbery is rare, Cudd noted, the reality is that you don’t want to advertise that you’re showing up with thousands in cash. “You can also bring a cashier’s check, or use a service like Escrow.com to help you protect your money.”

Bring a friend. Rather than meeting someone alone, it’s a good idea to bring someone with you — especially if you’re a woman. “You’re more likely to be physically safe with a friend for backup,” said Cudd. “Plus the seller is less likely to try to pull one over on you when there’s another set of eyes.”

Meet in a public location during daylight hours. A public location offers you visibility, as does meeting in daylight. Additionally, you can see the car clearly during the day. You’ll want to go over the car carefully before handing over the cash.

Go for a test drive. See how the car drives on local roads and highways. You can also use this time to take the car to a mechanic for an inspection.

Get a bill of sale. Don’t just hand over the money and drive away — you’ll want proper paperwork for the state you’re in. “You can find sample bills of sale online,” said Cudd. “Bring one that can be filled out, just in case the seller isn’t prepared.”

Cudd also suggests asking to see a driver’s license so you can verify that the name on the title matches the name of the seller.

“Don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t feel comfortable,” said Cudd. “If things aren’t going the way you planned, or if you think you might be getting scammed, just leave.”

Alternatives to buying a car on Craigslist

Your choices aren’t limited to a dealership or to buying a car on Craigslist, though. You can also find good used cars by looking on Facebook’s local marketplace. In many places, it’s still possible to see cars with posted “for sale” signs parked around town.

There are also many websites that specialize in used cars. Cars.com, Autotrader, TrueCar, and eBay Motors are all good places to start, Cudd suggested. Most of these sites offer listings that include some sort of payment and buyer protection that can help you avoid scams.

The bottom line

“For the most part, Craigslist can be a fine place to locate a used car to buy,” said Osburn. “Just be careful.”

Anytime you look for a car, it’s a good idea to shop around and compare prices — as well as used auto loan options.

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