The vehicle listings on Craigslist can be light on graphics and free of oversight, and perusing them can be an exhausting experience. Usable at no cost for most sellers, half-truths are plentiful in the listings and vehicle histories rare, leaving it up to you to connect the dots. However, Craigslist can be a highly effective tool for locating the car you are searching for. Here are 10 tips that could help you separate fact from fiction and satisfied with your purchase:
1. Hone your search. Craigslist allows users to configure their search results to include dealers, private sellers, or both. If a warranty, certified pre-owned status, or convenience is high on your list of priorities, you’ll want to restrict yourself to dealer listings, as there’s no reason to waste time scrolling through pages of clapped out Fox-body Mustangs and worn-out work trucks. On the other hand, if driving for two-hours to look at rust-ravaged, Vietnam-era forward control Jeep that “ran when parked” is your thing, you already know the drill: private sellers all the way. Still, the “both” setting can be handy when looking for a nice commuter car or winter beater, as sometimes dealers will offer such things, although that practice is becoming less common.
2. Size up the seller. It’s true you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the type contained within can be quite revealing. If an ad is composed in ALL CAPS and is accompanied by a couple of grainy images that resemble lo-res screengrabs from the Zapruder film, you’re probably in for a rough ride. Likewise, certain sellers like to spice up their ad with buzzwords and phrases like “air blows cold” and “stops on a dime,” which are actually thinly veiled code words for, “if [insert name of component or system in question] is still working when you buy it, it likely won’t be by the time you get the car home.” Bottom line: Judge the vehicle on it’s own merits and don’t believe the hype.
3. Call first. Get as much information about the vehicle as you can on the phone—and always ask if more photos are available or can be taken, especially of problem areas—and try to pick up on the seller’s character. Do they sound composed or sketchy? Engaged or disinterested? 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.”
4. The meet-up. As the buyer, it’s up to you to go to the seller. Meeting on common ground is always a good idea, and if the seller agrees, make arrangements to meet at a well-lit, mutually agreeable location, preferably one with lots of foot traffic. A local “cars and coffee” event is a good option, as is the parking lot of the local auto-parts store or speed shop. Of course, if the vehicle in question isn’t in running condition, you’ll have to visit the car where it sits.
5. Get an inspection. Be realistic. If the deal in question involves a decade-old pickup priced around $3K, it’s unreasonable to start complaining about surface rust or worn upholstery. Take it for spin, and thoroughly exercise the accelerator, brake, and, if applicable, clutch pedal and shifter. The steering and suspension will inevitably be looser than when new, but overt creaks, clicks, or clunks could indicate a potential safety issue. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a late-model daily driver for the wife to shuttle the kids around in—or you’re purchasing a classic—do yourself a favor and have it inspected by a reputable shop or expert in the make. A seller with nothing to hide will be more than agreeable.
6. Negotiate. Everything on Craigslist is negotiable. Even if a seller states that a price is firm, the very nature of Craigslist and its low, low price of free for the listings encourages ambitious pricing. Haggling as portrayed on television, however, where the seller caves after a tense 15-second negotiation and lets the car go for half of the asking price rarely happens in the real world. It’s OK to start low, but insulting a seller with an absurdly low number can quickly sour a deal. To score a good price while retaining a modicum of dignity, try asking the seller what their bottom dollar is, and then counter with an offer 15 to 20 percent below that figure; chances are you’ll be within 10 percent of the actual number the owner needs to get the deal done. Always negotiate in person; the only thing cheaper than talk is a tactless e-mail. One last thing: Seal the deal with a handshake, as the human element imparts an air of finality to the deal that only a true psychopath could ignore.
7. Make sure there’s a clean title. Talk is cheap, and when it comes to a missing or suspicious title, everyone has a story. Sorting out an unsound title or sourcing a duplicate is possible, but our experience proves it can be time-consuming and soul-crushing work. So unless the car in question is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, walk. You don’t need the hassle. If a bank or financing company still holds the title on a vehicle, ask the seller to make some calls to ensure everything is kosher, and that the title can be obtained and delivered without undue delay.
8. The exchange. When it comes time to trade green for pink, you can’t find a better location than 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. 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.
9. The road home. At this point, the vehicle in question is yours. Unless spelled out in writing beforehand, the seller has every reason to expect you’ll be removing it from his property pronto. Suddenly announcing that you need to, “get my El Camino running first—to make room,” is of little concern to the seller. If your new vehicle needs to be towed, have arrangements in place; if it’s a driver, buy a pal lunch and have him drop you off. Before you leave, double check to make sure you have everything: the manuals, the spares, and the loose interior bits from that box that was in the trunk. Once the previous owner has your cash, they’ll have little incentive to track you down to hand off anything you forgot.