10 Craigslist Tips for the Smart Car Buyer

When it works like it should, buying a car on Craigslist can be great. But quality on Craigslist can be hit or miss and it can feel a bit like the Barbary Coast, with mischief and gold in equal measure.

To help you sort through the riff raff, avoid surprises, and find the right car, here are 10 essential things to take note of.

1. Using Craigslist filters to search smarter

Refine your search by taking advantage of Craigslist’s built-in filters, which include options such as price, year, color, transmission type, type of seller (owner or dealer), and more. This will help you narrow your search to what you’re looking for and avoid wading through listings of salvaged title, three-wheeled PT Cruisers.

  • Search by dealer. For those who would prefer the peace of mind of a dealer warranty, this filter’s for you.
  • Search by price or year. If you have a budget but don’t want anything too old, easily define your price and model year limits.
  • Search by feature. Buying a car for someone with very specific tastes but only drives automatic? You can specify for color and transmission, too.
  • Search by car. If you know exactly the car you want, say a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am with the screaming chicken on the hood and Burt Reynold’s scent on the seats, Craigslist is perfect. You can plug in the exact model specification, right down to the color, transmission, and condition.

2. Research a fair price range

Before you start test driving, it’s important to how have an idea how much a car in your area should cost. There are many pricing guides out there, and while one-sized-fits-all pricing guides like KBB won’t perfectly capture the fair price for your market, it’s a good starting point.

If it’s listed way over your fair price range, you may want to skip that car. Sometimes if you wait, the seller will come to their senses and lower the price to something more reasonable.

3. Be wary of warning signs

Many times a Craigslist ad can tell you a lot about the seller, as well as the car:

  • Low-quality listings. Suspiciously short listings with numerous misspellings, all caps, and a general lack of details about the car smack of “keep looking.”
  • Minimal photos. A listing with one blurry, sideways photo isn’t worth your time. A huge red flag is people who post pictures that are not even of their car. Not exactly trust-building stuff is it?
  • Sloppy presentation. When we wrote our guide to selling a car on Craigslist, there’s a reason we focused so much on presentation and cleanliness. Instilling buyer confidence is step #1, and junk strewn about the interior doesn’t do that. If the seller hasn’t bothered to present the car nicely for sale, they probably haven’t been any more thoughtful owning it, either.
  • Multiple listings of the same car. If you see a car posted multiple times over a few days, it’s not a good sign.

Some good signs are clear writing, lots of pictures of a relatively clean car (including the engine), a list of recent maintenance, and just a general sense that the seller knows their stuff. We vet every car listed on Shift to make sure you have all of these things, including detailed photos, a comprehensive inspection, and a seamless interaction (not to mention an amazing car).

4. Make contact

It’s a good idea to call the seller before seeing the car. Communicating via email just isn’t going to tell you as much. Don’t be afraid to ask a few questions like: why are you selling the car, how long have you owned it, what maintenance is needed and what’s been done lately? Pay attention to how the seller responds. Do they seem trustworthy, or do they give you the creeps? Are they over-eager, or do they sound like they’ve been asleep for six days?

It’s important to consider the overall vibe that they are giving you. Your time is valuable, and nothing is worse than carving out a few hours of your Saturday to go see a car, then getting a text saying the seller flaked when you’re two blocks from where you planned to meet. You can learn a lot from a quick chat on the phone. It’s worth it.

5. Schedule the test drive

We’ve covered how to prepare yourself for a test drive in the past, but it’s important to start with a safe, mutually agreed upon location in an area where you can really drive the car. If you meet the seller downtown, it’ll be tough to get a full sense for how the car drives.

As a buyer, you may have to go to the seller’s house. That’s fine, just be sure that you feel comfortable and it’s not a bad idea to bring a friend. Continue to assess the seller and make sure they are someone you trust. Ask a lot of questions and insist that you drive the car. If the seller balks, don’t be afraid to walk away.

Like to keep things simple? If you live in our markets and find a car you like on Shift, we’ll deliver the car directly to you to test drive.

6. Do an inspection

We’ve covered this in another article, but a post-purchase inspection (often called the PPI) is worth paying for. Buying a car without inspecting it is like buying a house without an appraisal. A seller with nothing to hide should agree to it, so negotiate an appropriate deposit to leave with the seller while you take it to the mechanic. Bonus: What you learn can be used to help negotiate the price, which brings us to our next tip.

7. Run a Carfax report

A Carfax vehicle history report is a must-have for buying any used car. It’s easy, it can tell you a lot about the car’s history, and it can help you make sure you’re not driving off in a car with a bent frame, flood damage, and 17 owners in three years.

It’s a known Craigslist scam for a seller to kindly provide a Carfax report—from three years ago, prior to extensive post-accident bodywork. If the seller is providing their own Carfax, check the date.

If you care at all about full transparency (and with a purchase as big as a car, you should), buying with Shift not only gets you a full Carfax report for free, but also high-res wear-and-tear photos and a complete 200-point inspection report for every car we sell.

8. Don’t be afraid to negotiate

Craigslist is one of the few places where Americans can still (sometimes) haggle. Sellers often list their cars at a slightly inflated price expecting to negotiate down. That said, this isn’t a rug shop in Marrakesh, so be realistic. When negotiating, try not to be too emotional (or rude) and be able to explain your reasoning with facts.

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 (which you should research beforehand), 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.

9. Finalize the transaction

If you’ve gone through all of these steps and it seems like you’ve found the one, make sure the seller’s name is on the title, that it has not been salvaged, and also be sure that the car has passed emissions requirements (often called the smog in California) if your state has them. Any smart seller won’t take a check, so your alternatives are a certified cashier’s check, bank transfer (takes several days), or cold, hard cash.

10. Take your time and trust your gut

Rushing to buy a car is the easiest way to get a healthy dose of buyer’s remorse. Throughout it all, listen to your gut. Don’t force a deal if something feels off. Buying a used car should be a methodical process, not a quick fix. When you find the right car, you’ll probably know it, and it will probably not be the first car you see.

Buying a used car on the private market can be intimidating, which is part of the reason we founded Shift in the first place. If you’re looking for a safer, more straight-forward alternative (that’s a heck of a lot of more convenient), check us out. We even have real humans waiting to answer your questions (call us at 855-744-3801) to provide a great car buying experience.

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