How to Buy a Car on Craigslist

Thanks to Craigslist, gone are the days of spending a Saturday hopping from dealership to dealership in pursuit of a new car. But if you’re new to Craigslist, you might be reluctant to make a vehicle purchase online, wondering if buying a car on Craigslist is a good idea or worrying about getting scammed. The truth is, Craigslist can be a great place to nab the car you want at the price you’re comfortable paying, all while saving precious search time. Consider this your step-by-step guide to how buying a car on Craigslist works.

1. Search Smart

Searching for a car on Craigslist is easy because the site allows you to browse cars for sale listed by dealers, private sellers or both. Dealers are more apt to list cars and trucks that have warranties or certified pre-owned status. Owners post everything from “like new” listings to rust buckets that don’t run. Narrow your search by price, condition or odometer reading to weed out the vehicles you don’t want.

2. Scrutinize the Listing

Before you get your hopes up that you’ve found “the one,” take a minute to dive deeper into the listing itself. Are there only two or three grainy images posted of the car? A legitimate Craigslist seller will include several good-quality pictures of the vehicle, and from many angles. What about the text? Is the description detailed and clear, or are there vague descriptors such as “doors shut” or “radio works?” These are red flags that something is off with either the seller or the vehicle. Move on.

3. Arrange a Meeting

Never agree to a sale until you’ve seen the vehicle in person and given it a test drive. Schedule a meet-up with the seller at a public place (the parking lot of a big box store or auto parts retailer, for example) and bring a friend. Once you arrive, examine the vehicle closely and ask about its history. Come prepared with questions, such as:

  • How many owners has the vehicle had?
  • Does the seller have the service records?
  • Are there any maintenance lights on (such as the check engine light), or have there been recently?
  • Is the title clean?

4. Get an Inspection

Assuming that the basic features of the vehicle — brakes, accelerator, gearshift — pan out during the test drive, the next step is to get the car inspected by a reputable auto shop or car mechanic. Most sellers on Craigslist expect this and are amenable to the request. Ask the seller about paperwork, too. You can run a vehicle history report through CarFax.

5. Negotiate a Price

Part of the process of buying a car off Craigslist is haggling over the price of the car. Arm yourself with info on the vehicle’s estimated value from Kelley Blue Book to make sure you’re not paying too much. A good negotiation tip is to ask the seller what their bottom dollar is and then counter with 15 percent below that. This should get you within range of the amount the seller is willing to accept. And remember — if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

6. Finalize the Sale

To close the deal, offer to meet the seller at your bank and trade a certified check (or cash, if the seller insists) and have the transaction witnessed by a notary public. Most banks have a notary public on staff. A paper trail can provide protection if the deal proves problematic.

Protect Your Purchase

Make sure your new-to-you set of wheels has adequate insurance coverage. Talk with a Farm Bureau agent to find the right policy for you.