Cruising the vehicle ads on Craigslist can be an eye-opening and sometimes overwhelming experience. It can at times resemble the Wild West of digital commerce, but that's also part of its charm. Sellers can be as vague or thorough as they wish with their item descriptions leaving it to you to connect the dots before laying down your hard-earned cash. (Very few Craigslist sellers take our advice for selling a car online.) Here are 10 tips that should help you separate fact from fiction and be satisfied with your purchase:
1. Narrow your search. Craigslist users have the option of limiting their search to include dealers, private sellers, or both. If you're the type who prefers the convenience of a one-stop shopping experience, you'll want to restrict yourself to dealer listings. Often, they can provide in-house financing options and warranty coverage as well, and eliminate the hassle of scheduling meetings with individual sellers. On the other hand, adventurous types who find the chase just as exciting as the catch might get a kick out of poring over CL for hours and then driving for two hours to snag the "perfect" vehicle. Still, the "both" setting can be handy when looking for an older commuter car or winter beater, although most dealers tend to stick to late-model iron.
If you know exactly which vehicle you want and how much you're willing to pay, CL offers the option of plugging those criteria in right at the top of your search. (To cast a wider net, you can also use one of the many sites that allow you to search every local Craigslist across the country.) Of course, one could argue that a life that doesn't include at least one late-night transaction involving a Plymouth Duster with sagging leaf springs, live poultry, and Cuban cigars isn't really a life worth living.
2. Size up the seller. It's true you can't judge a book by its cover, but the words contained within can be quite revealing. If the copy reads like it was hammered out under duress and is accompanied by a couple of grainy images that resemble low-res screen grabs from Night of the Living Dead, it's likely something isn't kosher with the deal. Likewise, certain sellers like to spice up their ad with buzzwords and phrases like "air blows cold" and "stops on a dime," which give little insight to the overall condition of the vehicle. Bottom line: Judge the vehicle on its own merits and don't believe the hype.
3. Call first. Use the phone to your advantage and ask the big questions before you drive: Are there any check engine lights on? Do you have the service records? How many owners? This also gives you an opportunity to pick up on the seller's character. Do they sound composed or sketchy? 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." Of course, if their voice is tinged with the languid drawl or hyperintensity of a narcotics aficionado, there's a good chance they're looking for a quick sale—cash talks—so quit reading and start buying! We kid, of course.
4. The meetup. It's generally accepted that it's the buyer's responsibility to go to the seller. That said, asking the seller to meet you at a mutually agreeable location is not out of the question; if the seller agrees, make arrangements to meet at a public space, preferably one with lots of credible witnesses or foot traffic. A local Cars and Coffee event is a good option, as is the parking lot of the local auto-parts store. Of course, if the vehicle in question is in need of repair or restoration, you'll have to visit the car where it sits.
5. A word about vans. Few things are as creepy and suspicious as two or more individuals lurking around an unmarked, windowless lockbox on wheels. (Especially if your meeting place is near a school or government facility.) We love vans, too, but discretion is advised.
6. Get an inspection. Be realistic. If the vehicle in question is a Clinton-era relic priced around $3K, it's unreasonable to complain about surface rust or worn upholstery. Take it for a spin, and make sure the primary controls—the accelerator, brake, and, if applicable, clutch pedal and shifter—all perform as they should. The steering and suspension will inevitably show their age, but overt creaks or clunks likely indicate an impending repair. If you're looking for a late-model daily driver for the spouse 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.
7. 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 email or text. 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.
8. Make sure there's a clean title. If the title is lost or suspicious take a pause in the proceedings before you finalize the deal. Straightening out a sketchy registration or title is possible after you own the vehicle, but know that the challenge can be daunting. Our advice is that 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 a call to ensure that the title can be obtained without undue delay.
9. The exchange. When it comes time to trade green for pink, consider using 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.
10. The road home. Once the cash and official paperwork have traded hands, it's up to you to take immediate possession of the vehicle. Unless previous arrangements have been made, the seller has every right to expect you'll be leaving with the vehicle either under its own power or on the bed of a trailer. Suddenly announcing that you need to, ahem, "get my 1974 Ford Ranchero running first—you know, to make room" won't cut it. If your new purchase is a driver, buy a pal dinner and have him drop you off; if you're going the trailer route, make arrangements ahead of time. Finally, make sure you have all the extra bits: manuals, records, and spares have a tendency to be left behind. Once the deal is done and you and the car are out of sight, the seller has little incentive to track you down to hand off anything you forgot.
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