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How to Buy a Car on Craigslist

Started in the mid-1990s by entrepreneur Craig Newmark, the San Francisco-based classified advertisements website Craigslist.org has revolutionized online selling and shopping. The advent of this free, high-traffic and easily navigated website meant checking the classifieds no longer required a visit to the newsstand or subscribing to a daily paper.

Every month, more than 80 million classified ads are posted to Craigslist, attracting more than 50 billion page views. To label Craigslist a “popular” website doesn’t do the phenomenon justice. Craigslist has virtually become a verb meaning “to list” or “search for a sale item” in much the same way Google has become a recognized synonym for “search.”

One of Craigslist’s more popular for sale categories is “cars+trucks.” Listing a vehicle on Craigslist is easy and free, and a well-devised ad with excellent photos can yield multiple prospective buyers in a short period of time. Shoppers looking for a vehicle can anonymously browse hundreds of ads in a single afternoon.

If you need to search for your next vehicle, Craigslist offers helpful tools to guide your search. Once you click the cars+trucks link, you will be asked if you want to view all cars for sale, or those listed by dealers or private sellers. Craigslist also allows you to limit your search to vehicles within a specified number of miles from your ZIP code. You’re able to narrow your search based on the maximum and minimum price you are willing to pay, the make and model you are interested in and the vehicle’s mileage. You can also narrow your search based on preferences such as vehicle condition and transmission type. Finally, Craigslist lets you decide if you want to shop for vehicles with clean titles. You can also look for vehicles with salvage or rebuilt titles, as well as lien or parts-only models and vehicles that don’t have titles at all.

If the search menus on the website seem overwhelming, remember that buying a new or used vehicle is often a sizeable investment, and this makes the endeavor worthy of a little extra time and research. Unless you are in the habit of regularly buying vehicles, the process can be daunting, and those search options on Craigslist can serve as a great resource for deciding which questions to ask yourself during the process.

Narrow Your Search For the Best Results

Let’s say you’ve decided you want a 2007 Honda Civic LX with a manual transmission and less than 100,000 miles on the odometer. With that information in hand, simply surf to Craigslist.org, choose the area you want to shop in and decide if you want to see listings from a dealer, an individual or both. Enter the vehicle’s specific criteria into the list of options, and hit enter. If your search comes up empty, expand the specifics to include more model years or higher mileage. If that search still yields nothing and you’re willing to wait, use the “save search” option at the top of the page and Craigslist will automatically alert you when a listing meeting your criteria appears.

Ask the Right Questions

You’ve pared down your search and remained patient. A few days have passed and a handful of classifieds have popped up matching your criteria. Now what?

While you can’t always judge a book by its cover, you can learn quite a bit about a used car from studying the online ad. A good seller usually provides details on the condition and history of the vehicle. While you may not be able to verify claims simply by reading the ad, you can eliminate choices that raise a red flag.

The same goes for the photos. Though the low-resolution photos available through the website rarely tell the whole story, they can alert you to warning signs. A picture of a rusted-out truck will keep you from dropping everything in the middle of the work day to chase an underpriced pickup that the owner claims is in pristine condition.

Start your search with a simple email or text message asking if the vehicle is still available. You may also want to ask for additional photos, or request higher-resolution versions of the shots that are posted. If the ad doesn’t include a phone number, request one. The same goes for a location of the vehicle.

If the vehicle is available and you have the phone number, call the seller and talk. A few minutes on the phone with a seller will often be enough to either boost your confidence level or persuade you to move on to the next vehicle on your list. Look for inconsistencies in the stories surrounding the vehicle as well. If the seller tells you the vehicle has “lived its whole life in road salt-free Arizona” and then mentions how great it is in the snow, you may want to kindly thank them for their time and move on.

If you are buying from an individual or unknown dealer, learn how to avoid curbstoning for useful advice on tackling this situation. Finally, ask if the vehicle has a title and inquire to see if there are any title issues, such as a lien or a rebuilt or salvage title.

Inspecting the Vehicle

When purchasing a car, truck or SUV online, use the same inspection guidelines you’d use when buying any vehicle.

Before you meet in person, ask the seller for the vehicle identification number (VIN) and run a CARFAX Vehicle History Report. The CARFAX report will give you a deeper, qualified look at the car you are interested in and will often verify or discredit information from the seller’s ad or conversation. Still, don’t judge a seller based on slight inconsistencies highlighted by this report, especially if they do not affect the vehicle’s desirability or value. A seller may not be aware of all the items on the report, especially if they are the second or third owner.

While the inspection process is the same as with any other vehicle purchase, Craigslist’s anonymity and carte blanche free-listing process present unique security issues. More than likely you will be buying an automobile from a perfect stranger. It’s recommended that you meet and inspect the car in daylight, in a high-traffic, neutral location such as a service station or shopping mall parking lot. Better yet, meet at one of the recently established “safe exchange zones” that are popping up around the country. The zones are typically in police station parking lots and are under constant law enforcement surveillance. If the seller refuses to do business at the police station, you may have saved yourself from becoming the victim of an assault or robbery.

Making a Craigslist Purchase

You’ve found the ideal vehicle on Craigslist. The buyer assures you they have the title, or if a lender holds it, that it can be secured at the time of purchase. Now what?

Given the nature of Craigslist, you may want to negotiate a lower selling price. Most people set the asking price a little higher than they hope to sell the vehicle for, knowing most buyers rarely agree to the full published amount. If you’ve done your research and know what comparable vehicles are selling for, use that information to guide your offer. Keep in mind it’s best to offer a fair price right off the bat, since low-balling with an offer well below fair market value can sour a deal beyond repair. If you are unsure what to offer, ask what the seller’s “rock-bottom” price is and go from there.

Once you’re reached an agreement, make the final transaction. This is where you hand over your hard-earned money and the seller provides the vehicle, title and a bill of sale. For safety’s sake, leave your money at home when you negotiate and meet at the local branch of your bank.

The bank will typically have a guard on duty, and everything that transpires will be on camera. You can also use a bank teller or staff person to notarize the documents, a process that goes a long way at the tax collector’s office or the department of motor vehicles. Once again, a seller unwilling to make the transaction at the bank should be avoided. There are plenty of other used car options out there, so don’t put yourself in harm’s way.

Shopping for a used car? Start your search with CARFAX Used Car Listings, where every car comes with a free CARFAX Vehicle History Report. Also, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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