How To Buy A Car on Craigslist and Avoid Scams
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How To Buy A Car on Craigslist and Avoid Scams

By Autolist Editorial | December 13, 2018

Buying a car on Craigslist is easy, but fraudulent postings are common, so there are a few key pointers that you need to keep in mind when doing so. First and foremost, as with any transaction: if you find a deal that seems too good to be true, you can be certain that it is. That being said, if you follow a few simple rules, you can find some great cars through Craigslist.

It never hurts to err on the side of caution. Unless the seller happens to be a licensed dealer, you should probably assume that they might be a con artist. Most vehicle fraud is perpetrated by private sellers, some of whom have even sold stolen vehicles with falsified paperwork. Others may sell you a salvaged vehicle without disclosing prior damage or one whose odometer has been tampered with to “roll back” the miles. Trust your gut. If the vehicle doesn’t look as great in person as the pictures led you to believe, if you aren’t happy with the way the vehicle smells or drives, or if you just plain get bad vibes from someone, don’t hesitate to walk away.

Common craigslist car scams and red flags

  • Ads that don’t include a phone number
  • Cars that are priced way below what your research indicates their current market value should be
  • A seller who claims to be stationed overseas in the military or otherwise unavailable to meet in person
  • Sellers who demand that you use an online escrow service, which they oh-so-conveniently provide
  • Payments which must be wired to another country using Western Union and other such services
  • The seller appears to be in a hurry and/or very anxious to complete the transaction

Before you meet

Get online and perform your due diligence, researching the current value of the year, make, and model you’re considering so that you know what it’s worth. If you can get within about $500 of what you feel the value is, you’re doing pretty well. If the asking price is much higher than this, it will likely be hard to negotiate the seller down to what it's actually worth. If it's significantly lower, there may be a hidden mechanical issue they're hoping you’ll overlook in order to get a cheap car.

In the initial phone call, ask a few questions, starting with why they’re selling, and beware of elaborate stories, the most common reason honest people sell a car for is that they just got a new car and don’t want or need this one anymore.

The meeting

Safety first! Bring your phone and keep it handy, so that if there is a problem you can call for help.

Always meet the seller at a brightly-lit and well-populated public place – ideally with security cameras – and don’t go alone. Bring a family member or friend with you, or better yet, bring your mechanic! Whoever you bring, make sure they stay focused on the mission at hand. Unless it’s your mechanic, their job is to keep an eye on the seller, not the car. Have them try keep the seller occupied while you look the vehicle over. Reverse this when you bring your mechanic: keep the seller engaged in conversation so your guy can look the car over thoroughly without interruption.

Ask to see all of the vehicle’s available records. Lack of maintenance records is a red flag, because it can indicate that the car is either stolen or poorly-maintained.

Inspect the vehicle for any tell-tale signs of criminal activity such as exterior locks or ignition that look as if they have been punched or damaged. If the car only starts with an implement such as a screwdriver or the VIN plate is missing or defaced, these are all red flags that signify potentially stolen vehicles. If the seller claims that the vehicle was stolen from them and recovered, ask for a police report. If they don’t have one and can't provide it, walk away.

The test drive

Take the car for a test drive, but before you do: get ID, registration, and proof of insurance from the seller. Make sure all of the information matches up, and if it doesn’t, or if they are hesitant to provide any of it, back out of the sale and leave.

Before starting your test drive, wave your hand near the exhaust pipe in the rear, if you feel heat, they may have been running the engine so that you won't be able to tell if there is an issue when starting it cold. Also, make sure all of the warning lights come on when you first turn the key to the on position: sometimes people remove the check engine and ABS warning lights to conceal a problem.

Your test drive should include time spent in both stop-and-go and highway traffic. You should also conduct and a thorough inspection of the vehicle’s features and their functions. Check the A/C and heater, the trunk and gas door latches, and all of the windows and locks as well as extras like 4WD if applicable.

Have the vehicle inspected by a certified professional. This includes checking for compression leaks and onboard diagnostics or OBD, also known as DTC or data trouble codes. You have to plug the car into a computer to see those, but many places will check them for free. This is much easier to do if you bring your mechanic along in the first place, or have the seller meet you at your mechanic’s shop. If you’re serious about purchasing a given car, it is worth the fee for a proper inspection as it can save you a world of headaches later.

Make sure you know what the law is regarding emissions in your state, because in some states, the seller must provide proof that the vehicle has passed an emissions test. This is an expensive problem to fix, so you will want to avoid buying a car that can’t pass.

Before you finalize the deal

Double-check ALL documents for authenticity. Use the DMV to ensure that the vehicle belongs to the seller, comparing the VIN on the documents against the VIN on the car.

The transaction

Never bring cash to the initial meeting. If you decide to purchase the vehicle, meet the seller at the bank. Before you hand over the money, they must provide with a clear title in their own name, at which point you can give them cash right at the bank counter. Check your state’s laws to be sure of whether there are any additional paperwork requirements. You or the seller can also create a bill of sale for example, but the title alone will usually suffice for a private transaction.

Finally, never advance any money prior to meeting the seller, and be cautious about what methods you use for paying. A cash transaction or cashier’s check is usually ideal and can avoid later problems that might occur if you use a bank transfer, credit card, or other methods to pay. When it comes to money matters, an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure.