Home > Auto Loans > 7 Tips for Buying a Car on Craigslist

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Like eBay, Craigslist has become a fairly common place to buy and sell vehicles. But you can never be too safe online, especially when there’s real money at stake, plus ownership of the vehicle. Not only are there risks for getting stuck with a lemon, if you aren’t too careful you could wind up with a stolen car. To keep you sharp, we spoke with Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, for seven tips on shopping for cars the new old-fashioned way.

1. Check the Photos

“Photos are huge,” Brauer says, especially online. “There should be plenty of them, and they should be high quality.” What’s more, they should only be under one person’s name. “People steal photos from real sellers and act like it’s their car,” Brauer warns, “so if you find the photos somewhere else, that’s not a good sign.”

2. Get the Car’s History

When shopping for cars, knowing the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) isn’t enough. You need to find out the real value of the car and whether it’s new or used. Brauer recommends getting a Carfax report to suss out these details as well as the car’s history. “You want to see what kind of service work has been done on it, see if it has flood damage or accidents,” Brauer says. “If you know the price and history, those are two big steps. You’ll be paying the right amount and getting a car without a scary history or stories.”

3. Meet Somewhere Public

You never know who you’ll meet online, so plan to meet in a highly trafficked place, “preferably somewhere like a bank because if you’re buying the car, you really need to make sure the car is OK,” Brauer says. “The seller should verify the funds; it’s not good enough to get a cashier’s check.” And if you’re the buyer, have the teller give the seller the check and confirm it’s good before doing anything with the title.

4. Do a Test Drive

You want to be mindful of everything, Brauer says, from the brake feel to the condition of the car to how it sounds. Be sure to look under the car to make sure nothing is leaking, check the tire condition and do a close, careful inspection of the body by walking around it. “It’s easy to say something looks good from five or 10 feet away but not see expensive damage like [dings to the] paint finish,” he says.

Brauer lists specific sounds to watch out for: road and wind noise, which can indicate problems in the drive train or differential, or even with the tires if they’re really worn; any noise or vibration in the steering wheel, which may be signs of a power steering issue; grinding or squeaking in the brakes; and a rough idle, which could mean engine issues. If the car pulls to one side, there may be a problem with the alignment.

5. Get a Pre-Purchase Inspection

Any seller worth his salt should be fine with this, Brauer says. With a PPI, a certified mechanic will come to the car’s location and inspect it for any damage.

6. Beware Any Stories

Any creative stories about the ownership are a sure sign something’s amiss, Brauer says. If the seller says he doesn’t really have the title or there’s a total lack of documentation about the ownership of the car, just run away — there should always be some paperwork. “Any stories that aren’t ‘I own this car, here’s all the paperwork that proves I’ve owned it and owned for awhile’ — the more it deviates from that, the more you should be worried,” Brauer warns.

On the flip side, “If someone has a title and registration and it’s up-to-date and in their name, and they’ve also got ID, that should be sufficient to basically prove who they are,” Brauer adds. “You can also meet at the DMV and go in to confirm ownership.”

7. Ask for Receipts

Obviously, you want the car title, Brauer says, but other forms and receipts are important as well. Be sure to ask for all receipts of past work done on the car such as repairs, maintenance, emissions tests and purchases. “Smart people save all that stuff because it proves they were the right owners and it was all theirs,” Brauer notes. Also ask for the owner’s manual, which not only helps to prove ownership but will teach you about the car.

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