Buying Cars on Craigslist: Find the Right Car for You

Craigslist can be a good resource for buying a used car. Prices are consistently lower than at used-car dealerships, and the selection is much larger. That being said, with such an extensive and varied selection it can be a daunting task to try and find your next set of wheels. By identifying your price range and narrowing your search, you can return more relevant results. Knowing how to analyze and interpret the information presented in the listing can make all the difference when considering a car.

If you live in a large metropolitan region like Chicago or San Francisco, the local Craigslist can be overwhelming, with hundreds of automobile listings added daily. That’s why it’s important to figure out what you’re looking for, and what you’re willing to pay for it. When selecting a possible vehicle, it is important to keep the cost of repairs in mind. Often times, a slightly older luxury car can be had for the same price as a more recent entry level vehicle—but that doesn’t mean they’ll end up costing the same amount when work needs to be done. As a rule of thumb, avoid luxury brands unless you can afford the repair bills later.

In addition, it is usually best to limit your search to listings with pictures. Without an actual visual for the vehicle it’s difficult to assess the condition. Be sure to also search within listings that are posted by the owner, rather than a dealership.

The description in each listing can serve as a gold mine of information about the car, and more specifically, its owner. Almost every listing will include the bare details—mileage, year, options, etc.—but no two are written the same way. Owners who write with an obvious indifference or ignorance towards their car are most likely individuals who don’t take very good care of their cars. The more specifically an owner can write about their car, the better. Ideally, an owner should retain all of the repair receipts, so that they can keep a record of what repairs were done and when the car was serviced. Beware the owner that makes performance enhancements such as “dropping” the suspension or fitting an aftermarket exhaust—these cars were probably driven hard, and if you’re not looking for a stiff, loud ride you’re better off moving on.

In general, buying a car off of Craigslist can be an affordable alternative to going to a dealership. If you’re savvy and shrewd, there’s no need to have a car salesman push a rusty clunker on you—it’s easy to find relevant listings if you narrow your focus, define your price, and look for clues to the previous owner’s automotive habits. With a bit of skill you can find the perfect car for your needs and your budget.

A few words of caution when buying a car on Craigslist:

1) Not all cars for sale on Craigslist are ‘for sale by owner’. It is worth investigating if the car is being sold by the original owner. Many car dealerships and car sales lots will advertise cars on Craigslist. There are some real advantages to buying a car from the original owner.

2) It is not a good idea to carry cash to buy a car, especially from someone you do not know. If you like the car, return later with a casher’s check to make the purchase. If you get any bad feeling about the person(s) selling the car, you may want to skip the deal. Or, if you think the car is worth the price, arrange to complete the sale in as public a place as you can arrange. It’s not a bad idea to take a friend or two with you when going to check out a car. Bottom line: Be safe. Not everyone on Craigslist is an upstanding citizen like yourself.

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