People are buying lots of things on Craigslist – including cars.  Dealing with an individual is much different than dealing with an established auto dealer so do your homework and walk away if things don’t feel right.

Assessment of the Ad

There are many red flags for you to look out for in the advertisement a seller posts on Craigslist.

Light on graphics/ bad graphics/ dealer graphics– If the seller doesn’t provide at least 2 images (preferably more) that are clear and not from the dealer.

Shady description– If the description is too short, too vague, too good to be true, all caps, full of bad grammar, profanity, or in general not thorough and descriptive.

Unique requests– If the seller has a unique request like, “I’m out of town, so we’ll have to do this over the internet”, or “can only meet at my house”, or “can only accept wire transfer or cashier’s check”.

Description leaves out important details– The description at a minimum should include make, model, year, odometer reading, and whether the vehicle has a clean or restructured title.

Then, if all these boxes have been checked you’re ready to make contact.

The Contact

Start with text or email, but make sure to speak over the phone before arranging a meeting. This is another way for you to figure out if you’re dealing with a creepy or sketchy person, or a regular one.

Ask a few simple questions. Start by asking them why they’re selling the car and whether there are any problems with it.

Scheduling the Meeting.

Make sure the person is straight forward. It’s no fun to deal with someone who is flaky or non-committal. If they aren’t willing to commit to a convenient meeting time, let it go. Don’t get dragged along.

Meet somewhere public. Your meeting location should be somewhere that’s well lit and has a lot of foot traffic, like a grocery store parking lot.

Bring a friend. Your friend is there partially for safety, but it also helps if you bring someone who knows about cars if you don’t.


At the Meet Up

Take a test drive. A good test drive will take you on the highway, side roads, good roads and bad roads. Test the breaks, acceleration, and suspension. This should take at least 20 minutes. If it doesn’t take you at least that much time, you probably didn’t get a chance to fully test out the various aspects of the vehicle. Make sure to listen for funny noises like clicks, creeks, and thumps. Also, pay attention to any lights lit up on the dash.

Ask to see the vehicle’s registration – Make sure the person who you’re standing in front of owns the vehicle. It might be good to let them know that you’ll be asking for this ahead of time. Also, make sure there’s a clean title, if there’s any doubt about ownership- walk.

Ask for an inspection.  Most mechanics provide a vehicle inspection for between $75-150. It’ll be up to you, as the buyer, to foot the bill for this. If they give you any push back, it might be time to walk away.

Look for hallmarks of criminal activity. Are the exterior locks punched in or damaged? Is the steering column damaged? Does the car only start with a non-standard key? Is the VIN plate missing or defaced? These are all red flags for stolen vehicles and fraudulent activity.


When You’ve Decided You Want to Buy

Start negotiating. Make sure you’ve done your research ahead of time and know what the fair market value is for the vehicle. See our articles on negotiation to learn how to score the best deal.


The Exchange

Assuming everything checks out and you’re ready to swap green for pink, you can’t find a better location for the trade than your Credit Union. In addition to being on home turf for your money, WECU has a notary public on staff who can witness signatures and emboss the bill of sale or other paperwork. 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 thousand dollars.