Buying a Car on Craigslist? Here Are 4 Things You Need to Do First.

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Last updated Apr 25, 2023

As if buying a car wasn’t difficult enough, buying a car on craigslist, eBay, or from any private party ads an additional layer of complexity. Knowing you are buying a car that is reliable and safe is one concern. Making sure you get a fair price is yet another. At the end of the day, buying a car private-party poses many of the same challenges you experience when purchasing from a dealer, and then some!

That’s why we decided to take the time to draft this guide to buying a car on craigslist (or similar peer to peer websites). The last thing you want to do is get taken advantage of, and by reading through this guide, you’ll be more prepared as you navigate your buying process.

Without further ado, let’s dive in! And, as always, if you’d prefer to watch instead of read, you can click “play” on the video up above.

Check the title of the car

It may come as a surprise, but the first thing you need to confirm is that the seller of the vehicle is actually the owner of the vehicle. Yes, people sell cars without owning them, and when they inevitably get caught, you’ll be the one who no longer has a car. That “great deal” you see on craigslist? Yeah, there’s a chance that’s because the person selling it isn’t actually the person who owns it!

I’d sell a car cheaply (and quickly) if I wasn’t the actual owner of it! Sure, when you buy a car from a car dealership you don’t have to worry about confirming that the name on the title of the vehicle matches the person selling it to you, but when you purchase from a private party, you certainly do.

How can you confirm that the seller of the vehicle is the true owner of the vehicle? Simply ask for a copy of the vehicle title and a copy of the seller’s driver’s license. The two names should match. If the title is in someone else’s name but they have “signed off” on the back of the title, that isn’t good enough. The current owner needs to take the signed off title to the state and get a new title in their name.

Once the vehicle title and the seller’s identification match, you can purchase the vehicle without hesitation.

Get a CARFAX or VIN history report

Let’s say the car you’re interested in is being sold lawfully by the current owner. Great, now what? The first thing I would recommend is that you call your insurance company and tell them you are interested in purchasing a vehicle, and that you were wondering if they could run the VIN to see what history they are able to pull on it.

Insurance companies are in the business of maximizing their profits, and one way they do that is by keeping track of every vehicle on the road to make sure they are able to charge a fair price to insure it. That being said, insurance companies have access to much more robust systems than you and I, and as a customer, you are well within your right to call them and ask for their help in assessing the history of a vehicle.

Of course you can also check the Carfax on the vehicle, however, as we have discussed in recent videos on YouTube, a vehicle’s Carfax is only as good as the information Carfax was able to receive. At the end of the day, a vehicle’s Carfax is not entirely accurate, and frequently key service and repair records will not be available on the report. Carfax reports are also not “realtime,” meaning that there are sometimes serious delays in when an event happens, and when it ultimately appears on the Carfax report.

Our recommendation is that you work with your insurance company to get their full history report on a VIN before purchasing a Carfax or AutoCheck report. However, what is most important to understand is that you need to get some VIN history on the vehicle before purchasing it.

Get a pre-purchase inspection

The history of a vehicle is critically important, however, there is something that is even more necessary for you to consider before buying a car on craigslist or a similar peer-to-peer website; a pre-purchase inspection.

Buying a used car is a crapshoot. Whether you’re buying a used car on craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or from the local car dealership, you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. As I like to say, “no two used cars are the same.”

With that in mind, the worst thing you can do is blindly purchase a used car without ever having a qualified mechanic look it over. Buying a used car without a pre-purchase inspection is like buying a house without a home inspection. You just don’t do it.

This is especially true when buying a car from a private party. What warranty does the individual selling the car have to you? None! If they sell you a piece of junk, and you don’t realize it, there are very few repercussions for them. At least when you buy from a dealership you can go to the Better Business Bureau and leave online reviews. When you buy a car on craigslist and it turns out to be a clunker, what can you do? Not much.

This is why getting a pre-purchase inspection is an absolute necessity. Read our full guide to pre-purchase inspections here.

Negotiate a fair price

Last but not least, make sure you negotiate a fair price for the car you are buying. Sometimes people think that just because they are purchasing a car from a private party, they can’t negotiate on the price. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Cars, trucks, and SUVs are some of the few commodities that we negotiate on in the United States. Just because you are dealing with a private party, and not a dealership, doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t negotiate on price.

If your mechanic notices worn brake pads, or the need for new tires during the pre-purchase inspection, be sure to use that as negotiating leverage. Also, do your research on local market conditions for similar vehicles. The CarEdge Market Price Report should be helpful for you to see what other similar cars are selling for.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you enroll in Deal School to learn more about how to specifically negotiate a fair car deal.


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