How To Buy a Car on Craigslist in 7 Steps

You need a cheap car. Not a car that’s cheap by dealer standards, but a bargain-priced beater that’ll get you around. The natural place to look? Craigslist.

But as soon as you click “cars+trucks,” you’re overwhelmed. You see tricked-out trucks, ancient vans, and some almost-new cars listed for suspiciously low prices. How do you find the right ride for you? Here’s the guide to buying a beater car on Craigslist in seven easy steps.

1. Don’t expect extreme bargains.

A 1995 Jeep Cherokee, running, for $800? You’ve wanted one since high school. Score! The only problem, the seller writes, is that there’s no windshield. And no radio. “And the steering wheel wobbles for some reason idk why.” Unless you’re a professional mechanic, run away from this Craigslist beater. There’s a reason it’s only $800.

With easy access to the Kelley Blue Book online and other sources for car appraisals, most car sellers on Craigslist have a pretty good idea of what their car’s worth. If you see a vehicle listed at an absurdly low price, it’s either broken down or it’s a scam.

2. When buying used cars on Craigslist, read the description carefully.

You can learn a lot from reading between the lines. Some sellers are chatty, describing every feature bumper-to-bumper. Some simply post a picture with “98 Honda Civic. $1000 OBO.”

You’re not just getting details on the car; you’re trying to get a sense of the seller. If you read a long story about how she’s selling an almost-new Ford F-150 for half its listed price because it belonged to her cheating ex-husband, be very suspicious. “The more interesting the story, the more likely the seller is trying to trick you,” notes Jason Lancaster, editor of If the language sounds oddly formal, stilted or robotic, that should raise a red flag too.

3. Call before you check out the car.

Many sellers of used cars on Craigslist instruct buyers to “text only.” This makes sense — they don’t want to be bothered by a deluge of calls — but once you’ve established contact, it’s a good idea to talk on the phone before traveling to see the vehicle. That way, you can gauge the seller’s character and whether or not he’s serious about selling the vehicle. When you do meet in person, use common sense: arrange a public meeting place and bring a friend along.

4. Insist on seeing all the paperwork.

When you’re buying a car on Craigslist from a private seller, records are crucial. Most important is the title, the legal document that establishes a vehicle’s owner and states if there are any liens. If the seller says she doesn’t have the title, ask her to apply for a replacement. Without a title, you may be buying a salvaged or stolen car. Your state may also require the seller to get an emissions test and/or an odometer disclosure statement form, or a bill of sale when the vehicle is transferred. Your local DMV can give you the list of requirements.

5. Take your time when assessing used cars on Craigslist.

The seller may try to push you into buying on the spot, but don’t let yourself be rushed. You need to test drive the vehicle and get a mechanic to look it over before committing to a purchase. “If it takes you less than 20 minutes to complete a test drive and check every function, you’re probably doing it wrong,” Lancaster says. You should also get a vehicle history report from a company such as Carfax, which provides details on past ownership, service and mileage.

6. Don’t drive too hard a bargain.

You want to get the best deal possible, but take a diplomatic approach to the negotiation process when buying a car on Craigslist. Car dealers are used to haggling; private sellers aren’t. If you lowball your offer on an already-cheap beater car, chances are the seller will lose patience and walk away.

7. To avoid Craigslist car scams, don’t accept any complicated payment schemes

“Deal locally, face-to-face —follow this one rule and avoid 99% of scam attempts,” Craigslist advises. That means you should never wire funds, give a seller your bank account information, or agree to work with a third party to transfer money. Experts differ on the best way to pay when buying a car on Craigslist. Some suggest meeting the seller at the bank and then paying cash when the title is received. Others say it’s smarter to use PayPal or a personal check so there’s a paper trail.

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