The Six Stages of Buying a Cheap Craigslist Car
Get in loser, we’re going shopping.
Today we're going to discuss the intricacies of browsing, selecting, inspecting, and purchasing a car you found on Craigslist, one of my favorite pastimes. The site isn't quite as wild as it used to be, now that listing a car for sale costs $5, but it's still one of the best tools for finding cheap and interesting vehicles for sale.
Chris Rosales is an author at Car Bibles, a coming-soon sister site to The Drive focusing on automotive adventures and DIY tips to help you get the most out of your car. Since (almost) every project begins with Craigslist window shopping, I figured a guide on that would be a great intro to our site! -- Andrew P. Collins, Car Bibles EIC
I’ve purchased and sold about 14 cars on Craigslist (so far!) and made every mistake a reasonable (perhaps even... unreasonable) person could make. So for your entertainment and education, I’m going to break down my experiences as the The Six Stages of Buying a Cheap Craigslist Car here.
Stage One: Browsing
First things first, you need to think of something you've been aching to blow your money away on. For me, that begins either one of two ways: Either I'm browsing the internet after hydrating with White Claws all day or, whenever I stumble across a redline pull of a BMW M-car or Honda (depends on the mood I'm in) on the YouTubes. If all else fails, I have my personal fleet of must-haves I fall back on for daily browsing.
- Enter budget (higher gets you cooler stuff, lower is more fun),
- Desired transmission type (manual),
- And your preferred badge if you would like.
There are a few third-party sites like AutoTempest (BRZO is, alas, no more) that let you search multiple Craigslist regions at once. But if you don't feel like dealing with them, you can always just replace the name of the city in the URL on your search page. Once you become obsessed with window shopping, you'll have your favorites memorized in no time anyway.
My methodology is to trip over myself texting the owner of first cleanish example of European garbage I can find. This is how I've almost bought a few Phaetons, a Peugeot or two, and actually bought two BMWs that placed me on the precipice of financial disaster.
If you're seriously searching, a few seemingly trivial but actually important ad-vetting tips:
Look for good grammar and spelling in an ad. You want to buy a car from a cogent and thorough owner. Every ad that I’ve seen with obvious grammar errors usually results in a fairly pointless conversation with the seller where questions aren't answered, dreams are crushed, and grand plans go to die.
The second thing I look for is more typical red flags: salvage titles, short ownership periods, glaring omissions of mileage, title status, or bad photos, inconsistencies within the text of the ad or between the ad and photos, and even things that are too good to be true. Also, beware the seller casually mentioning issues between-the-lines in ads. They don't really need to clarify "the subframe is completely fine bro" in their E46 BMW ad, or "this car has absolutely NOT been drifted" in their Nissan 240SX ad.
Once you find something you do like, and everything at least mostly passes the above-described muster, it's time to contact a seller. At least, if you're really ready to graduate from window shopping to risking real money.
Stage 2: Talking To Strangers
Contact the seller through the preferred method of Craigslist communication, usually a mildly sketchy late-night text. Open the dialogue with some questions about the car and its history. More importantly, get a vibe for the seller. If you can speak to them over the phone, that works best. Texting is temping because it's easy, but it's also easy to ignore. On the phone, the seller has less time to calculate responses, consequently you get more honest information. Also, you can get a clearer read on their elusive vibes. Feel out what kind of owner they are, how knowledgeable they are about the car, and gauge their enthusiasm for the car, or even the sale. Sometimes, if they're overly willing or motivated to sell, it can be a red flag that the car is not as-represented.
Establish a repertoire, and finally, set a date and time to see the vehicle. It's important at this stage to be cognizant of two things: The location of the meeting, and the time of day when the meeting will happen.
You want to pick somewhere safe to see the car, somewhere public at the very least. A familiar location with familiar roads would be ideal, but cars are usually slightly remote from where you live. Generally, I like to be close to a freeway or highway so I can get the car up to speed, some city streets to verify low-speed drivability, and some bumpy roads to eek out suspension faults.
It's best to view a car during the day. Reason being, you want to see any cosmetic faults. Make sure you meet in a well-lit area at least, and take a look at the car from varying distances and angles. It will reveal any differences in shades of paint, indicating previous repair.
Stage 3: Meeting The Car
I like to arrive early to any meeting. You can have a zealous listen to some music, grumble about lateness, and really think about your bad car-buying decisions. It's good to witness the car being driven in by the owner, and see if anything is dripping, falling off of, smoking, or vaping (in the case of Subaru) from the car. Make your introductions, and begin your inspection. First thing I do, is turn the car off, and start it up again. This is to make sure the battery, charging system, and starter is functioning correctly. I then pop the hood, and begin a visual of the engine.
I'm always more suspicious of a clean or recently detailed engine bay. I prefer to see the the grime and build up, and get familiar with where the engine weeps oil, or leaks coolant. Do some prior research on your car of choice, and make sure to inspect any problem areas thoroughly. Take a look underneath the car. If there's an undertray, it will be tough to spot anything. Just make sure there aren't any obvious signs of bottoming out or hectic stance. If there's no undertray, then have a good look around with a flashlight. Look for leaks, or any oil droplets forming. Run the engine while you poke around, listen for strange noises. A lot of modern cars sound pre-broken with the advent of direct injection, and some engines are just noisy. If you're unsure about any noise, leak, or fault, I'd recommend a proper pre-purchase inspection.
Take it out for a test drive, and give it a mild squeeze. Don't abuse the car, don't put anyone in danger, but explore the car in a safe, reasonable manner. Make sure that all the power is there, no misfires or strange running. Find a highway, and get the car up to speed. Feel out any vibrations, make sure the car tracks straight, and really explore the range of the throttle. Try to throw as many driving situations at the car as possible, and make sure that the car responds well to transient inputs. Owners don't usually respond well to full-bore redline pulls, but sometimes you'll get a freak who encourages it. Somehow, I end up buying those cars because the owners are too rad.
As a bonus, ask the owner if they would allow minor disassembly, i.e. the four 10mm bolts to check a Subaru timing belt, or removing the undertray if permissible. Don't count on it though, most owners are gonna be pretty protective of their cars, especially the bolts that hold them together. I usually ask before I go in for my second meeting with the owner, before I buy it. Usually, the stuff you'll find is inconsequential and cheap to repair, but for a European car, I highly recommend finding a way to get a look under there, even if it takes a professional inspection.
Everything checks out? Move on to purchasing the car!
Stage 4: Wheeling And Dealing
Now that you've decided to buy this car you met online, it's time t o lock it down. Even if the car checks out to your eyes, I still strongly recommend getting a pre-purchase inspection from a pro. A trusted workshop can find sneaky issues, which can be the most expensive to repair, and do more comprehensive diagnostics like compression and leak down tests. Even just getting the car on a lift offers a completely different perspective than just climbing under it with a flashlight.
First things first, make sure that the title is present and legitimate and the information on it matches the seller's legal information. This is critical. No title, no reckless spending for you. Negotiation is down to personal preference. I always reference my offers on current market prices, and on any defects the car may have. Be aware of the asking price relative to anything you find; sometimes cars are already priced pretty fairly. Most of the time, however, there is room to haggle. Some would say, there is always room to haggle. Car Bibles' very own Kevin Williams has this sage advice: "...being kind and polite has always gotten me the best deal. No one likes an asshole."
The most important part of any car transaction is the verification of ownership. Verify that the VIN matches on the car and title. Different states present different information on titles, so be sure to know about your specific requirements.
In California, we simply sign the title in a few places to transfer ownership. The seller will fill out a Release of Liability (this can be done online) which basically says "the car doesn't belong to me any more, don't blame me for tickets." In the Golden State it's also the sellers responsibility to smog (emissions-inspect) the car before passing it on. Take the smog certificate and the title to the DMV, pay the requisite fees, and the car is yours!
Other states have slight variations on the process, but every state issues titles to cars and very few states make it easy to register a new-to-you vehicle without one.
Stage 5: The Honeymoon
Now you get to take your new regre- er, car, home! And yes, everyone feels just a touch of buyers remorse with every new purchase. Did you really get the best deal? Would it have been better to keep the cash?
Just enjoy the first rip home, and revel in your new accomplishment. The first few days for me are fun, of course... but I usually just find myself scribbling everything I want to get sorted in a notebook for the first month. That's the most fun, and most painful time in your car ownership. The constant anxiety of "I don't trust this thing" and the thrilling rush of "Wow, I really don't trust this thing!" That seesaw of terror and excitement are probably too closely related to be a coincidence. Probably like that cliché about love and hate being the same thing – just be ready for the ride.
Stage 6: Hard Realities
From the soaring peaks, there will be a moment when the bubble bursts, the curtains close, the enchantment lifts and that single drop of oil hits your eye under the car: The dreaded first major problem. Don't get too discouraged! A car is just a machine. Well, a series of machines working together. Kind of. Point is, most problems can be overcome.
The way you build the bond with it and make it human, is by sorting it, fixing, and making it your own. For every time it "marks its territory" at the local Cars & Coffee, give it just a little more love. Take it from me, the lows can be brutally low, but once they're over, once time has healed the wound and you're rushing through mountain air on Angeles Crest Highway, it's all worth it.
Chris Rosales is an author at Car Bibles, a coming-soon sister site to The Drive focusing on practical tips and DIY advice to help you get the most out of your car. Look for a freshly redesigned Car Bibles in early 2021. Meanwhile check us out on Twitter, IG, and Facebook. Actually LinkedIn too, if you're on there.
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