Craigslist is an amazing place to buy a car.
Not only does the company have an interestingly pure and minimalist approach to commerce that even your grandmother can utilize, but tons of local folks are selling great cars right near you, right now.
It might be easier to head down to dealership row in your town, but if you’re willing to do a little leg work and show up at someone’s house to check out their car, you can really find yourself a great vehicle and save a couple thousand dollars in the process. Here’s how.
1| Start with a broad search
Family cars owned by recent empty nesters are the cream of the crop; this is your primary target. So how do you get started? Well, hop onto Craigslist and search for cars “by-owner only.” (There are great cars at dealerships, but the diamonds are in your neighbor’s driveway.)
Although specificity can be tempting, keep an open mind and try not to sort by a specific make and model. Instead, search for the type of vehicle that fits your lifestyle (minivan, SUV, etc.).
Once presented with a bunch of cars, open another browser tab to Kelly Blue Book or Edmunds, where you can compare the owner’s asking price with the car’s market value. Be sure to select the same options listed on these sites that the Craigslist car has – or at least get as close as you can – to make the most direct and effective comparison.
2 | Ask the right questions
When you’ve narrowed your list down based on price, it’s time to start checking the vehicles out. The first step, before you make appointments to see the cars, is to talk to the seller and ask the following questions:
- How long have you owned the car? If the answer isn’t that long, there might be a reason they’re selling it so soon. If they are the original or long-term owner of the car and they have put the majority of the mileage on it, that’s good news. Don’t be scared away by a car with high mileage over 100k. Modern cars, if well cared for, can easily crest 200k or more. I recently helped a co-worker purchase a gem of a Volvo she found on Craigslist. The car looked beautiful and had well over 200k miles, but when you think about it, that’s a good thing. A car doesn’t get to 200k without some serious love and attention. The car easily had a few more years in it, and she picked it up for a song because other potential buyers were scared away by the number on the odometer.
- Did you buy the car new or used? If they are the original owner, that’s great. If not, you’ll definitely want to run a CARFAX vehicle history report to see how many owners the vehicle has had. If a car is changing hands often, it could be a sign that it’s not living up to expectations.
- What is your reason for selling? Most people have good reason to sell their car. The answer you’re looking for is one about how their lifestyle has changed and the car doesn’t fit their needs as much anymore. If the answer is that it needs “a few small maintenance items,” stay away unless you’re particularly mechanically savvy.
- Do you have maintenance records for the vehicle? If there is no maintenance history, you may not want to look at the car. People who take great care of their cars generally save receipts, especially for major services.
- Has the car ever been in an accident? Depending on the answer here, you may want to walk. If the answer is yes, your next question will be: In the front or the rear? If it’s in the front, it’s generally best to walk away.
- While you’ve owned it, was the car stored in a garage or in the driveway? It actually matters. Cars stored outside are obviously exposed to the elements, and things like seals, paint, and electrical can take a beating. Also, rodents love to get into cars that are parked outside, so just be extra careful when looking these cars over.
3 | Perform a vehicle inspection
Once you have your list of vehicles narrowed down to a few choice gems you’re interested in seeing, get yourself prepared for the inspection of the vehicle yourself. (If you’d rather take it to your trusted independent mechanic to look over, by all means do. If the seller declines a mechanic’s inspection, walk away.)
Ask the seller to have the car cold if possible when you arrive. You’ll want to see how it starts when it’s not warmed up, but you’ll also be poking around a bit and nobody wants to get burned.
Always book your appointment during daylight hours so you can see all you need to see. And remember, you’re going to want to get on the ground and crawl around, so be prepared to get dirty. Bring disposable latex gloves since you’ll need to check out the engine and you might get a little oily. It’s also necessary to bring a good flashlight.
Before you even start the car or drive it, do a mechanical and visual inspection:
- Paint and bodywork: Walk around the car and take note of dents, paint chips, and most importantly – look for rust. Some cosmetic rust is fine if you’re okay with it, but structural rust is a deal-breaker.
- Wheels and tires: Make sure that the tires all match in brand and size. Also, look for recognizable brands like Bridgestone or Continental. Cheap tire brands – like Sunny, Nankang, Pegasus, and Geostar – are making their way into the U.S. market. These tires are not only unsafe, but if someone cuts corners and equips their family car with low budget tires, it makes you wonder where else they have cut corners on maintenance.
- Brakes: While you’re checking out the wheels, have a look through the wheels at the brake pads. There should be some life left in them. Most modern cars have brake pad wear sensors, but it’s good to visually make sure there is at least ¼ inch of braking surface left on the pads.
- Exhaust: Lay down and have a look at the exhaust system under the car with your flashlight. Make sure the muffler is free from holes and the exhaust pipe looks undamaged all the way up to the engine. Make sure there are no rust-through holes.
- Under the hood: Don’t start the car yet, but open the hood and have a look around. Make sure that all wires look like they were factory-installed. This is also where you’ll check the fluids – engine oil and coolant, and brake, transmission, power steering, and transmission fluids.
- Look for wet areas in the engine bay. If you spot some wet area, use your latex gloves and check them out. Touch the spot with your finger and smell it. If it smells sweet, it’s engine coolant. Coolant leaks can lead to big trouble. If you love the car, but suspect a coolant leak, have a mechanic check out the car unless you’re confident you know where it’s coming from. If you touch a fluid and it’s slippery and has a red color, that’s transmission fluid. Transmissions are expensive to rebuild or replace, so if you see red, have your mechanic check it out to be sure it’s not a problem.
- Engine: Use your flashlight and look up and down the engine. Is it covered with oil? If so, there’s a leak somewhere. Oil leaks at the top of the engine are generally caused by a simple valve cover gasket leak, but those at the bottom or rear of the engine generally speak to more serious issues.
- Belts: Make sure the vehicle belts are tight and in good shape. Belts that appear overly worn are an indication that the owner isn’t doing routine maintenance since many shops will recommend replacing worn belts. They’re cheap to replace but can cause big trouble if they break.
4 | Take a test drive
When you’re satisfied with the external inspection of the car, start it up. Have the door open or roll the window down so you can listen for any out-of-the-ordinary noises upon startup. With the car running, open the hood and have a look, listen, and smell.
You’re looking for evidence of smoke in the engine bay, you’re listening for anything out of the ordinary like a “tick, tick, tick” that sounds louder than what you’d normally expect. A little clicking when a cold car starts is usually fine, but it should dissipate as the car warms up and everything gets sufficiently lubricated.
Once you’re satisfied up front head around to the back and check out the exhaust. Some water vapor coming out is fine on startup, but you should watch for smoke and, more importantly, coolant. If there is any white smoke, waft it with your hand to your nose and smell it. A sweet smell means the car is burning coolant and that’s indicative of a head gasket issue. This, coupled with coolant in the engine bay, could mean problems.
When you’re done with these steps and you’re still feeling like the car is the right one for your family, it’s finally time to drive. If the car has an automatic transmission, make sure it’s going through the gears without any pops or bangs. It should shift smoothly. If the car revs too high before shifting and then pops into gear, it could mean the transmission is nearing the end of its life.
A few test drive tips:
- Keep the radio off since you’ll be listening for weird noises.
- Be sure you get the car on the highway and up to speed.
- Hit the brakes, slowing the car from highway speed down to zero. Take note of any pulsation in the brake pedal or shimmy in the wheel while you do this. These symptoms are indicative of brake rotor issues. If a car needs brake work, that’s not a reason to walk away since brakes are a relatively easy thing to fix as long as the rest of the car is up to snuff.
- Go somewhere you can make tight turns while listening out the window for any weird noises. You’re listening for pops, squeaks, whines, or bangs that could indicate suspension or power steering issues.
- Find a parking lot and make sure everything works. Press every button; turn on the A/C and make sure it blows cold; work all of the wipers; try all of the door handles, windows, and the trunk or hatch release. Basically, you want to make sure every single thing works. Take note of items that do not so you can inform the seller. These items – however minute – are your leverage in a negotiation. Keep in mind though, you don’t want to kill a deal on a great car for a small issue that you believe will be a quick fix.
Have a look at the maintenance records that the seller has provided. You’re not worried about the little things like oil changes. Focus on the bottom line and look for anything over $250. Almost all repair orders show a date and mileage of the car when the service was completed.
Outside of oil changes, belts, hoses, and brakes, the major things you’re looking for in cars over or nearing 100k miles are the timing belt and water pump service. Typically this would be done on most engines somewhere between 90-100k miles. If the seller doesn’t have a receipt for it, pop the hood again and look around. Sometimes a service shop will write the date they did the service under the hood on the radiator cowl.
If you’re still reading this post 2,000 words later, you’re definitely ready to get out there and find a family car on Craigslist. There are deals to be had in the neighborhoods around your house if you’re willing to get your hands dirty. And it doesn’t hurt to know a little more about the car you’re driving than just how to put gas in it.