Not Get Scammed on Craigslist when Buying a Used Car

Looking for a good, used car on Craigslist, but don't want to make a bad investment? Here are some tips you can use to make your car buying experience a successful adventure.


  1. Determine what kind of car you are interested in and specify the make and model in the Craigslist search engine. Also select the options for "By Owner" and "Has Title".
  2. Call the number listed with the car you are interested in. Ask if the person you are speaking to is the legal owner of the car and if they currently have the title to it. You need to speak to the owner of the vehicle.
  3. Ask what state the car is titled and registered in, then type this information into your search engine and select the appropriate state DMV (Department of Motor Vehicle) website to see whether there are any special registration requirements in that particular state, such as smog testing, or roadworthy vehicle maintenance requirements. Ask the owner if they have documentation to prove that their vehicle would pass any such testing requirements as it sits. Ask for the expiration date on their current registration. You need to know if you'll have to shell out additional monies to bring the car up to specifications before you can register it, should you choose to purchase it.
  4. Ask the owner if the car has a clean title (meaning that the car is paid off in full and has no liens against it) and what the odometer reading is, currently. Open a new browser and select a service record/accident reporting service website. Key in the Vin number and check for any accidents/repairs that might indicate that the car is likely to have serious mechanical or structural problems. Look for a previous "Salvage" title on the vehicle and the most recent odometer reading. It is more difficult to register and insure a vehicle with a "Salvage" title, and a vehicle with high mileage (high odometer reading) may require more expensive maintenance and repairs in order to get it to, or keep it in roadworthy condition.
  5. If the owner has provided you with accurate information up to this point, schedule a time to go and examine the vehicle. Make sure you see the vehicle during the daytime and can spare up to an hour to examine it yourself, and have a mechanic check it over for you.
  6. For your safety and that of the owner, arrange to examine the vehicle in the parking lot of a supermarket or mall. This will afford you the opportunity to arrive early and observe the owner driving the vehicle into the lot. As they arrive, you should be looking for things like: Is there smoke coming from the vehicle? Is the vehicle making any strange knocking or ticking noises? Do the breaks or tires squeal as they turn into a parking space and come to a stop? When the owner turns the vehicle ignition off, does the car immediately stop running, or does it make odd choking/knocking noises? And finally, what does the owner do when they exit the vehicle (assuming they have not seen you yet)? Does he or she wipe down the car to ensure it looks sparkly? Or does the man or woman grab a bottle out of the car and pop the hood to top off fluids?
  7. If you've noticed no problems with the vehicle while it was being driven, and the owner hasn't added anything under the hood (or otherwise behaved suspiciously) when they got out, approach the owner and introduce yourself. Ask to see the title and registration and compare them with any inspection stickers you may find on the windshields of the vehicle. Note any discrepancies and question the owner about them. If in doubt about who the car is titled and registered to, ask for the owner's drivers license and the vehicle insurance paperwork. If there is any discrepancy, regardless of your feelings about the person or vehicle, find another car. The name should be the same (signature included) on each piece of documentation.
  8. If everything appears to be legitimate about the vehicle paperwork and the owner, ask for the keys and begin inspecting the vehicle. Walk around the vehicle and visually inspect each tire and wheel well. Look for signs of tire weakness or failure. Run your hand over each tire, feeling for uneven tread wear. (this may indicate poor wheel alignment gone unchecked, or worse, a wracked car frame causing uneven contact between the tires and the ground). Stand at the front corner of each side of the vehicle and look down the body for indications of dents or abnormalities in the body that might indicate a previously damaged vehicle. Such indications might include: wavy body panels, inconsistencies in the paint texture or shine, inconsistent rust patterns, or a suddenly way-too-talkative owner. At the front and rear of the vehicle, kneel down and look under the vehicle. At the front, look for a different paint color or overspray consistent with the vehicle paint color. Look at the inside line between the front and back tire on each side of the vehicle for obvious alignment problems or evidence that the car has been in a frame-wracking crash. Make sure all light lenses are in good condition. At the rear of the vehicle, examine the first few inches of the tailpipe with a flashlight. Look for rust or holes, then examine the length of the pipe for defects such as missing clamps, holes, excessive rust. While you're on your knees, examine the entire undercarriage of the vehicle for rust, failing pieces (even if you're unsure what each piece actually is), and deep scrapes or scratches that indicate significant impact against the underside of the vehicle.
  9. As you inspect the vehicle, listen to what the owner is telling you. Often, while you're looking closely at their vehicle, an owner who's neglected to mention problems he or she is aware of, will begin acknowledging, or even pointing out indications of an accident, repairs, or damage done to the vehicle, and provide you with details that can help you decide whether the vehicle is a good investment.
  10. If you see no problems with the outer side and underside of the vehicle, take the keys and open each door of the vehicle, trunk and hood included. Upon opening each cabin door, check to ensure that the windows and locks perform properly and that the glass is solid. Inside the driver's side door, on the frame of the vehicle, you should find a sticker with the vehicle's Vin number stamped on it; compare this number with the Vin number the owner has provided you. Examine the interior, and atop and under the seats for rust (a window, windshield or sunroof leak left unrepaired for a period of time will result in rust on the interior fabrics that is difficult to remove. If you see any, feel along the gasket of adjacent windows for signs of weakness or failure). In the trunk, look for signs of rust, loose compartments, missing or damaged spare tire/tire changing equipment.
  11. Now that the car has been driven and parked for a few minutes, proceed to the engine compartment and kneel down with your flashlight to look on the ground and underbody of the vehicle for any drips or leaks. If you spot nothing, get up and start your examination under the hood. Look for any visible sign of a bent frame near the grill area, then examine the radiator for damage to the screen or holes. If nothing else of the engine is visible, ask the owner for any repair and maintenance records they might have and where they have their vehicle serviced. Look for indications in the records that the motor or transmission has been changed.
  12. Ask the owner to drive the vehicle to the service station you've selected to examine the vehicle. Follow them to the service center and observe how the car drives and how the owner drives it. If, at leaving red lights, the owner punches it instead of driving normally, make a note to ask your mechanic to check for potential transmission problems. If the owner has to re-start the vehicle at any time during the drive, be wary. Watch for braking problems and steering problems. If the car looks like it is crabbing down the roadway, like the front and back tires are not in a straight line, the car frame needs thorough inspection for significant frame damage.
  13. Talk to your mechanic openly in front of the owner, if possible. Relate what the owner has told you about the vehicle and ask if what he or she sees is consistent with what you've been told. Ask them if they would buy the vehicle for the price the owner is asking, and how much it will likely cost you to make any necessary repairs to the vehicle.
  14. Take the vehicle for a brief test drive to ensure that everything is in good working order and to your liking.
  15. Upon returning, step away from the vehicle and owner with the excuse of making a brief phone call to your spouse or significant other regarding the vehicle. Take a moment to gather your thoughts and process what you've heard and seen regarding the vehicle. If, after a few moments, you feel unsure and hesitant, thank the owner and proceed no further. If, on the other hand, you are certain that this is the right car for you, at nearly the right price, return to the owner and make him or her an offer to purchase the vehicle. Use the information you've gained from your examination of the vehicle and your mechanic's advice to negotiate with the owner until you agree on a purchase amount.
  16. If you have the money to make the purchase, finalize the deal and have the owner write you a receipt with his or her signature affixed next to the date. Make sure you have the title to the vehicle signed and dated by the owner and by you before you leave. Under no circumstances should anyone except you drive the vehicle from this moment forward. The owner will need to make arrangements to return him or herself home, but it would be unwise for you to accompany them, or provide them with a ride.


  • Take someone with you when you go to inspect the vehicle.
  • Ask the owner if anyone will be accompanying them to your meeting.
  • Keep your cell phone in your hand while in the presence of this stranger.
  • Dial up a friend or relative and tell them where you are, why, and describe the vehicle owner, his or her vehicle make and model, and their license plate number (provide good descriptions of anyone who comes with the owner, as well). Tell the owner you have done this to ensure your safe return home. Before you move to any location other than the initial meeting place, phone your friend or relative and keep them on the line until you reach your destination safely. Call again, whether you purchased the vehicle or not, and inform your friend or relative that you are finished with your meeting and are en-route to their location.
  • Do not drive directly to your home following the purchase of the vehicle. Go instead to the DMV and complete the vehicle registration process. This will deter the owner (if not such a good person after all) from following you for any nefarious reason.
  • If you know you must return to your home directly from your meeting with the vehicle owner, wait at the mechanic's service station until they have departed. Take a picture of them in the vehicle they leave in, discretely. Should you have any subsequent trouble with him or her, you can provide the image to your local police officials.
  • Buying a used vehicle is an "As Is" purchase. There is no implied warranty, so evaluate your purchase carefully before handing over your money.
  • Be wary of a seller, or anyone who accompanies them, prying into your personal business. Follow the: "If they pry, I lie." policy when it comes to questions regarding your dating or marital status, income level, where you work, or what neighborhood you live in.

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