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Buying a Car on Craigslist: A Guide to Avoid Getting Scammed

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Buying a car on Craigslist could mean major savings on an expensive purchase. But where do you start? Here’s seven tips on how to buy a car on Craigslist, from when you first start the search to when finally you pay taxes in the Department of Motor Vehicles office, including some negotiating tips and red flags to avoid.

  1. Define your search
  2. Size up the car listing
  3. Contact the seller
  4. Meet to inspect the car
  5. Negotiate
  6. Exchange the money and title
  7. Do the paperwork

Follow up and lemon laws
Red flag warnings

1. Define your search

There are a lot of vehicles listed on Craigslist. As you take a look around, determine what type of car you want and how much car you can afford, then filter the search results so it’s easier to find what you want. You can play with the filters  — maximum and minimum price, location, color, etc.  — and see what comes up.

2. Size up the car listing

When a vehicle listing catches your eye, check the photos. They should match the description and the car should not have any obvious signs of damage.

The listing should show the year, make, model and trim of the vehicle: A 2013 Toyota Corolla SE, for example. With this information, you can look up what the car is worth on Kelley Blue Book (KBB). We advise that you don’t pay more than the KBB value. If the car is massively underpriced, that’s a warning sign.

How to Spot Red Flags: You can read more about red flags at the end of this article.

3. Contact the seller

Before you go through the hassle of setting up an in-person meeting, call or text the seller to express your interest and ask for more information. You want to ask for a photo of the car’s title and a vehicle history report.

The title will show whether the car was majorly damaged and if there’s still a loan on it. You cannot legally buy or sell a car without a vehicle title. If the seller lost it, they can request a new one from the DMV.

The vehicle history report will show how many owners had the car, its maintenance record and any accidents. Reports cost about $25 to $40 from sources like Carfax and AutoCheck. If both the title and the report check out, you’ll know the car is fine in all likelihood, and can go ahead and meet the seller.

4. Meet to inspect the car

We recommend meeting the seller in the daylight in a public place with safety cameras, such as the parking lot of a large store. Walk around the car, check its oil and then drive it like you stole it (within reason) to put it through its paces. Here’s an in-depth guide on how to inspect a used car.

If any potential flags pop up, such as any funny sounds, smells or lag time in the acceleration, consider getting a mechanical safety inspection from an independent mechanic. It may cost around $100, but that money could prevent you from buying a lemon car.


5. Negotiate

To easily negotiate the price down, offer 15% below the asking price and go from there or ask for the KBB value, whichever is lower. If an inspection turns up a problem, ask the seller to deduct the cost to fix it from the car’s price. Lowballing (offering 30% less or more) could leave you standing alone without a new car.

6. Exchange the money and title

In person, carefully check the vehicle title for two things before you buy the car. First, make sure the name on the title matches the seller’s driver’s license so you know they’re the rightful owner and can actually sell it to you. Second, check that the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the title matches the one on the car, so you know you’re buying the right vehicle.

To pay the seller, you could use cash or a platform like PayPal or Venmo. Be warned that those platforms do not protect or guarantee a vehicle transaction. Once you send the money, your money’s gone. Do not use gift cards, cashier’s checks, certified checks, money orders, Western Union or a similar service.

7. Do the paperwork

Before you drive off in your new vehicle, get auto insurance. You should be able to do it on your phone through your auto insurance company’s app, on a website or by calling. Part of the paperwork you’ll likely have to present at the DMV includes proof of auto insurance.

Now for the fun part — you get to visit the DMV. To legally own the car, you have to register it in your name and transfer the title, which likely means going to the DMV to show the paperwork and pay the registration fee and any applicable taxes. After that, congratulations, you now own the car!

Follow up and lemon laws

As you go through this process, don’t be afraid to ask for a friend to come and back you up. Pay attention to your gut feelings and don’t stress if the first car you see isn’t the right one for you. More cars are posted on Craigslist every day. There are also other websites that allow you to buy from a private person, including Shift.

If you bought a lemon car by accident, here are some steps you could take to remedy the situation.

Red flag warnings

Should you pay upfront?

A scammer could ask you to pay a portion upfront to “reserve” the car or prove you’re a “serious buyer.” We recommend you not do this. The seller could take your money and never show up at the meeting.

Do the photos on the vehicle’s listing match the description?

First, there should be photos. Second, the photos should match the description. For example, if the photos show a Honda Civic, the description should not say it’s a Toyota Corolla; or if it’s supposed to be in the mountains and there are only photos of it surrounded by palm trees.

Is the seller in the country?

Even if the seller claims they’re in the military, international paperwork, taxes, tariffs and shipping (if the car is in another country as well) can be a major cost and a major pain. It’s best to avoid an international car deal.

Should you buy it RIGHT NOW?

A significant red flag is if the person tries to rush you and seems to be in a hurry or anxious. This means they don’t want you to have time to think about it or do research. They could be covering up problems or trying to sell a stolen vehicle.

Should I wire money?

Wiring money is a common way to get scammed. Money wires are largely untraceable and can be faked. If the person demands this, walk away — don’t make a deal with them.

Is the transaction protected? 

Most Craigslist car sales are not protected. Money exchange platforms like PayPal and Venmo specifically do not protect buying vehicles.

Should you give your SSN?
Do not provide your Social Security number to the seller for any reason. If you are taking out a loan, the lender will ask for it, but that has nothing to do with the seller.

Should you show your driver’s license?

It’s not usual for a seller to ask to see your driver’s license. If you want to be extra safe, you could cover up your driver’s license identification number in the photo if you want or ask for the seller to share theirs as well.

What information does the seller need?

You will need to write your full legal name and address on the title, but there’s no real need to voluntarily share that information until you finally sign a title. A seller does NOT need your bank account number, your mother’s maiden name, your employment information or a copy of your passport.


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