How to Buy a Used Car on Craigslist | Dick Hannah Dealerships

How to Buy a Used Car on Craigslist

How to Buy a Used Car on Craigslist

You’re looking to buy a used car and made the decision that Craigslist is the best purchase option for you. But you also might be wondering how to buy a used car on Craigslist at the same time. Below we’ll cover the basics of buying a used car on Craigslist, how to spot a scam on Craigslist, tips on how to safely buy a used car on Craigslist, and more. Buckle up as we tackle the used car scene on Craigslist.

Buying Cars from a Dealer vs a Private Seller – Is Craigslist a good place to buy a car

If you are shopping for a used car you’ve probably been looking at sites like, and These are great resources to find a used car to buy from both a private party and from dealers. If you are wanting to buy from a private party over a dealer then Craigslist could be the way to go as the listings there are predominantly private parties. But what is the difference between buying from a dealer versus a private party? It all boils down to ease and history.

Reputation – Who to Trust

Reputation is everything in the automotive industry. If a dealer is known for high prices, selling junkers, lying about car history, and low customer service then there won’t be a lot of people willing to buy from them. They’ll have damaged their reputation to a point where they may not be able to recover from it. Private parties don’t have the same concern. They’re not a full-time car salesperson, they don’t have to maintain an outstanding reputation. Dealers are more likely to go out of their way to solve problems for you that may arise after your purchase, while your private seller will most likely do their best to avoid you.

Vehicle History – Who knows it best? 

When it comes to vehicle history a dealer might come up a little short in that department. The seller likely knows the ins and outs of the car giving them an edge over dealers who go through thousands of used cars per year. Sites like Carfax and AutoCheck provide some history on a car but the private seller can give you even more information about how the car drives and whatnot. At the end of the day, you will have to decide how much you trust the seller, but a Carfax report will at least get you started.

Financing – Your Buying Options

There are some significant differences between financing a used car and financing a new car. Interest rates can be higher and some banks or credit unions might not even finance vehicles past a certain age or mileage.

Additionally, there is one major factor that could hamper financing a used car from a private seller; some banks or credit unions won’t finance a vehicle that is bought from a private party. Banks are much more suspicious than you or I. They worry that the seller won’t sufficiently describe the vehicle’s condition. The car could have a serious problem that wasn’t disclosed and then you, the buyer, could walk away from the loan, leaving the bank with a worthless car. Also, banks worry about the potential for fraud with private sellers, which means they will only deal with trustworthy dealers.

Price – Private Party is the Way to Go

To get the best possible deal on a used car, go with a private party seller. A dealer has a price point to make a profit on each vehicle they sell and they aren’t usually all that flexible in the price. A private seller doesn’t have the same restrictions. Private sellers are usually trying to sell their old vehicle to buy a new one, and that means they are more open to negotiating just so they can sell the car quicker. It all boils down to how fast they want to get out of their current car and into their new car.

Dealer vs Private – Who Wins?

In the end, it all boils down to trust. There are pluses and minuses to buying from both a dealer and a private party. If you do your homework then you should be good to go.
Next, we get into the process as it pertains to buying a car via Craigslist.

What to do Before You Shop – How to Buy a Used Car on Craigslist


The first thing you need to do when you are looking to buy a car is to figure out your budget. Your budget is everything, it helps provide realistic guides in terms of price and total monthly costs. If you have a $500 monthly budget for not only your car but also gas, insurance, etc. then the dollars you can spend on the car itself is much lower than the $500 you started with.

Learn more about setting a budget in our blog post: How Much Should I Spend on a Used Car?

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Scams are something you may have to deal with when buying a used car on Craigslist. Here are some red flags and tips to help you avoid scams while buying a car:

Common Red Flags

  • If the price of a used car on Craigslist is too good to be true, then it probably is. Prices below market price are often the bait to get you to make contact so the fraudsters can start trying to sell you a car that may not even exist.
  • To buy it sight unseen is another big red flag that is usually tied to the below-market value red flag. That rare or exotic car you found on Craigslist that is thousands below what it usually goes for is suddenly in a different state. They’ll ask you to wire them the money to purchase the car so they can ship it to you. Then, magically, once you wire the money the seller and the listing suddenly disappear.
  • If the seller wants to use an escrow service to purchase the car it may seem legit but be wary. They can attempt to trick you to use a fake escrow service, ask you to transfer the money before shipping the car, and then break the contract once the funds have cleared.

Tips to Avoid Scames

It goes without saying that as the buyer you are the target for scam artists. Here are a few tips to keep you and your money safe.

  • Always have the car inspected by a mechanic you trust or at a respected location. Even mention to the service center that you are considering buying the car and want to ensure everything looks good.
  • Online marketplaces don’t guarantee sales. Craigslist, along with eBay and other online marketplaces, never guarantees sales and they don’t ensure that the seller is legit. Walk away if the person selling the car tries to convince you otherwise.
  • Check for liens. A lien on a car gives the bank or credit union to claim the vehicle if the loan is unpaid. It doesn’t matter if you bought it from someone, they technically own the car so they can come to get it whether it is their driveway or yours.
  • Vehicle history check. A vehicle history report can cost you a little bit of money but it can save you A LOT of money if the car ends up being a lemon. Always do a check, you don’t want to buy a vehicle only to be driving around and have it just randomly quit on you.

Time to Buy – How to Buy a Used Car on Craigslist

Craigslist has plenty of useful filters to sort out what kind of car you are looking for. You can sort by private sellers, dealers, or both to ensure that you are looking at the kinds of vehicles that are of interest to you. While going through dealers means it is going to be a very straightforward process, but you can save some money focusing on private sellers, but also you run into some of the risks we mentioned above.

It is a great idea to have an idea of what your budget is, what kind of car or truck you are looking for, and think about the other things that may be important in your car purchase.

Here are a few things that might be worth considering

  • Features – Something as simple as power windows or having a CD player may be something you want to look for.
  • Warranty – If you are going through a dealer you might be able to get a used car warranty similar to our Peace of Mind Promise
  • History – Was this car purchased on the other side of the country, has it been totaled, or anything else along those lines
  • Miles – If you are looking for a budget used car you may not be too focused on how many miles the car or truck has, but it is something you want to take into consideration
  • Number of Owners – Some folks find extra value in buying a car from the original owner. This gives a better idea of how it was taken care of and what kind of driving has been done with it.

Examine the car listing carefully

When shopping on Craigslist you are likely going to be looking at multiple cars and it is good to know what to look for in the listings.

First, you will want to take a close look at the pictures. Are the pictures blurry? If they are blurry is it to hide defects? Do the photos actually look like the owner took them or are they stock images? One thing that I will often look for in images is photos highlighting the defects. This shows they are not hiding everything from you with careful image choices.

Next, you’ll want to take a look at the text of the ad. You’ll want to keep an eye out for semi-snarky comments that highlight features that aren’t really that exciting. For example, terms like “Stops on a dime” or “Drives Smooth” really don’t mean much, look for “Brakes replaced recently” or “New Tires” to give you more information about the car.

First Contact

You’ve found the car you are looking to buy. You’ve checked the listing for red flags. Now it’s time to make contact. Call first. We know, texting is the common form of communication nowadays but calling will allow you to put a voice behind the name. It also allows you to ask the big questions right away instead of waiting to hear back via text. Ask for service records to be sent to you, and the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to run a vehicle history report, etc. This is your chance to answer preliminary questions before you take an hour or more to drive across town to see the car.

Meet & Greet

It used to be that the buyer was responsible to meet the seller at the desired location. However, the standard has changed to meet at an agreed-upon place, usually at the mid-point for both of you. The best course of action is to meet in a public place with a good amount of foot traffic, preferably one that may have security cameras on site.

Never have cash on you and if you can, bring a friend. If you are needing to make the transaction right away after the test drive then meet at a bank so you can have the bank cut you a cashier’s check.

Inspect the vehicle and its history

While the seller may be very forthright and honest with their assessment of the vehicle they are selling, but there may be some things they have missed, may not know about, or in the worst case they are hiding from you.

The first thing we suggest is getting a CarFax Report for the vehicle. This will give you a solid look at the history of the vehicle. If the CarFax and the seller don’t line up exactly that isn’t a huge deal, but pay attention to major discrepancies along the lines of nature disasters and thefts.

It isn’t a bad idea to consider getting an independent inspection. Most mechanics will do these inspections fairly inexpensively and they will check all the most common issues that cars can run into. If you are looking at an older model with lots of miles on it, you should have a pretty good idea of what kind of things need to be watched you can likely skip this step. But, if you are looking to purchase a car with fewer miles that you want to use as a daily driver, it is in your best interest to get this done. If you don’t have a mechanic you trust you can visit any Dick Hannah Dealerships’ service location to help you identify any problems the vehicle might have.


It is safe to assume that, unless the mention price is firm, there is little room for negotiation for a used car on Craigslist. Consider what your budget is, what they are asking, and what the KBB value of the vehicle is. When you have a general idea of the value vs asking price that will give you a great place to start. Next, when you make your initial offer, expect a counteroffer, and don’t insult the seller with an absurdly low bid. You can be pretty safe asking for 15 to 20% lower than the asking price and starting from there, and if your budget is tight, don’t be afraid to walk away, and do so in a pleasant manner. Even if you and the seller don’t agree on a price, that doesn’t mean it is a dead end. They may get no other askers and could reach out to you later if their mind changes.

The Test Drive

You always want to get behind the wheel after giving the car a once or twice or thrice over. During the test drive make sure that you are comfortable driving it. Also, keep an eye (or ear) out for any mechanical issues you can feel or weird noises while driving.
For more of a breakdown on what to look for during the test drive visit our blog: What To Look for When Test Driving a Used Car

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Make sure everything is legit

This goes back to the red flags and avoid scammers topics that we talked about earlier in the post. Always be overly cautious than just rushing into buying the vehicle without properly checking it out.

  • Check to make sure there aren’t any liens on the car.
  • Ask for a vehicle history report or get the VIN and run one yourself. Kelly Blue Book will give you a better idea of what the actual value of the car is for your area.
  • Make sure the title is clean. If the title is lost or suspicious-looking take a second and re-evaluate. You can have them get a new title to put your mind at ease. We have directions on how to attain a new title in our blog post: Lost the Title to My Car, How Do I Get a New One.

Time to Buy

You’ve inspected the car inside and out, taken it on a test drive, and had a mechanic check it; now it’s time to buy. Don’t bring cash with you to the final meet-up. Tell the seller that you want to meet them at a bank to handle the transaction. Banks are overly cautious; they’ll have to bring a clean and legible title that is in their name. Plus you’ll be able to give them cash right at the counter. It is a legit and safe way to buy a car. Just make sure they hand you the keys as you hand them the cash.

Paperwork time

Alright, you’ve agreed on a price, you’ve transferred the funds, and now it comes to sign the paperwork. After you both have signed the title and you have gotten your keys it is time to contact your insurance and make sure this car gets covered. While you are shopping it isn’t a bad idea to see how they recommend adding that car to you insurance. Some agencies are okay with just an email of the details, while others may need you to call or fill out of form online.

The last step is to make sure the DMV is aware of the title transfer.

In Oregon you will want to pop over to the to make sure you have all the correct paperwork. But, in short, you will need to have your completed title application, bills of sale from previous owner. Then you get all that to the DMV pay the title fee ( you can use their fee calculator found here – The make an appointment for pop in for a walk in at your local DMV to turn it all in and get your new title.

When purchasing from a private selling in Washington you have 15 days to transfer ownership into your name, so you will want to get in quickly. When you are getting ready to get the transfer taken care of you will want to make sure and get the odometer reading for cars from 2011 or later, the vehicle bill of sale, and a notarized Vehicle Tittle Application. And then you submit your forms and payments and shortly after that you will get your title.

One Last Tip

Listen to your gut. If for whatever reason the transaction just seems off to you there is probably a good reason behind it. Don’t force yourself to buy anything just because it is available. There are plenty more cars and deals that will show up on Craigslist. Take your time and find a seller that you feel you can trust.

Finally – How to Buy a Used Car on Craigslist

Craigslist is a great resource to find a used car for sale if you go the private party route. Buying a car via Craigslist can seem daunting at times.  Use the resources available to you (the bank, KBB, your gut, etc.) and you shouldn’t have a problem.

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