How to Buy a Car on Craigslist

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Buying a car (or selling a car) on Craigslist is no easy feat. It takes time, money and most of all: knowledge.

There’s a lot of less-than-honest people out there selling cars on sites like Craigslist, and a lot of people who are simply living in a fantasy world about what their vehicle is actually worth and what the condition of their vehicle is.

Let’s explore how you can buy a car on Craigslist and avoid any bumps in the road.

Tips for Buying a Car on Craigslist

After totaling our Suburban this spring, I was determined to buy an affordable replacement. With that, I turned to Craigslist.

If you are looking at buying a new-to-you car and checking Craigslist as a source for finding that car, here are some things you need to know to get the best possible deal on the best vehicle for you.

1. Know What You Want

Before you start shopping, it’s important to write down exactly what it is that you’re looking for in a vehicle.

That may be as specific as the make and model, such as “I want a Honda Accord”, or as broad as “I want a mid-sized car”. Make a list of the parameters that you’re looking for in the car that you want, such as:

  • Size or type of the vehicle you want
  • Make(s) and model(s) you’re interested in
  • Age of the car
  • Condition of the car
  • Mileage of the car

In some cases, as with the mileage of the car, you won’t have a specific number but you might not want to buy a car with, say, over 100,000 miles on it.

Craigslist has parameters for all of these things (although the parameters aren’t always accurate) to help you narrow your search.

2. Know How Much You Want to Spend

It’s easy to get lured into spending more than you had planned when looking at all of the cars available for sale on Craigslist.

First, you’ll start looking at cars in your price range. Then, you’ll notice cars that are just a few hundred more. Soon, you’ll be looking at cars that are a few thousand more. Don’t let that happen to you.

In order to avoid getting lured into spending more than you had planned to, set a firm maximum purchase price in your head before you start shopping.

Make sure to leave some room in your budget for some repairs/maintenance too when buying a used car. Used cars usually need at least a little bit of maintenance.

Before you can buy a car of any kind, you need to know if it fits into your budget. Use a free online budgeting tool, like Personal Capital, to track your spending and figure out if a new car is in your budget.

3. Don’t Limit Your Options

When we first started shopping for a replacement for our Suburban, we only looked at private party vehicles due to the fact that we generally don’t trust dealerships and their jacked-up prices and pomp and circumstance sales tactics.

Ironically, we ended up broadening our search and bought from a dealership. Don’t limit your options by refusing to look at private party cars or dealership cars. Be cautiously open-minded to purchasing from both.

4. Know the Value of the Car You’re Looking At

Smartphones make it super easy to look up blue book values of vehicles right on the spot. Blue book sites such as have parameters that cover every feature of a car, mileage estimations, conditions, etc. to help you know if the car you’re considering is fairly priced.

Never buy a vehicle without knowing the blue book price of that vehicle.

5. Learn a Bit About Cars

You don’t have to be an expert, but it is important to know what you’re looking at when viewing a vehicle’s appearance and mechanical condition. If you don’t know a lot about cars, bring someone with you who does.

I was lucky when I was at the dealership looking at the Suburban we bought that my mechanic brother just happened to be working in the area.

He made a quick 10 minute stop at the dealership and gave the car a quick once over so that he could give me advice on what wasn’t working properly and how much it would cost to fix it. I was able to speed up this process for him because I know a bit about cars myself.

Little known random fact: In high school, my bff and I took small engines and the two-year auto mechanics class in order to be around the boys. We ended up loving the education and doing really well in the class, learning lifelong skills about cars. This education has helped me in many ways throughout the years. 

Because I know a bit about cars, I was able to have a list ready for my brother of my concerns about the vehicle and what wasn’t working properly, thereby making his job quicker and easier.

6. Don’t Be Afraid to Negotiate

When I walked into the dealership to look at the Suburban we’d found online, I was a bit nervous about the negotiation part of things. Rick was at work, so it was all me.

The asking price of the vehicle I was looking at was $9,995. That was much more than the $9k we had to spend. After some quick figuring of tax costs, I sat down and told the guy I didn’t want to pay anymore than $8200 out the door (total including tax, title and license). He came back with $8900 out the door. Sold! Just $100 under what we had to spend, but we stayed within our budget and had money left over to do the minor repairs the truck needed.

By using great negotiation tactics, you can save hundreds on the car you buy.

7. Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away

We looked at a few cars that we just knew weren’t for us, for a variety of reasons. It can be intimidating to tell a seller you’re not interested and to feel pressured to buy a car that isn’t quite what you had in mind.

Don’t give in to that pressure. Walk away and wait for the car that’s right for you. In this area, practice makes perfect. The more cars you walk away from, the easier it’ll be to say “no” to a car that’s not right for you.

8. Practice Safe Car Buying Tactics

As usual, when you buy from Craigslist, safety needs to come first. Here are some tips for safe buying on Craigslist.

  • Bring someone with you so that you’re not meeting alone with a stranger. This goes for both men and women.
  • Don’t bring cash if you’re spending a lot. Instead, bring a cashier’s check from your bank that is made out to you and then sign it over to the seller. In our case, I brought a cashier’s check for the majority of the money I wanted to spend and cash for the rest, so that I could be better equipped to negotiate on price.
  • Meet in a public space where there’s lots of people. If you’re meeting at someone’s home, never go alone.
  • Never test-drive a car with just you and the seller; bring a friend or two.


Buying a car on Craigslist can be a major disappointment (we’ve had our share) or a brilliant success, such as we’ve had with the truck we bought 2 months ago.

By putting the above tactics in place, you can help ensure you’ll have a great car-buying experience.