Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

So your car is on its last legs, and you’ve opted to forego the dealership dance and instead buy your next car online.

How can you help ensure you’re getting a good deal?

Many online car buyers go to Craigslist to search for a used car, but there are some tips the savvy ones follow to help ensure that they don’t end up in a lemon. Read on to find out what they are.

6 Tips for Buying a Car on Craigslist

1. Cross-Check the Price

When you see a car listed online, you can easily check the price against the value listed in Kelley Blue Book. But you’re not just looking for a price that’s too high — you’ll want to avoid a price that’s too low as well.

In a perfect world, a car might be price low because the seller really wants to get it off his or her hands. But in a somewhat more realistic world, it could be that the seller is trying to woo you just to get you there in person or to sell you a car that’s been around the block a few too many times.

When it comes to buying cars on Craigslist, you might want to consider sticking to cars that are being sold for something close to their actual value.

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2. Look for Inconsistencies in the Listing

An article in Popular Mechanics makes interesting points about how to avoid a Craigslist scams, like spotting inconsistencies in the photos of the car. When looking at the photo, make sure the scenery matches the location.

In other words, that car listing in Wyoming probably shouldn’t have palm trees in the background.

There might be other inconsistencies in the listing as well. Make sure the written description of the car makes sense for the type of vehicle it is and look for any holes in the story about the car. (For example, if it’s recently been repainted, maybe ask why — was it to give the car a makeover or to cover up damage from an accident?)

3. Get the VIN Before Visiting the Car

You really never know what you’re getting into with a used car, but a vehicle history report can help. If you’re serious about going to visit a car, it could be helpful to get the VIN before you do.

When the seller gives you the VIN, plug it into a site like to pull up the vehicle history report. From there you can see if the car has been in any major accidents and you can also see how many owners the car has had.

By learning this information before you see the car, you can at least reduce the risk that the visit will be a waste of time.

4. Inspect the Car in Person

To help avoid the likelihood that you’ll end up deep in a car buying horror story, always see the car in person before you decide to buy. If the car is too far away to do that, see if you can commission a trustworthy mechanic near the car to take a look for you.

And if there’s no way to see the car, it’s probably best to hold out for another one that you can get to.

A Craigslist ad and a vehicle history report can help you determine if the car is worth seeing, but generally only a test drive and an in-person inspection can tell you if the car is worth buying. There’s simply no substitute for seeing for yourself.

And when you get there, look for signs of body damage, listen for strange sounds while it’s running, take note of any unpleasant smells, and see how the car feels to drive both on the highway and on back roads. You should have a strong sense of what it’d be like to use the car on the regular before you fork over any cash.

5. Bring the Car to a Mechanic — or a Mechanic to the Car

Although nothing can substitute for an in-person inspection, taking the car to a mechanic while you test drive it — or getting a mechanic to go with you to see the car — is arguably one of the best things you can do when buying a car you found online.

The trained eye of a mechanic can spot things under the hood you might never notice yourself. He or she will also be more likely to know the right questions to ask and how to properly value the vehicle considering its make and model and the wear and tear.

Having a professional by your side doesn’t just help you know whether or not the car is worthy of buying, it might even help you get a better deal.

6. Review the Car’s Title

A car’s title can tell you a few things about its life just the way a vehicle history report can. ValuePenguin tells buyers to think twice about titles that list a financing company instead of the seller, as that could mean the car isn’t yet paid off by the seller. In that case, ValuePenguin warns, it could get taken away from you if they don’t use the sale money to pay off their lender.

The site also says to avoid salvage titles and titles that include the words “rebuilt” or “lemon” on them — as these things could indicate that the car isn’t in good condition and could cause you quite a few problems should you decide to buy.

Things Not to Do When You’re Buying a Car You Found on Craigslist

Following the tips above can help you determine if the car you’re looking at is a good deal for you and your circumstances. But there’s another thing to think about in this transaction, and that’s protecting yourself and your money.

Here are a few things not to do when you’re buying a car you found online in order to protect yourself:

  • Never buy a car online sight unseen.
  • Be wary of ads that have an excessive amount of grammatical errors. Also be wary of ads that include language promising to-good-to-be true deals.
  • Try to meet the seller at a public place rather than a private residence. While you’re at it, bring a friend if your mechanic can’t come.
  • Review the owner’s insurance and registration, as well as their ID, to make sure the paperwork for the car is in their name — if not, there could be a problem on your hands.
  • Never wire money to the seller.

Final Thoughts If You Decide to Buy

If you’ve gotten this far and everything checks out, great! But don’t get too excited just yet. There are a few more issues to consider before you can take your victory lap in your new car.

According to Lifehacker, you should avoid bringing cash with you to look at the car. Instead, the website says you and the seller should drive separately to the bank, at which point her or she should give you the car’s title in exchange for cash or a cashier’s check you take out at the bank. Someone there can also likely notarize a bill of sale.

If they’re not willing to do this or don’t have the title, you could have a scammer on your hands and you might want to reconsider completing the purchase.

It’s not always easy to follow extra steps like this when you really want to get your hands on a deal, but doing can be a helpful strategy to ensure that you are in fact getting a deal and not something that’ll turn out to be a nightmare. Take the extra time up front, and you’ll likely be happy you did when you finally do find the right used car for you.

Think you might want to try other options instead? Click here to read the Ultimate Car Buying Checklist: Dealership Edition and here to read the Ultimate Car Buying Checklist: Online Edition.

Ready to make a purchase? Read up on these facts about buying with credit and make sure your credit is in good shape with Upturn Credit’s free tool!