Well, it’s happened. He/She/It died, Mom needed it back, you lost it in the settlement, and now with that $1,280 dollars just burning a hole in your pocket, you have to buy a tin can to hurtle yourself down the road at 100 feet per second or better with. Sound crazy? It is.
So, lucky for you, I wrote this guide to buying a car on Craigslist. Because we know that’s where all responsible, adult decisions go down. (Just ask the collator of this list.) Also, I think the pain and suffering of the nearly 28 cars bought and sold via this medium (a few of them weren’t quite whole, like a lot of us) shouldn’t be in vain.
Contact the buyer beforehand
Ask your questions up front in an email. Keep it brief. They’re not selling it here because they necessarily have options or a desire to chitchat. These are the first three things you need to ascertain before even considering, however many beers you have had, to go look at a car in person.
Does it have a clear title—in hand, no liens—that is in the seller’s name (i.e., they’re not selling it “for someone” [whom they probably stole the title from at a hot tub party]), and are they willing to provide the VIN? Run the VIN. There are numerous websites and services that do this, such as CarFax, and its theft history can be checked here.
And the vehicle's general history can be obtained for a small fee here.
Is the stated mileage close to what the VIN check would indicate?
Is the person willing to meet you at a reasonable location and time? Common sense here, folks. Motel parking lots just after dusk are a no-no, even if you think it’ll really stick it to your mother-in-law. Stick to areas you know; it’ll make it less stressful. If you’ve never been to downtown Houston, now probably isn’t the time to go visit.
Don't go alone
Take a friend. Or three. Do I always? No, of course I don’t. Am I a petite female, yes. I have also been doing this for 16 years and am perfectly willing to drive away if I don’t like the vibe. But it’s also helpful to have a friend there because you are going to be looking at the car, not your surroundings, and it breaks the ice and makes it a more social endeavor. Plus, a second set of eyes never hurt anything; I have had non-gear-head friends notice things my practiced (read: tired) eyes would have missed. And be polite. They’re often just as nervous about having a stranger poke around their car as you are nervous to be that stranger. Take your driver’s license, and let them glance at it they want to before a test drive, but don’t fork it over and let them keep it. I get this question a lot, and I always remind people it’s got my home address on it. ‘Nuff said.
Find out where the car has been
Location, location, location. If a car has been in the Midwest or on the North Atlantic Coast, look for rust in places water could collect—around trim and molding and under trunk liners and floor mats, etc. Poke around. Look at bolt holes and tower mounts. If it has been in the deep South or coastal and flood-prone areas, look for water damage. Two of my worst car experiences have been with “water cars,” both of which had signs that I missed. Signs include a mildew smell, warped carpet lines and rust in odd parts of the floor wells. Cars that have spent their lives in hot climates like Texas and the Southwest often have electronics or electrical compromises, and plastics and rubber takes a real beating. Check your seals carefully from places like this, especially expensive seals. State inspections are your friend here: If the car came from Virginia, New York, Maine, California or a state with a mandatory safety inspection, and it has a current sticker, you may not be able to bank on it, but it can give you some assurance that the car has been looked at. Also, check to see if the car has recently passed emissions if it resides in an emissions-testing county in Tennessee, and if the tags are out of date, make sure that’s not the reason. Oxygen sensors can be cheap, check engine lights come on for all sorts of reasons, but catalytic converters should scare you, and if a car has been driven with bad O2 sensors long enough, odds are, the cats are compromised. Expensive. Take a dental mirror or equivalent with you. This simple tool can be your best friend. It allows you to look behind the engine and in between the firewall. It allows you to look at the exhaust and at things like the rear main seal without crawling under the car. It allows you to see a lot of things you couldn’t otherwise, and often I have had people fess up to leaks they probably would have hoped I didn’t notice when they saw me pull out the mirror. Take a flashlight for optimized viewing as well.
Bodily fluids—cars have them too
Start with the oil, and have a clean rag. Check the color (it needs to be reasonably brown in a gas-fueled car), and it should not smell like fuel or have moisture visible. Take the filler cap off the oil fill hole on the valve cover and see if you see signs of coolant (the alien, slime-colored stuff that runs in your radiator). Conversely, look for signs of oil in the coolant expansion tank. (Do NOT touch or move that radiator cap unless you are beyond positive the car hasn’t been running or gotten warm. You want that skin on your arm, chest and face.)
Transmission: Auto or manual makes a big difference here, as well as your comfort level with both. If auto, you have to check the fluid while running and note those hot and cold marks, which should be red or pink and not smell “burnt” or like a charcoal briquette. No flecks should be visible. Wipe it on a clean latex glove. It should be clear and a good, uniform color. If it’s a manual transmission, things are different because few have gear box fluid dipsticks (Subarus and Toyotas up until 2011 do, however, so here is where some research pays). You’ll have to rely on your test drive.
Inspect the physical as well
Safety first here, kids. Losing your brakes at 58 mph on a test drive isn’t fun. Start at the sides of the vehicle, choose systems and review them in order. Don’t be fooled by shiny or dull, sad paint. Both can lie. I do a walk-around and see if the paint looks like it all matches, preferably in good light; dents, dings (real ones, not silly ones) are all reasons to negotiate later on. I then ask the owner to start the car and pop the hood. I assume it’s a hand grenade until proven otherwise. Listen to those first few split seconds: screeches, thumps, squealing belts are all things to steer clear of.
Know your marque
Craigslist and its sister environs are not the sort of place one goes looking for a luxury marque. Don’t expect to find an E30 M3 “deal” here. Choose a make and model you either know something about or can research effectively and that has an established track record. This isn’t the place to pick up a first-year model of a given make or “try out” a new type of car. Even as a reasonably experienced mechanic, I limit myself to makes and models I have spent a minimum of several years with and that I have access to a known pool of used parts or DIY blogs/data.
Build in a disaster plan. Major component failure happens to the best of us, with the best of intentions, and even with the best of research. Build in a budget of 30 percent of the car cash reserve if possible to correct things you find in the first 1,000 miles.
The “drive” part here is a mixture of optimism and bravado. Get your friend to do a walk-around while you do a light check before you drive it. Make sure you have turn signals and brake lights on all four corners before setting off. Check those tags. It’s at your discretion how far to go and where if it doesn’t have them or they are out of date (go back to No. 3 here). Inspect the tires. If they look dry rotten, semiflat or otherwise compromised, just don’t. Also, if a tire looks bald or in bad shape, do not run your hand around the inside edge to ascertain how bad it is. “Steel belted radial tires” means just that: a web of steel on the inside that, when exposed to excessive wear, turns into a million tiny steel splinters. Use the tire wear as an indicator of suspension health: Wearing on just the inside can mean any number of problems with the alignment, and it’s an inconspicuous way to know what to feel for when you’re driving. Check brakes and the hand brake before even pulling out. Lock your own vehicle before driving away, and have a registration close at hand. You don’t want to take forever, but you want to feel the vehicle at a variety of speeds, in town, moderate highway speeds, some turns (not knee sliders, but enough to feel for wobbles, groans, creaks and pops) and test the brakes for softness, shudders (warped rotors, etc.), squeals and shrieks. It shouldn’t wobble under turns, the clutch shouldn’t be “high” (e.g., take a long time to engage as you let it out) and you shouldn’t feel shudder under acceleration. Downshifts in automatic transmissions are as important as upshifts. Feel and listen for them, and if it clunks as you are slowing down, try to discern a pattern. Dash lights should all be out; if a check engine light is on and present, have a scanner with you or be prepared in advance to drive by a AutoZone or O’Reilly’s and have them scan it for free for you. They give you not only the “code” but what it roughly means and the part price and can often tell you “book time” for replacement. These aren’t necessarily deal breakers, but you should take it into negotiating with you. Do NOT assume that the absence of warning lights on a dash means that they’re all out. One of the oldest tricks in the books for mid- to late model cars is removing the bulbs that sit behind these warning lights. How do you know? You don’t. But look to see if the instrument cluster is even or has been tampered with, and see if there is tape or anything else obstructing your view of all the indicators.
Take some alone time
Now that you have pulled away and out of sight of the neurotic owner (or maybe they are still with you, but I do NOT recommend test driving with someone you don’t know in the car), park it safely somewhere quiet and do another walk-around. Rifle through the glove box and take a second look at any available paperwork in there, receipts, tickets, citations, etc. Look under it, at it, smell it. Yeah, you read that. Smell it. If it smells “sweet” (not the air freshener); “hot,” like it has been smoked in; or otherwise odd, try to ascertain why. A note about vehicles that have been smoked in: They lose a great deal of their resale value, and the smell is near to impossible to remove, even for professionals. If you are a smoker, this may not trouble you much, but if not, think long and hard before committing to a car with that smell if you plan on reselling it. Take the afternoon at a minimum to think about it. It may or may not sell before you come back. If someone tries to convince you they have someone else coming for it that will buy it “right then” … let them.
Don't be afraid to ask for help
If at any point in this process you feel out of your league, consider asking for help, or better yet, paying for it. A true pre-purchase inspection often bills out at only an hour or two of shop labor time and is worth its weight in gold. Shop around for somewhere that is familiar with the make you have in mind, or if none in particular, just has a rack (if you trust their common sense and judgment). Arrange to go by with the owner of the vehicle, or have them take it by. If possible, have them take prior service records with them or have them pulled by VIN if you are at a dealership (handy). Know your limits, or at a minimum, do your homework in advance to recognize those limits when you reach them.
Hannah L. Coffey is an ASE tech and divides her already-fractured time between teaching at UTC and working/writing about Subarus, Volvos and diesel Mercedes power trains. You can grill her about the latest quirk of your aging machine, what [she thinks] you should buy or whatever else strikes your fancy on her blog or by email. When in doubt, you should always seek the advice of a certified mechanic in your area. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.