Do Your Homework
Check the price of vehicles that match your criteria (make, model, year and features) on sites like Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds to find a market value based on the condition of the vehicle and other specifications. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to spot an overpriced cruiser or a fair deal.
Question the Seller
You’ve found a car that might be “the one.” Now what? When setting up an appointment to view the car, ask for these details:
• “Why are you selling the car?” Most sellers are honest and straightforward about this, and it’s usually something innocent like, “We’ve upgraded to a new car.” If you get a sob story about selling it for Uncle Randy from out of town, proceed with caution.
• “How many previous owners has it had?” First- or second-owner cars are preferable. A car that has changed hands a lot may have an ambiguous history or hidden problems.
• “What has it been used for?” Has Morgan Freeman been driving Miss Daisy or has Nicolas Cage been ghost-riding the whip? In addition to age and mileage, this gives you an idea of the true wear and tear on the vehicle.
• “What is the VIN?” Running a report on the Vehicle Identification Number will confirm most of the information you get from the seller, including whether or not the car’s title is clean (undamaged) or salvage (typically means it was claimed as a complete loss by an insurance company). Sites such as vehiclehistory.gov or carfax.com run vehicle history reports, or you can check via your state’s DMV.
Give It a Good Look
If you’ve done your due diligence, you will already have a good idea if the vehicle is a good buy, but you never know until you see it in person.
• Check for any cosmetic damage. It may be a sign that there are more serious, costly problems.
• Kick the tires. How many miles are left in the tread? Uneven wear can indicate alignment or structural issues. Are the rims rusty?
• Push everything. Check every knob, button and switch (even in the back seats). Do all the electric windows and locks work? Does the AC blow cold air? Are the blinkers blinking?
• Pull the dipstick. Checking the oil and fluids is a barometer of whether or not the vehicle has had regular maintenance. Ask the seller if they can provide any service records.
Take It for a Spin
A test drive is important in vetting your Craigslist find. Here’s what to look for:
• Check the alignment. On a straight stretch of road, let go of the steering wheel briefly. Does the car drive straight or does it pull to one side?
• Push the pedal. Find a freeway or a hill to gauge the vehicle’s acceleration and power. Does it respond quickly and shift smoothly? A short stint on the freeway is also a good time to make sure the cruise control is working if the car has that feature.
• Hit the brakes. Stomp on the brakes a little more than normal (no screeching required) to assess response time, and listen for grinding and squealing.
Bring in Backup
Take a grease monkey friend to your visit or ask the seller if you may have the car inspected by a local mechanic. Most auto shops offer a pre-purchase inspection for $100 to $200. This more-thorough inspection is key to avoiding major repairs in the future, and helps you make an informed decision. The mechanic’s report is also a great bartering tool should you decide to make an offer. Does the car need new brake pads? A new battery? Many sellers will drop the price to reflect these costs.
Once you know what you want and what it’s worth, watch Craigslist postings and wait for the right deal. Spend the time to educate yourself about the used car you’d like to save yourself from leaving with a lemon.