So you’re in the market for a used car and you’ve decided to turn to Craigslist. Maybe you want to have the flexibility of negotiating a great deal, or perhaps you just want to avoid pushy or sketchy used car salespeople. Great idea! But you’re unsure of how to go about looking for the right car or maybe you’re nervous about being stuck with a lemon. You’re not alone.

Here are some tips and tricks for protecting yourself when buying a used car from Craigslist:

What the law says:

I’m sure you’ve heard of lemon laws which provide protection to consumers who buy used cars that have been misrepresented as being in good condition or otherwise fail to meet quality and performance standards. But did you know that lemon laws only apply to auto dealers in most states?

That’s right, there is almost no legal protection when you’re buying from a private seller. The large majority of states view private car sales as “as is” sales. That means that whatever condition the car is in when you receive it is your problem to deal with. For the most part, used private car sales are “buyer beware”.

Still, there are basic ways to protect yourself from getting a dud, from being tricked by sneaky private sellers, and even ways to secure possible legal recourse if something does goes wrong with the sale.

Rules to follow:

  • Always get it in writing. Whether it’s a promise of the condition of the car on the whole or the condition of a particular part or system, print out the Craigslist ad before you ever contact the buyer. Pay special attention to listings that have promises of new or recently repaired parts. Get evidence of the promises they are making. Keep any and all correspondence in writing, whether it be through email or text message. Secure a paper trail.
  • Always ask important questions before you go to inspect the car. Ask if it has had repairs recently and where they were done. Ask for a copy of receipts for proof. Ask if the seller has had any issues with the car. Ask for the VIN if you want to go the extra mile and do an online check like CarFax. Make sure the seller’s answers are in written form, if you ever need to reference them later.
  • Always ask to test drive. Not every private seller is comfortable allowing this, because if you’re test driving their vehicle and something happens to it, the seller is on the hook legally and financially. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.
  • Never buy a car without having a mechanic inspect it. If the mechanic finds issues with the car, ask him or her to itemize their findings on the inspection report. Use the issues as a point of negotiations. Often the seller wants to get rid of the car, so they may be willing to work with you on splitting the repair bill or lowering the purchase price of the car.
  • Never let the seller choose the mechanic. You don’t want to take the chance that the mechanic is actually the seller’s buddy who may be willing to fudge information to help a friend. Always choose a mechanic you trust. You may have to foot the inspection bill yourself, but it is money well-spent.
  • Never complete a private sale without a receipt. It doesn’t matter if the receipt is written in crayon on a piece of toilet paper. A receipt is needed to prove what you paid, when you paid it, and to verify the condition of the car. Make sure both you and the seller signs and dates the receipt. A receipt may make or break your case in civil court.
  • Never pay for a private sale in cash. I know cash can be a powerful tool in price negotiations, but there is no way to track how much cash you paid and when, aside from your word. Make sure you pay in a way that’s easy to track, like PayPal or by check.

Signs you need to walk away:

Here are some serious signs that you may just need to walk away:

  • The seller can’t produce a title.
  • The title the seller produces looks sketchy.
  • The title shows a lien on the car whose status the seller won’t or can’t verify.
  • There are signs of water damage in the car (new upholstery, rust under the seats, waterlines).
  • The car has fresh paint (a sign of covering up damage after an accident).
  • The 17 digit VIN on the dashboard doesn’t match the VIN on the car door (a sign the car was stolen).
  • There are signs of fluid leaks around the car which is an indicator of a major problem.
  • The seller is jerking you around when it comes to arranging an meeting, test drive, or inspection with a mechanic. If the seller has nothing to hide, then they should be willing to work with you.

When it comes to a private used car sale, check the laws in your state by visiting your DMV’s website or calling your local DMV chapter. Remember to always take safeguards to protect yourself and don’t let the buyer pressure you in any way. Be prepared to negotiate and be prepared to walk away. If you put yourself first, you should be able to successfully buy a safe used car from Craigslist.

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