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How to Survive Craigslist Cars and Trucks For Sale By Owner

Dennis Walsh @lawjolla
Owner, Crosscut
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The Ford F250 diesel was too good of a deal to pass up.

Clutching a $30,000 cashier’s check in my nerve soaked hands, I went to a random Phoenix gas station to meet a Craigslist used car sale stranger.  He seemed ok on the phone.

But when I got out of the car, it turned out I wasn’t just meeting the for sale by owner but also three of his friends.  And they didn’t look like the welcoming wagon.  As I’ll further explain, the next thirty minutes of my life didn’t go as planned.

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I wish these were his friends...

I’ve purchased thousands of cars in my life -- it’s my job after all.  But in those thousands of purchases, the sketchy ones always involved Craigslist cars for sale by owner.

In this post, I recite one of my harrowing tales, show you three issues with purchasing from Craigslist and why I would steer clear.  But if you insist on making the private sale purchase, I’ll also give you my tips to mitigate your risks.

There’s No Good Place to Meet a Craigslist For Sale By Owner Car Seller

I intended to buy a Ford F250 diesel truck with my sweat-drenched $30,000 check.

I picked a gas station at 2pm on a Thursday.  It all seems simple and easy until the unexpected.  Then you realize how much money is in your pocket and the lengths some people may go to get it, even at 2pm on a Thursday.  His three friends looked more like a “goon squad” than people along for the ride.  My anxiety at level 10.

The safety of your meet up spot ranges from bad to they’ll wear your skin as a coat. Used cars and trucks are outside, so no matter your selected spot, it’ll be a parking lot.  And even the police parking lot won’t save you if you meet the wrong dudes.

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Inspect a used car... and meet the Children of the Cron in one stop

But if that price is just too good to turn down, pick a public place with heavy traffic and make sure to bring someone with you.  And make sure that person doesn’t look like a boxer -- any average person will do.  Remember, most car and truck sellers will be concerned about you too.

Also, don’t make my mistake -- leave your money in the bank.  Instead, tell the seller you’ll go from the test drive to the bank and then DMV when everything checks out. (See below)

You Can’t Trust the Craigslist For Sale By Owner’s Title

In my gas station pressure cooker, I was cordial and tried to be disarming.

“When did you put your car on Craigslist?”  “Last week…”

Bored with my small talk, the goon squad went into the gas station.  Phew.

I asked to see the F250’s title.  “What do you need that for?  You haven’t paid.”

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Red flag!

Nothing like tension over a simple question.  I explained I’ve had sellers not realize their VIN was incorrectly entered and I wanted to double check against the car VIN to prevent any DMV issues.  While true, that’s not why I wanted the title.

Scammers love duplicate titles.  A scammer can get a duplicate title claiming to have lost the old title and present the old, now worthless, title to the buyer.

I have limited access to DMV computers as a dealership owner.  I knew the most recent title number for the vehicle.  I checked the title number to the DMV database’s most recently issued title number.

But you as a private party won’t have that advantage.  You won’t know the most recent title.  Therefore, always complete the deal at the DMV.  Ideally you move from the test drive location, bank, and then meet the seller at the DMV / third party location to exchange money and complete the title transfer.

Craigslist sellers can lie, lie, lie!

The Phoenix sun is beating down on me and my hopeful $30,000 Ford F250.  Sweat increases the tension trying to examine a truck under the glaring eyes of an anxious seller and rag-tag goon squad. Where’s the Los Angeles weather when I need it?

I’m buying this F250 for the dealership and cosmetics matter with a truck at this price.  I asked the seller over email if it had been painted.  “Nope!  Not painted.”  And he claimed to be the original owner.

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It's a Craigslist theme...

But as I creeped around the passenger side bed I saw the orange peel was heavy.  Orange peel is the roughness in the paint.  The less peel, the more mirror-like it appears.  All paint has peel from the factory.  Higher end paint has less, and repair shops rarely match the factory.

You could raise a ruckus if you were at a dealership, but Ted at the gas station doesn’t care about your thoughts and feelings.

Worse, what if he lied about mechanics or hid issues?  You have no recourse.  Unlike buying from a dealership, there’s no law to protect you or business reputation to guard.

The only way to hold seller’s accountable is to write it into the contract.  You can then sue in small claims for breach of contract if their representations were false.

But in the absence of a contract making explicit representations, your only remedy is fraud -- proving an intentional misrepresentation.

If it’s not in writing, good luck with that.

There are a few redeeming qualities to buying private party

My gas station friend provided me with service records and service records from the previous owner -- a huge boon!

There can be advantages to buying off the street.  Unlike a dealership that’s known the used vehicle for the previous 5 miles of its 100k, 8 year existence, for sale by owner’s have real knowledge.

They should provide service records, knowledge of previous accidents / repairs, and any latent issues… if they’re honest.

Dealers can rarely answer those questions.

So should you buy from a private party off Craigslist?

It depends on your risk tolerance.  I ended up with a good buy on my Phoenix truck, but I also have a lot of advantages -- like I know what I’m doing.

I also know how to quickly evaluate a car, check its paperwork, determine value, and I’m hard to bully.

But if the thought of buying in a parking lot with no recourse makes you squeamish, I highly recommend sticking to a dealer.  You’ll have a much better experience without the potential catastrophic downsides associated with for sale by owner purchases.

And for the shameless plug, if you are looking for 6.0L diesels, 7.3 diesels, 4x4 trucks, or diesels generally, you’d never shop privately… Please take a look at our stuff first.

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