Guide to Buying a Car on Craigslist

With all the things floating around on the internet about car scams on craigslist and how dangerous it is to purchase a vehicle from a private owner, I thought I would throw my two cents in. I have been buying and selling cars for years on Craigslist, every car me and my immediate family has purchased over the past ten years was from deals found on Craigslist. Buying a car on Craigslist can save you a lot of money if you do a little preliminary research, and you know what to look for when you see the car. This article will cover the benefits and negatives I have seen from personal experiences of purchasing cars on Craigslist, and how to seriously limit any risks associated with Craigslist dealings.

What is the Benefit of Buying a Car on Craigslist?

buying and selling for lots of money

The Prices

Well first and foremost if you’re looking for a deal on a used car you can’t beat Craigslist. A little research in your immediate area is almost certain to reveal people selling used vehicles for thousands less than the dealership. Typically a car being sold by a private seller is automatically worth less than if it were sold by a dealership because there are less safeguards in place to protect the buyer when dealing with a private seller. The benefits of this however, is that if you know a little bit about cars you can use this to your advantage to buy a heavily discounted vehicle.

The Variety of Options

Craigslist allows you to easily hone your search on the specific year, model, and make you are searching for and it also allows you to expand your search to other cities and geographic areas. This is very beneficial for somebody that is looking for a good deal. I once made a four hour trip to check out a car in another state that was excellently priced.

My Experience

My current daily driver is a 1996 BMW 328i, I purchased it more than three years ago from a small local dealership. I found the car on Craigslist, and the dealer was only asking $3,200 for a BMW with 80,000 miles on it. In my area these cars typically sell for at least $5,000-5,500 because it’s becoming rare to find a BMW E36 with under 100,000 miles. When I checked out the car I realized why it hadn’t already sold. It had a blown suspension, both the rear shocks and front struts were completely blown and the car bounced horribly when driving.

I complained about the suspension, and ended up buying the car for a mere $2,800. The next weekend I purchased shocks, struts, sway bar links, and tie rods and replaced most of the suspension for $400. For a grand total of $3,200 I had a low mileage BMW with a brand new suspension.

What Are the Risks With Buying a Car on Craigslist?

very nice bmw

99% of the time when an individual has a problem with buying a car on Craigslist it’s because they failed to take certain precautions. I must admit that I have made mistakes in purchasing vehicles on Craigslist, mostly in underestimating the cost of repair parts. Craigslist is a great place to get deals on cars, but one must remember that it’s a collection of locals trying to get rid of their car, and ANYONE can post something for sale on Craigslist. The overwhelming majority of scams are from individual sellers.

Most individual sellers aren’t going to have a dealer license, and aren’t going to be regulated by the government. This means that it’s up to the buyer to do the due-diligence. There are always going to be con-artists and scammers on Craigslist, there are con-artists and scammers everywhere. Stolen vehicles, odometer tampering, and salvaged vehicles without disclosing damage have all been problems associated with automotive purchases on Craigslist.

Tips for a Good Craigslist Experience

Use the tools that Craigslist provides you with to search for vehicles. If you know your price range, mileage, year, and motor size your looking for enter it all in. Personally, when I am searching for cars I refuse to even look at cars with more than 140,000 miles on them (except diesels).

If it’s too Cheap…

Before you call or send an email take a look at the ad. If the vehicle is so underpriced that it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Another dead giveaway is how the ad is structured, if the guy has his email address within the ad and asks you to email to his personal email address it’s a scam.

Do Not Waste Your Time Emailing

Some people may tell you that it’s best to start the conversation with a Craigslist seller through email. I disagree, if the phone number is available I always start the conversation with a text message and if I am still interested I will call later on. This is because fewer and fewer people check their email daily. Yes, if you email a dealer they are likely to get back with you the same day, but a private seller might have listed his email and already forgotten to check it. On the off-chance that a seller listed the vehicle with only a contact email, than in that case you can and should email the seller.

Cell phone communication is also going to be quicker. Everybody uses a cellphone nowadays and a text message inquiry asking “hi I saw your (car) on Craigslist, is it still for sale?”

How to Communicate

I have been on both the buying end of Craigslist and the selling end many times. I have been the frustrated seller bombarded with text messages from a guy that would like to pay for the product through Western Union. I have also been an annoyed buyer dealing with sellers who do not know their car from a hole in the ground. Here are a few tips for communication on Craigslist that I have learned:

DO NOT copy and paste the link from the seller’s craigslist ad into your inquiry text message. Yes, I understand that it makes it easier to keep track of who the number you texted belongs to, but it has a major drawback. Unless Craigslist recently figured out how to mask phone numbers, sellers are still being inundated with scam text messages. Luckily, 99% of the time anybody can recognize the scammers because they usually attach a link to the craigslist ad into the inquiry text! Therefore, if you do this it is likely the seller will believe you are a scammer and either block your number or not respond.

DO NOT start an inquiry text by offering 50% of the asking price. I have seen these lurks on Craigslist that will send a text with only a price that is half that of my listed price. I guess if your strategy is to try and find a diamond in the dirt by sending hundreds of text messages and praying someone will be desperate enough to agree, than by all means do it. However, I have found it to be a fruitless strategy.

DO send your initial message with an identifier of the vehicle. For Example: “Hello, I saw that you have a blue 1996 BMW 328i listed on Craigslist for $3500, do you still have it for sale?”. This is very helpful because by the time the seller responds you might have already emailed five or six other people selling similar vehicles. If you state what the vehicle is in the inquiry text it will be significantly easier to refer back to the advertisement later.

There is No Black & White Between Dealerships & Private Sellers

You are more likely to get a better deal with a private seller than a dealership, whether the dealership is BMW, Honda, Toyota or a mom and pop used car dealer. However, there are exceptions to the rule! Remember that I got that sweet Craigslist deal from a small used car dealership.

Sometimes dealers do not know what they have. There are model years and options on vehicles that are rare and worth significantly more than someone unfamiliar with the option would expect.

Sometimes dealers are trying to unload their inventory for whatever reason or a particular vehicle has been sitting in the lot for too long. In those cases I have seen dealers cut their prices down to cost or even below what they paid for them.

The point is, do not 100% ignore dealer offered vehicles because they will be more expensive, you can find great deals with used car dealerships.

Where to Meet

It’s always best to meet in a public place, and go with a friend. Personally, I always take a friend when I am meting someone for a car, and pay for his lunch. If the car you are looking at cannot be drived you will probably have to meet at the seller’s home. In that case make sure you have a friend going along.

Personally, I break the “meet in public” rule all the time. It is best practice, but on the otherhand if someone is stupid enough to try to steal something from you at their own home, I doubt a public area would make much difference. That being said, sometimes I will meet in bank parking lots. All of them have security cameras viewing the parking lot and they also have security guards in the vicinity. 

Consider an Inspection

Get the vehicle inspected by a mechanic if you’re not 100% certain of the vehicles condition. Even if you are a backyard mechanic, the mechanic’s shop is going to have equipment that can better read and test the vehicle, and simply having a second pair of eyes inspecting the car is a good idea. If the seller refuses to allow the car to be checked out by a mechanic, walk away.


There are many great deals to be had when buying a car on Craigslist. It makes it even easier if you are mechanically inclined to find really nice deals, but if not there are plenty of individuals on Craigslist selling perfectly running cars. The biggest thing to remember is to be skeptical of any car listed on Craigslist. Inspect a potential car like you are inspecting a used house, and you won’t have any problems buying one off Craigslist.

For more tips on making an automotive purchase click here 

Stephen Metellus

I am a BMW enthusiast and owner of! I have been repairing, flipping, and parting out BMWs for nearly ten years. I love these vehicles and I hope you will find my articles and YouTube channel helpful for whatever BMW project you have in store!

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