How to Get a Great Deal on Craigslist

By: Jason Biggs October 5, 2015
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If you’re in the market for a used car or truck, the popular website Craigslist is great place to look. However, if you want a great deal, you have to know the basics... and you have to act fast.

NOTE: Remember—the purpose of this article is not to tell you how to buy a car on Craigslist. Its purpose is to provide tips and suggestions that will show you how to score a great deal!

Timing Is Everything

The totally amazing, fictitious racer Ricky Bobby once said, “If you’re not first, you’re last”—and that statement rings true when trying to secure a good deal on Craigslist. The free website currently receives more than 50 billion page views a month. Although that’s great for Craig and his crew, it means one thing for you…competition, and lots of it.

Not only are you dealing with other people looking for a great deal, you’re also up against used car dealers (and wannabe used car dealers) who are looking to make a quick flip as well. When the real deals hit the listings, these people are all over them, so you need to be prepared.

Just checking the “Cars+Trucks For Sale” section on Craigslist can be an overwhelming task. Craigslisters post well over 80 million classified ads every month. Keep in mind many of these ads are reposts from stuff that hasn’t sold in a while. The newest ads appear first in the listings, so the better deals are going to be near the top of the page.

Here are some tips for streamlining the search process:

First, you’ll need to simplify your search to a few makes and models you’re interested in.

Then you can use the Craigslist filters to narrow down your search by the following tags or categories:

  • By Owner Only
  • Select this option to avoid potential dealer markups.
  • By Dealer Only
  • In rare cases, a dealer may discount a vehicle substantially to move inventory.
  • Minimum Price
  • Maximum Price
  • Model Year
  • Odometer Mileage
  • Other variables.

Yes, There’s an App for That

If you want to take your Craigslist search to the next level, you can opt for one of the many apps available in the iTunes App Store. There, you’ll find several options; some free, some not. Each app features its own set of bells and whistles that help automate your search process when you’re on the go.

Once you find a listing that piques your interest, check to see when it was posted. This is disclosed at the very top of the listing. Typically, if it has been posted for more that a week, it’s not the deal you were hoping for. Ideally you’d like to see it say “Posted just a few hours ago” or “Posted 1 day ago”. That’s the time to strike!

Making the Connection

Now that you’ve found a vehicle listing that’s recently been posted, it’s time to get in contact. If a phone number is listed, always call. A lot of people are hesitant to use texting or e-mail, thinking they might be subject to scams.

If you are able to reach the seller, be sure not to ask them questions that are already answered in the ad. This is just common courtesy. They took the time to write it, so take the time to read it. If you don’t see the answer to your question in the ad, ask the seller.

Basically, what you need to know over the phone is:

  • If it runs, how well does it run?
  • Are there any major issues not mentioned in the ad?
  • How much time is left on the warranty (if any)?

If you get the answers you’re looking for, then its time to set up an hour and location to view the car ASAP! Never buy a vehicle that you haven’t seen in person. In fact, the Craigslist “Avoiding Scams” page says in order to avoid 99% of scam attempts, deal locally, face-to-face.

Inspecting the Vehicle

Choose an Optimal Time and Place

You’ll want to schedule a time during daylight hours for safety and better viewing. An ideal spot for a viewing is at your bank. This is not only a safer location than most—it also shows that you are serious and you won’t have to carry a bunch of cash.

If meeting during the day is not an option, try meeting at a gas station or a well-lit parking lot, preferably one with surveillance cameras. Always remember your safety is worth more than any deal.

If the seller insists on meeting at their house, look up their address on the Internet to make sure you’ll be comfortable in that neighborhood—and bring somebody with you. If you have to go alone, be sure to tell somebody where you are going and give them the address you are going to. Remember—don’t dilly-dally. You want to see the car first, before anyone else, so time is of the essence.

Complete a Visual Inspection

Once you meet the seller and have a chance to view the vehicle, you’ll need to do the usual pre-purchase best practices. You can learn more about them in our Used Car Buyers Guide.

In most circumstances, it’s smart to bring the car to a mechanic and get their advice, but when you’re dealing with what you think is a potentially great deal, you may not have time for that. You could walk away to make your appointment and then BAM—someone might come in a swoop up the car when you’re still on the fence. Sometimes you need to use your best judgment and maybe even roll the dice. But remember, there will always be another vehicle that interests you down the road...always! So don’t be too hasty when making a decision.

Negotiating the Deal

Now that you’ve seen the vehicle and you can’t live without it, it’s time to make a deal. Here’s where it get a little tricky. You don’t want to make too low of an offer so you don’t offend the seller. Chances are it’s already a great deal, because it got you off your couch, didn’t it?

A good starting point would be to offer 75% - 80% of the asking price and go from there. Feel them out. Check their body language and attitude. Most of it will be simply posturing, but be prepared to duck just in case. If they say “no” and make a counter offer, this is a great place to use the “meet you in the middle” method. For example, if the original price was $10,000, offer $8,000. If they come back with $9,000, offer to meet in the middle at $8,500. You’ll be surprised how well this strategy works. Give it a try. It’s fun!

Completing the Transaction

Once you and the seller have agreed on a purchase price, it’s time to close the deal. If you took our advice mentioned earlier, you may already be in the parking lot of your bank. If not, cash is an option... but always keep in mind that a cash transaction can’t be documented, so you may have no recourse if the vehicle ends up being something it was not portrayed to be. Having this much cash on hand during an initial meeting isn’t always the safest choice.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: A practice I personally like to do is bring $300 cash with me. $300 seems to be the perfect amount because it’s attainable from most ATMs and it’s just enough cash to show that you are serious about the transaction. If I end up buying the vehicle and I feel comfortable with the seller, I’ll give them the $300 as a non-refundable deposit and tell them I’ll be back in an hour with the rest of the money. For the record, this method has never failed me, and I buy and sell more than my share of vehicles.

In addition to handing over the cash, the seller will need to provide you with the title and a bill of sale and/or emissions certificate, depending on what state you live in. For state specific information, please refer to our Used Car Buyers Guide.

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