How do you buy a used car?
June 27, 2014 7:55 AM   Subscribe

How have you successfully bought a used car from a private owner? The last time I bought a used car was 14 years ago. Not sure how it's done anymore.

Back then I would find private listings in papers. I would go check out the car. If I liked it would bring it to my mechanic to check it out. Based on his evaluation I would negotiate a price. This worked well for me. Now I have no idea how it's done. Where do the private owners list? How do you avoid getting tricked by non private owners? Do you haggle face to face or online? Can you take the car to your mechanic?
posted by blueyellow to Shopping (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I sold a car using craigslist. I bought a car using craigslist. Both in the last 5 years. You can view only private listings, or only dealer listings, or both. I had it checked out by my mechanic. I haggled face to face.

When I was looking, I also checked They also list both dealers and private parties.
posted by czytm at 8:13 AM on June 27, 2014

Pretty much everything you stated above is equally true now, assuming that you are in the U.S. It seems like most people in my neck of the woods find their cars on Craigslist now, though. I would still take it to a mechanic and this should be OK with any seller you find.
posted by selfnoise at 8:13 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

We have bought and sold several cars via Craigslist over the last few years. We pretty much do it just the way you've described. Check out the car, drive it, ask the owner if they are willing to let your mechanic check it out.

Some owners want to be paid via paypal now, which is usually fine. We usually go to the AAA office together with the seller/buyer to transfer all of the paperwork.

A couple of times we've run across people who don't actually hold the title; they want us to pay them for the car, and then they intend to send our money to the leasing company in order to pay off the lease, and then send us the title when they get it a few weeks down the line. Don't do that.
posted by vignettist at 8:14 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

A couple of times we've run across people who don't actually hold the title; they want us to pay them for the car, and then they intend to send our money to the leasing company in order to pay off the lease, and then send us the title when they get it a few weeks down the line. Don't do that.

4 times out of 5 this may be true, but I just bought a car from Craigslist using (just about) that method. The seller had financed the car through Toyota Motor Finance and still owed money. Of course step 1 was talking to the guy and getting a feel for whether he was sufficiently straightforward that I felt comfortable doing a deal. He was and I did. So I got him to get a 10-day payoff amount from the financing company and wrote up a bill of sale that provided that I would pay that precise amount in a cashier's check written to Toyota finance with the remaining amount paid to the seller. We included in the Bill of Sale requirements for him to send along paperwork promptly and included an indemnity that he would be responsible for any costs incurred in me having to establish title if he didn't. I knew his real name and address and employer and contact information.

On the day of the deal, I brought a prepaid FedEx with a letter written from him to Toyota finance saying "here's my final payment, I sold this car, send a copy of all paperwork to AgentRocket." We put the cashier's check in the FedEx and dropped it in the slot together. I drove away with the car and the Bill of Sale was enough for me to get temporary tags for it while I waited for the title. Toyota were weenies but the seller scanned me the lien release that he got and it was good enough for me to title the car myself.

Assuming the seller is not upside-down on the car and that there's not other red flags, you can make a purchase work even with financing involved. There's just a few extra hoops to jump through. There are scammers on Craigslist - lots and lots of them - but there are plenty of honest people too.
posted by AgentRocket at 8:25 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I've seen used cars on Ebay too. Is that something you've encountered?
posted by blueyellow at 8:33 AM on June 27, 2014

Lots of people buy and sell via eBay these days, yes. I do think it's hard to tell what exactly you're getting from a private seller on eBay if you have to buy the car sight unseen and have it shipped to you, but I'd be comfortable buying a used vehicle from an eBay seller with lots of positive automotive feedback if the auction included high-res photos that documented what exactly I was getting.
posted by killdevil at 8:46 AM on June 27, 2014

I've bought cars from individuals on Craigslist. For any car you consider buying from an individual or dealer, take it to an independent shop and ask them to check it out. This has saved me from some major troubles. Also, check the car's value on and There are a lot of variables in used car pricing, but it's useful to get a comparison.
posted by theora55 at 9:06 AM on June 27, 2014

I recently bought a used car from an individual using Craigslist. Here is what I think helped make it a good experience:

*I recommend using Auto Tempest, the car version of Craigslist aggregator, Search Tempest.

*The Consumer Reports Used Car Buying Guide is your friend. Your library might have a copy, or online access to the CR Database.

*I found good mechanics near the cars I wanted to check out using Yelp. I called ahead to see if they would help evaluate a used car I was planning to buy. I did this twice and wasn't charged either time!

Good luck!
posted by zem at 9:19 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't do that.

Just chiming in that I've both bought and sold cars with liens and never had a problem. One check goes to the bank, the balance to the owner, the bank has a notary who can witness and notarize the bill of sale.
posted by ftm at 9:42 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Motorcycle sales are similar to car sales. I'd use Craigslist.

I bought a motorcycle on Craigslist in 2005. I checked out in person each bike I was interested in, and even test rode a few (provided the buyer would let me and it had a valid plate). When I found the bike I wanted, I paid in cash, the owner wrote up a bill of sale for me, signed the title over, and I took it. I made him come down a little on his price because he advertised the bike as a 1992 model whereas the title said it was a 1991 model. Took the title, RMV-1 form from my insurance company, and the bill of sale to the Registry and it was done.

I sold that bike privately without advertising it to a friend of a friend. Bought my second bike through the same friend.

I sold that motorcycle on Craigslist. He came to my apartment complex to check it out. We negotiated a mutually agreeable price. I got the safety inspection done at my expense (here in Maryland you need a safety inspection to title the vehicle, and this is the seller's responsibility). I wrote up a bill of sale.

He came back to my apartment complex, paid me with a cashier's check, and I gave him the title, inspection certificate, and bill of sale. I thought the buyer might encounter some hassle at MVA, as at the time I had just moved to Maryland, and I hadn't bothered to register the bike here. So, it had a Virginia title, while my bill of sale noted my new Maryland address. This wasn't an issue at all.

The only time I've ever bought a used car was through a dealership. In hindsight I am absolutely convinced that I was ripped off.

A former boss of mine swears by eBay for buying and selling used cars. I really don't like that as you usually have to buy the car sight unseen, and have to pay for auto shipping, sometimes from clear across the country.
posted by tckma at 10:12 AM on June 27, 2014

I've bought and sold multiple cars via Craigslist and always had a satisfactory experience using the techniques you've outlined.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:33 AM on June 27, 2014

Are you sold on the fact that it must be a private owner? If you have a used dealer that goes to the auctions, then they can often find you a car you want and do a bit of a warranty. I don't mean a new car dealer who's dumping their trade-ins; I mean someone who deals specifically in used cars. They have access to many, many used cars so they can find something suitable more quickly than you can on Craigslist. Also, you have little recourse with a private owner but a dealer has reputation at risk. Dealers who skew their business to used luxury or specialty cars are a good bet here.

When we've done this for my nieces we gave the dealer a list of cars, years and mileages. So we said:
Smaller SUV,
Ford Escape, Mazda CX-5 or Honda CRX
< 5 years old
< 50,000 miles
< $X

He managed to get all of them into cars that met the spec within 2 weeks.

If you're in Southern California, I have one I would recommend.
posted by 26.2 at 10:37 AM on June 27, 2014

We did so a couple of years ago via Craigslist and ended up with an awesome Subaru we couldn't find at any dealership.

The best part for us was that the owner used the same credit union I use, so although he had a lien it was super easy to get all of the money stuff transferred.

If you're as lucky as we were, the seller will even throw in his garage door opener and a Pure Jerry '89 bootleg by accident.
posted by Madamina at 10:42 AM on June 27, 2014

My last used car buying experience was about four years ago when I bought a car for my mom, and while the times had changed since the last-last time I'd bought a used car (pre-internet) the process once I'd looked at a car was pretty much the same. I think I ended up going with a car I'd seen on craigslist.

The only thing that gave me pause was if someone was unwilling to give me the VIN number so I could run the vehicle through Carfax. Maybe someone can chime in here if this is a totally normal piece of information for people to withhold, but in my experience the people who didn't give me the number simply never replied to my request, making it seem sketchy.

I have to say that since no one has mentioned this at all so far maybe it's an unnecessary step, but I definitely rejected a few cars based on the Carfax report, mostly when it shed light on inconsistencies with the seller's story.

(L.A., if it matters.)
posted by Room 641-A at 10:48 AM on June 27, 2014

Hey, I just did this on Monday! It was a long-distance deal, so there are some differences, but it should be mostly the same.

I found the car on an forum dedicated to this type of car, but it was also listed on Craigslist. We negotiated price via both e-mail and phone calls. After reaching an initial agreement, a mechanic did a pre-purchase inspection; the seller took the car to the shop, but I paid for it over the phone. We re-negotiated price based on the inspection results, I drove out to pick up the car, and we met at his bank where I handed over cash and got the title. Easy peasey.

Though, I think we were both skeptical that the other person was scamming the whole time, so there was some initial caution, but overall it worked out well.
posted by hwyengr at 10:50 AM on June 27, 2014

Use craiglist.

Just make sure that when you hand over the money you get a title under the name of the seller (check the name of the title against sellers ID and VIN# of the title to the car) and a lean release letter from the bank (if there's a current lease)
posted by WizKid at 12:37 PM on June 27, 2014

Back then I would find private listings in papers on,,, and I would go check out the car. If I liked it would bring it to my mechanic to check it out. Based on his evaluation I would negotiate a price.

That's about the only difference. You can also get a Carfax report that will show you the title history and whether it's ever been in an accident (that was reported).

eBay is okay as long as you're looking at local listings so you can go and check out the car in person or if you're buying a nearly-new used car (like two years old or less) where the odds that anything at all will be amiss are very low.
posted by VTX at 1:29 PM on June 27, 2014

If you're interested, I use a private used car dealer in Cleveland who finds whatever I am looking for at the auto auctions. He then ships the car to me. I give him my price range and he takes care of everything else. He's always been extremely honest and reliable and I wouldn't buy from anyone else.

Email me if you want his contact information.
posted by kdern at 3:15 PM on June 27, 2014

Craigslist is about the best place to go to find local cars for sale. A couple of things to watch out for...

1. Despite dealers and private sellers supposedly being separate categories, I see a lot of dealers posing as private sellers on Craigslist. These tend to be the small corner-lot type of dealers, often of the "no credit? no problem!" variety.

2. Make sure you see the actual title before you sign anything and hand-over cash. Make absolutely sure it's not a Salvage or Rebuilt title. More likely than not, you're buying a headache when you buy a Salvage car. If you really want it, ask for a complete accounting of the work done to the salvage car.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:41 AM on June 28, 2014

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