1. You must be quick. There is a lot of money to be made buying used cars for cheap and reselling them. This draws many used car dealerships and individuals to the used car by owner section. Here in Portland, car owners are often contacted within the first 30 seconds of the car going up on Craigslist as long as it’s a somewhat desirable car at a decent price. So if you are looking for a good deal on a Toyota pickup, don’t expect to find one unless you are refreshing the listings every 10 minutes or so. Also, you must be ready to go look at the car, with cash, almost immediately. If you can’t take a look at it until later that day, don’t be surprised if someone shows up before you and buys the car. People are aggressive, especially when there is a lot of money to be made.
2. Buy a car with a story. I’ve purchased two cars and one truck on Craigslist. Each time I asked a lot of questions that focused on the story of the car. How long had they owned it? What problems did they have with it? What work had been done on it? Were they happy with it? A car without a story almost always ends up as trouble. Car launderers are conveniently ignorant of the car’s faults; avoid such people and cars.
3. Know what you want to buy. Research the make/model and year of car you want to purchase and look for patterns of problems. The internet will tell you if other car owners are experiencing the same problems. If the transmission usually goes out on that car around 100k miles, then expect it to go out around 100k miles. This would probably be a car to avoid. Research will better your chances of making a wise decision.
4. Find a mechanic you trust. Go and ask them how much they charge to do a vehicle inspection and how much notice you need to give them for an appointment. Find one that can do inspections on short notice for about $75 or so. When setting up a time to see a car, ask the owner if they will allow you to take the car to your mechanic for an inspection before buying. Allow them to come with you if they would like. If they say no, walk away unless you can afford to greatly increase your risk. Paying a mechanic to give you a detailed report of the condition of the car and upcoming work is very wise decision.
I’ve had friends skimp on paying for an inspection only to have the transmission bomb out on them within 3 weeks of purchasing the car. Fifteen hundred dollars went poof.
5. Be Patient. Know what you want to buy and how much you would like to spend. Then discipline yourself to stay within your boundaries. Don’t give into the temptation to buy a car you don’t want, just because it’s available today. You will regret it. Craigslist and the internet aren’t magic, and they will not always provide exactly what we want, when we want it. The right car or truck is worth the wait. Remember, you have to be patient.