At times I feel bad for Autotrader when it comes to the used car market as they have suffered with the advent of Craigslist’s classifieds section.  I look at used cars all the time; many mornings I’ll spend about 30 minutes just looking at cars for sale over a cup of coffee as I never know when I’ll find a deal.  I’ve also helped many people over time who bought a used car from a Craigslist ad to figure out what the new ride is in need of.  Unfortunately, I usually see these cars after the deal is done.  Some get lucky and some wind up in a world of hurt.  So before you go out test driving, I thought I’d give you a little guide on how to read Craigslist ads, what to look for, and how to proceed once you think you’ve found a good candidate.

For this guide we’ll assume you’ve got between $7-10k to spend and you’re looking at a few different cars.  I’ve selected ads from my home town (as to not offend anyone local) that we’ll go through:

1. Search properly for a car that you know you want.

craigslist1If you used CL about 5 years ago, it was kind of an intensive search as you didn’t have many fields to select from which made it difficult to weed out cars that didn’t match what you wanted.  I remember looking for old 1970’s BMW 2002’s all the time on Craigslist until the year 2002 came along. My search was blown to bits.  Craigslist has gotten really good at collecting data from folks posting ads to help you with make, year range, model, color, transmission, etc etc.  Know what you are looking for and stick to it.  Don’t get distracted.

2. Do not buy Salvage Titled cars.  EVER.


These cars always seem to have the same story.  “It was hit in the back bumper so they totaled it” is the one I hear most often.  What I can tell you is that every single salvage title car I have inspected has been a complete mess of a car.  They usually are put back together with used parts and the paint jobs are horrible.  In some states you may have trouble getting them insured and you’ll certainly have trouble re-selling it when the time comes.  No matter how pretty it looks or how good the price is, stay away.  There’s a reason the insurance company didn’t want it fixed, and they know what they are doing when it comes to loss management.

3.  Look at pictures first, and look at them carefully.

Like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  Well, a Craigslist picture can be worth an extra thousand dollars if you aren’t careful.  They aren’t super high resolution to begin with, but look out for obvious things like body panels being different colors and a broken windshield or bad tires (or wheels for that matter).  The more you can pick apart a candidate, the more time you will save.  If the pictures are horrible, don’t even bother.  If someone thinks it’s a good idea to take a picture of half their car, at night, while it’s raining, with their cell phone camera, then chances are they can’t figure out what gas to put in a car or when to change the oil.  At worst, they are hiding something. At best they aren’t that intelligent. You don’t want to buy a car from either party.

4. READ THE AD and between the lines


Many times there can be red flags in the text of an ad.  If you’re looking for a station wagon and the ad states “I’ve got 5 dogs and this car has been great as I take them everywhere!”  You might want to take that one off the list. Key phrases like “just had the transmission serviced!” or “fresh paint job!” are typically bad signs.  The text can also lead you to a really good deal.  I’ve seen very basic ads where the individual or dealer was somewhat lazy in their photography skills but was sure to include all the details about the car.  In our price range, all of these cars will need work, but you might find one that’s had all of the typical repairs dealt with already.  This can save you thousands in post-purchase care.

5. Don’t deal with flakes.  If someone doesn’t get back to you, move along.

I’ve run into this many times.  I found myself almost begging to give people money that placed an ad but they can never seem to get their act together.  Just give up before you waste any more time and move on to the next potential ride.  They aren’t calling you back and there is never going to be a good time to see it.


OK, by now you should have eliminated about 50 potentials on your list and saved a lot of time.  Let’s jump ahead to the day you go to look at a car to purchase.


6. If it looks like a duck, it’s a duck.

When you go to see and drive a used car, look at its condition.  If the paint is scratched or faded and the interior looks like hell, it usually will translate into a car that is not very mechanically sound either. What you see on the outside is typically in sync with the rest of the car.  Keep in mind that you are looking at buying the car and the seller has most likely made it look its best before you showed up, so deduct huge points for filthy cars or those with exterior damage. Dealing with these cars is just not going to get you anywhere you’d want to be in life as a driver.

7. Bring a Checklist for yourself

Cars in this price range have many different options and features; some will be worth more to you than others.  Even though I live in San Diego, I love heated seats.  I could care less about cruise control.  Bring this list with you as you might forget while looking at the car.  It is easy to get off track when you go car shopping.  On your checklist include a visual of the tires, check all the windows, test the A/C and heater, the wipers, squirters, etc.  Just make sure everything works and that the stereo speakers aren’t blown.

8. Don’t worry about the seller, worry about the car


There’s a lot of strange people in this world, but don’t hold it against them if they are in possession of the car you want.  Don’t worry much about slimy used car dealers either as you’ll get to the bottom of it all before you make a purchase.  DO NOT get your used car financed by the used car guy.  Go to a credit union.  You’ll get a better rate and they have no ulterior motives.  If you’re at a dealer lot, just let them do their thing.  If you’re at a residence, don’t go into the house and certainly stay away from their basement if invited.  Focus on the car.  Don’t let your deal fall through over bad foreign relations.

My two favorite car dealers of all time are Eugene Levy in ‘Vacation’ and the late Cal Worthington. Still miss seeing Cal’s ads on local TV. Somehow he always had the best deals if you needed a pick-up truck.

9. Get a Pre-purchase Inspection by an Independent Specialist BEFORE YOU BUY.  ALWAYS.

OK, I’ll be honest.  I’m getting tired of doing more post-purchase inspections than pre-purchase.  I think the post-purchase outnumbers the pre-purchase at a rate of 3-1.  There’s nothing worse than giving a laundry list of needed repairs to a poor guy that just blew his budget on what he thought was a good car.  Don’t take the car to a dealer for this, they will almost always rush through it and charge you double what it should cost.  Expect to pay about $100 for this service and make sure you have it done by someone who specializes in the make you are dealing with.  This will be the best $100 you’ll spend, trust me. For more information on pre-purchase inspections for Audi’s, BMW’s or Mercedes follow the appropriate link.

10.  Check all the Paperwork, again, before you buy.


Run a Carfax and a DMV search if you can.  Make sure there are no title issues or liens on the title that need to be satisfied.  Check to see how much is due in registration fees. If your state requires inspection or emmissions testing when acquiring a vehicle, make sure that has been dealt with.  Service records and manuals are also very nice to have so make sure you see it all.

Any used car purchase can be an experience, but if you follow these steps it’ll keep you out of trouble.  After your purchase, I highly recommend getting a detail completed if the seller didn’t have one done and find out when your next service is due so that your off on the right foot.  Other than that, just drive off into the sunset!

Chris Keefer

Independent Motorcars – Servicing BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz

5836 Autoport Mall

San Diego CA 92121