Five Craigslist Car Deal-Breakers

There’s buying a used car, and then there’s buying a Craigslist used car While there’s a lot to be aware of when buying any used car, there are a few circumstances that are more likely to occur when shopping for a car on Craigslist. A few of them are, in my opinion, deal-breakers. Here are the biggest ones.

Deal-Breaker #1 Rocker Panel Rust (Or Other Terrifying Holes)

Rocker panels are a key part of your car’s structural rigidity. A little surface rust is no big deal on a cheap car, but you definitely do not want to see big holes all the way through metal, or worse, missing sections.  This Mercury Milan (same car as a Ford Fusion) I spotted locally last winter has no rocker panels left at all under the rear doors. While this is something that can sometimes be fixed, it’s not cost effective on most cars to do so.  No reason to bother with this. Move on to something less disastrously rusty!


Deal-Breaker #2 Sketchy Safety Equipment

This is not something to mess around with. A seat belt that doesn’t retract against your body properly when you buckle it may not perform correctly in a crash. Likewise, airbags are often expensive to deal with, so do not take a seller’s word that an airbag light on on the dash is “just a sensor” that “costs $15 at AutoZone.” (If the seller will let you take the car to shop for a pre-purchase inspection, go ahead and ask a shop to check out the airbag light. If it’s a simple fix, they’ll tell you.) The airbag may have been tampered with or be missing, or there may be other difficult-to-track-down electrical faults in the car.  Move on to something less sketchy.

A note about brakes: brakes and brake system issues are often quite fixable on a car and are also a wear-item (i.e. something intended to be refreshed periodically, just like tires) so I do not include squealing brakes in my deal-breaker list, as long as the brakes are actually stopping the car on your test drive. The only exception here would be brake lines which are clearly leaking or spurting fluid, or which have been declared by the seller to be rusted through. Do not proceed without talking to a shop about the costs involved in running new brake lines! In all but a few special cases, though, it’s best to just pass on anything that has bad enough rust that brake lines are leaking brake fluid.

Educational moment! Brake lines are skinny tubes about the thickness of your pinky finger running in tidy rows along the bottom of the car. They’re easy to see. Surface rust is common, but they should look dry. If they look oily, they may be leaking. Brake hoses are located between your tire and the metal walls of the wheel-wheel. They can leak, too, although they’re much easier, cheaper, and simpler to replace than the metal brake lines which run under your car. And on old cars, there’s sometimes oil and crud sprayed around behind the wheels, making it hard to tell if what you’re seeing is brake fluid or oil from elsewhere.

Deal-Breaker #3 Trouble in Title-Town

Title troubles include (but aren’t limited to): no title at all, “explanations” about why the seller doesn’t have the title in hand, the name on the title not matching the seller’s name, address or city, with an implausible story about why, promises that the seller will “mail you the title,” or situations where the seller doesn’t physically have the title due to a bank lien (car loan) on the car. Nope. Walk away. The world is full of cars; you don’t need any of these particular headaches.

If the seller will be paying off his car with your purchase of his car and cannot get the title until he does so, you can make arrangements to make the payment for the car at his bank. But I generally do not recommend this route. If the car in question is new enough that the first owner is still paying on the loan, the car is new enough to be found at a dealership as a certified pre-owned used car, possibly with a warranty and definitely with a clean title and no title headaches. And I don’t advise buying a car which is 10 years or more old on which the seller has a car note.

Presenting buyers with a clean, correct, and proper title is the seller’s responsibility. Not yours. Never take possession of a vehicle from a Craigslist purchase without a title to go along with it. It’s never as simple as “just requesting a new title at the DMV.” If the seller lost it four years ago, it’s his job to file for a new one, not yours.

Deal-Breaker #4 Mysterious Check-Engine Light Codes

If you’re shopping for a sub-$3,000 car and do not have required emissions testing in your area, a check engine light on is not usually a big deal. You can usually drive your uber-beater with the light on. If, however, you’re shopping for something a little better, something that’s going to be a family hauler, a commuter you need to rack up miles with, if you live where you must pass emissions testing or smog testing, or if you expect to need keep this vehicle on the road for several years, don’t buy a car with a check engine light on before finding out what the code is! AutoZone will read the codes off of a car for you for free. Or, you can buy a simple scan tool to pull the codes yourself when you go to look at a car.  Then find out what it might cost you to deal with the problem.

Deal-breaker #5 Low Mileage For the Model Year

“But wait, Jenny! Isn’t low mileage a good thing?”  A car with stupid-high mileage can be a disaster waiting to happen, sure, but a car that has sat parked an awful lot can be just as big of a maintenance headache. Cars need their fluids circulating to keep everything well-oiled, well-sealed, and well-running.  Exhaust systems and emissions control systems work best when they’re allowed to come up to full operating temperature. (That doesn’t happen when a car is only driven a few miles twice a week!) When cars sit, rubber hoses dry out, seals start to leak, brake fluid collects moisture and start to rust brake lines from the inside out, and tires dry-rot.

Figure on 7,000 to 15,000 miles per model year as a rule of thumb for appropriate mileage. That means if you’re shopping in 2018 and looking at a 2004 Toyota Camry, you probably should walk away from anything under about 100,000 miles (i.e. a minimum of 7,000 miles per year x 14 years = 98,000.) Beware the “Grandma only drove it during the summers” car! The biggest exception to this rule is specialty or collectible cars, and in those cases, you’ll want to see evidence that the car was mothballed or stored properly when it was parked over the winter (Feel free to check with me; I’ll help you figure out what questions to ask!)  Another possible exception would be a car that the seller has been driving extensively in the past few years and which has a pile of service records showing the seller has dealt with problems that often emerge when an under-driven car is put back into normal use.

Remember, There Are Over 270 Million Cars Out There

If you’ve got to walk away from a car you’re looking at, do not lose faith! You will find something else. I promise. Here are some final tips to help you avoid making a decision you might regret:

  1. Don’t let frustration with the search influence your decision. Making a “well, okay, I guess, whatever” decision because you just want to get the stupid car searching over with often ends in sadness and bills at the repair shop.
  2. Don’t let distance or time invested force your hand, either. The longer we travel to go look at a car, the more likely we are to just go ahead with the purchase and to talk ourselves out of gut feelings that it’s not the right car. Unless you’re looking for something very unusual or very specific, limit your search to nearby metro areas or places to which you can drive comfortably and chalk the outing up to a nice day out if the car is a total bust.
  3. Trust your gut. You may not be a mechanic, no, but I bet you’ve got a pretty good sense of when someone’s lying to you! If the seller says his grandma took good care of the car but there are fifteen empty Monster Energy cans in the back seat, well… he may be lying. If your gut says “Nope!” listen to it.  Remember, there are over 270 million cars in the US.  One of them is your next car. But maybe not this one.

Should I Rent a Car For My Next Big Trip? Help For Life With a High-Mileage Car.

You’ve Got an Old Car. Will It Make The Trip?

Ideally, when you’ve got an old high-mileage car, you’ll take it into the shop and ask them to get it in tip-top shape before any long trips. But what if you know what the car needs and have been delaying major repairs due to budgetary concerns? Or what if you don’t have time to get it into the shop before you need to leave? Should you rent a car for your trip instead?

I’ve been in this situation several times myself. Here’s a look into the thought process I go through when trying to decide whether to pay for a rental car or risk driving my old car on a trip.

Warning! If you’ve been told that a repair your car needs is critical to safety, you must not drive it on a long trip. Period.

In this case, proceed directly to a rental car! Or reschedule your trip. Not all car maintenance needs are critical but some are a serious accident waiting to happen. Some will simply strand you if they break (a bad alternator or battery) or are uncomfortable (bad shocks in the back). Others can cause you to crash and die if they fail suddenly (broken steering or front suspension parts, bald or corded tires, brake line leaks) or mean the end of your engine (large oil leak, no oil, serious coolant leak, overheating.)

So, Drive The Beater or Rent a Car?

First, you’ll need to consider a few questions. Jot down answers to the following . . .

Do you have AAA or other roadside assistance? What’s the included free towing on the plan you have? Is your destination farther away from your favorite shop than the included towing on your roadside assistance? How far over the mileage limit is it? (AAA’s basic plans include five miles of towing free, but you’ll pay $2.50-$5 per mile over what is included with your roadside assistance plan for distances farther away.)

How comfortable are you having an unknown shop do a major repair on your car? If you know what’s likely the next thing to break, how much was the estimate for that work from your shop? Are you ready to pay at least that much at a shop or dealership between home and your destination? Or would you much rather be sure your own shop can do that work?

How Interruptable Is Your Trip?

Now, think about the trip itself. On a scale of “Hello? I’m the groom!” to “No plans, it’s just the two of us, just for fun,” how interruptable is your trip? How much trouble will you be in if a car break-down delays your arrival at your destination?  Are you traveling through populated areas with a common-as-dirt minivan (2010 Honda Odyssey) where there’s likely to be a shop almost anywhere that can work on your car? Or are you traveling through rural America with a French-built rear-engined Renault that was only sold in the US for two years in the 1980s? (A quiet shout-out to my internet-friend Fodder for that suggestion. And thanks to him, I spent way too much time on Wikipedia just now!)

“Adventure, yeah. I guess that’s what you call it

when everybody comes back alive.” – Mercedes Lackey

Make Some Ballpark Cost Estimates.

Now that you’ve thought about all of that, estimate what a breakdown, tow, and repair at a shop (if you have an estimate for the next chunk of work) might cost you. Then price out your theoretical car rental.

If you want to be really nerdy and methodical, consider the difference in gas mileage between your own car and the class of rental car you’d pick. On my last trip, the difference was 18 mpg on my car versus 40 mpg on the Jetta we rented! It made about $30 difference in fuel costs, recouping some of our rental car costs in fuel savings.

Write your two numbers side by side and look at them. Is the breakdown and tow number scary enough to make the rental car estimate seem like smart insurance against spending the larger number?  Or is the cost of a rental car high enough that risking the repair away from home seems like the smarter option?

Measure the Financial Aspects of Your Decision Against Time And Bother Factors.

Can you afford a delay in the trip? If so, maybe risking the potential repair on the road isn’t a huge deal and maybe can be a potential for a new adventure. Sometimes the best vacation memories are the ones that happen unplanned. Note that some roadside assistance programs offer trip interruption reimbursement, too, offering coverage for a rental car and an overnight hotel, if needed. Check the fine print of any plan you have. But if you’re traveling for the wedding of your baby sister, arriving on time is critical; time to reserve that rental car!

A Quick Case-Study From My Own Old-Car Life.

In spring of 2017, we had an out of state wedding to attend. At the time, we owned an early 2000’s Ford Crown Victoria with about 175,000 miles on it. We knew it would need rear wheel bearing work soon; you could hear it howling, especially at highway speeds. We also knew, from owner forums, that due to the design of the wheel bearing, there was a risk of the axle snapping if you let things go too long.  Although it was an additional expense, my gut told me that renting a car for the trip was good insurance against that wheel bearing blowing apart in weekend traffic on crowded, busy interstate through Chicago. So we did the rental car. It cost us, with a discount through Costco Travel, about $100 for the three days. A new rear-end (axles, wheel bearings, differential) on our car, at a Chicago-area shop, could have cost as much as $1500, and that’s not even considering the potential for a crash, injury, and damage to other drivers’ cars.

My gut instinct was proven correct a couple months later when we sold the Crown Vic in advance of buying our anniversary car.  (I’ll tell that story sometime, too.) A couple weeks after the new owner paid us for the car, he messaged me with pictures: the rear axle had indeed failed, at about 50 mph, causing the rear wheel to come off, causing body damage and flying debris, which cut through the neck of the gas-filler tube. Thankfully, nobody was hurt; the new owner was able to wrestle the car to a stop safely. I felt absolutely awful, even though we had advised getting the repair done immediately, and the new owner had even gotten estimates for the work before paying us for the car. But my thought process on deciding to rent proved to be really valuable.

If You’re Still Not Sure, Ask Me!

I can’t guarantee your old car is safe to drive on a long trip. But I can look at your shop estimates and decipher them for you. I can describe what can happen if that particular thing breaks. I can definitely help you clarify your decision to rent or drive your own car. If renting is out of the question due to costs, then I can help you mentally prepare for a big trip in an old car too, so if the worst happens, you can handle it with as little stress as possible. I even offer affordable on-call services so you can phone-a-friend while traveling if something comes up unexpectedly! Message me on Facebook for a free quote.