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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.