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Shopping for a new vehicle can be fun – who doesn’t like test drives and new features to play with? Of course, car shopping can also be a massive time soak that ends with a less-than-satisfactory dealership purchase experience…which is probably why so many people search Craigslist and/or eBay for their next vehicle. Not to mention, vehicles sold on these sites are often priced hundreds or thousands below dealership inventory.

Buying a Vehicle on Craigslist/eBay - What to Watch For

Shopping on Craigslist can be risky, here is what to watch for.

Unfortunately, shopping on Craigslist and eBay isn’t always a great way to save money and/or time. While dealerships are closely regulated and frequently punished for breaking rules, private sellers on Craigslist and eBay are almost completely unregulated. Not to mention, online classifieds are a breeding ground for scammers.

If you decide to buy your next car via an online classifieds website, there are some things you’ve got to watch out for.

Private Sellers Are More Dangerous Than Dealers

It sounds counter-intuitive, but the typical car buyer is far more likely to be scammed by a private seller than a dealership. While it seems like the average person selling their car should be trustworthy, private sellers have been known to lie about accident damage, repair needs, maintenance records, etc. This is why the says that buying a car from a dealer is a safer option than buying from a private seller.

To compound the risks of buying a car found via Craigslist or eBay, scammers frequently impersonate private sellers. These criminals will often claim to be “selling a car for a friend,” which is why their name doesn’t match the name on the title or registration. They’ve also been known to sell stolen cars with fraudulent paperwork, sell salvaged vehicles without disclosing their history, to roll back odometers, etc.

While some dealers have been known to lie to customers or rip them off, the vast majority of dealerships are concerned about maintaining a good reputation. If a dealership were to roll back an odometer (for example), they’d risk losing their license to do business, a massive lawsuit, and a story on the local evening news. Most dealerships understand that they gain customers through word of mouth, and that being dishonest is ultimately bad for business.

Therefore, when buying a car from a private seller, you need to be a detective. If you don’t exercise caution, take your time, and ask the right questions, whatever “savings” you get buying on eBay could quickly be erased.

Get An Inspection Before You Buy

Many private buyers have either an automotive background or a local mechanic they can take a prospective vehicle to get a vehicle inspection report. This inspection can be vital when purchasing a used vehicle, as the inspector/mechanic can check for signs of trouble, abnormal wear and tear, etc. A good vehicle inspection should look for the following:

  • Signs of body damage suffered in an accident or natural disaster
  • Abnormal shifting, which can often indicate problems with a vehicle’s transmission
  • Checking fluids for signs of internal mechanical problems
  • A thorough check of every vehicle system
  • A check of various maintenance items (brake pad thickness, tire tread depth, etc.) to give you a sense of what maintenance the vehicle will need soon

Most (but not all) vehicle inspectors will put the car they’re checking out on a vehicle lift, so you may have to ask the private seller to meet you at the inspection place.

It’s also a good idea to order a vehicle history report from CarFax or AutoCheck. While these reports aren’t 100% accurate (sometimes, they can be surprisingly inadequate), they’re one more piece of information you can use to assess a car. Just make sure you understand that a vehicle history report is no substitute for an actual physical inspection.

Get A Copy of The Seller’s Identification

While asking the right questions and a vehicle inspection lower the odds of being scammed, it’s still possible for someone take advantage of you. Therefore, it’s a very good idea to get a copy of the seller’s photo identification. Just ask the seller for their driver’s license, then make a copy of that as well as their registration when you consummate the purchase. If the seller isn’t willing to let you copy their photo ID, or if they conveniently “forgot” it, cancel the transaction.

A photo ID is the last thing a scammer will want to give you, either because they don’t have an ID that matches the alias they’re using, or because they don’t want to share a false ID that authorities could use to track them down. If the seller isn’t willing to let you make a copy of their ID, that’s a big red flag…buy from someone else.

Meet in A Public Place

Last but not least, it’s a good idea to meet a seller in a public place – preferably a busy parking lot. If/when you decide to make a purchase, have them meet you at the local bank. Not only is the bank a very safe place to conduct business, the bank often has a notary who can sign a bill of sale (only most states don’t require a notarized bill of sale between private parties).

What’s more, banks have lots and lots of cameras. Most scammers won’t set foot in a bank parking lot, let alone inside the bank. This is yet another simple “trick” you can use to make sure the private seller you’re working with is legitimate.

Of course, you can save yourself a lot of trouble and just complete a purchase at a dealership instead. Dealers might charge a little more for their vehicles, but they often provide a warranty of some kind, they’re happy to provide documentation, they’re carefully regulated, and they’re very convenient.


About the author: Tim Esterdahl


Tim is a married father of three living in Western Nebraska. He is the editor and contributor to several automotive sites and is becoming an influential automotive journalist. He spends a lot of time reading, writing and talking cars/trucks with fans, insiders and manufacture reps. When he isn't talking about cars, he is usually out playing golf - a never ending obsession to see how far the little white ball will fly.


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