Sites like Bring-a-Trailer and eBay Motors are excellent, reputable places to buy cars online. Chances are you're getting a fine car for a good price, barring any major mechanical flaws not mentioned in the ad. But you're not always going to get the best deal since you're not able to see the car in person before you make a decision.
That's why I use Craigslist to buy cars. Other car-buying sites have come and gone, but the free community sales-and-services classifieds webpage has been around for over 20 years. I believe it's still the best place to find a good deal on a car, and one of the most exciting places to shop. Here's how to do it right.
Set Up Craigslist Alerts
This might not be a necessary step for some people, but if you're looking for something incredibly rare or specific, Craigslist alerts are very useful. All you have to do is create an account on the site, search for something, then hit "Save Search" on the top right of the screen. Once you have an alert set up, Craigslist will notify you via email if anything machining your desired parameters is listed in that area.
Do the Research
This might seem obvious, but it's surprising how little you might know a car until you really dive deep into the dark niches of the internet. Lets use my recently-purchased BMW M5 as an example. For a popular car like this one, there were plenty of resources available to learn what mechanical parts will fail, how much those parts cost, and how much work it would take to fix them. All of these things will be valuable when it comes time to negotiate.
, for example, is a haven for all BMW owners to look up any and every individual piece of metal, rubber, glass, and plastic that's ever been used to build their cars. There are diagrams, part numbers, and even estimated prices. Then there are the forums. Master do-it-yourself threads often line the top of how-to sections, giving owners tons information on how fix things or perform routine maintenance. is my go-to.
The forums are also a good place to find common or recurring issues about the car, and things to look out for. If a certain part has yet to be replaced or a weak point has yet to be repaired, that could help knock the price down when it comes time to buy.
Don't just take one scan through these sites and think you've absorbed the info, either. It's best to become obsessive, this way even the littlest things will stand out.
Examine the Car for Way Longer Than You Think You Should
Now that you're armed with all the necessary knowledge to make an informed purchase, it's time to actually go look at the car. Bring a flashlight, a couple of napkins to check the oil, a notepad, a pen, and if the car is a 1996 model year or newer, an OBDII reader. Also, take a floorjack if you can. Have as many of your car-inclined friends tag along as possible—the more eyes, the better.
Greeting the owner correctly is important. It's best not to seem too interested or excited, lest he or she think you're willing to pay absolutely anything to own the car. That very well might be the case depending on what car you're looking at, but why pay full price when you don't have to?
I like to examine the car before asking the owner questions, so if anything pops up while I'm digging through the engine bay, I can bring it up later when I'm negotiating the price. Start with the basic stuff (Do all the lights work? Does the engine idle evenly? Any dash lights? Any pending codes? Tire and brake pad life remaining? etc.) before moving on. If absolutely anything is less than showroom new, make sure to note it. Scuff on the driver's seat? Note it. Small chip in the windshield? Note it. An oil-stained engine bay? Note it. A slightly wonky idle? Note it. Every single one of these imperfections can be used as evidence to negotiate a lower price. Spend as much time as humanly possible grooming through every inch, inside and out. Question what you missed, then go back and do it again. You'll find things, trust me—no car is perfect. If you find something wrong, ask yourself, "Will I be able to fix this myself, or will I have to take it to a shop?"
I recommend you take your time looking through the car and pay attention to detail—most sellers probably won't let you go for a test drive if you show up and kick the tires for five minutes.
The same attitude should be taken when you get behind the wheel. Don't baby the car the entire time—but don't beat on it the minute you get in, either. Let the owner know your intentions and what you plan on doing. I prefer stating aloud when I'm about to take the engine near redline, for example, so I don't catch anyone off-guard. If the car you're looking at has a manual, make sure to drop it into top gear at a low speed to see if the clutch slips. If it does, that should factor heavily into your price negotiations. Any vibrations? Is it pulling to the right or left? Any strange sounds coming from the suspension? Note it all.
After that, check the service records and compare completed work to any of the weak points or necessary repairs I mentioned earlier. If the owner doesn't have service records, perfect! That's just more firepower for when you try to get the price down.
Here's where things get interesting. My recommendation? Take your notepad full of imperfections and read them off to the seller one by one. Point out these imperfections as you read them out, and—this is important—make sure to tell the seller how much each of these individual items will cost to fix. Then, point out all of the pending mechanical repairs or routine maintenance that needs to be performed, including the pricing for those as well. Emphasize that all of these repairs will be coming out of your pocket, and therefore, should also come out of the purchase price.
If you have the seller's original advertisement handy, that's good too. You can use it to compare the car's online description to its actual condition, noting differences to the seller to convince him or her that the original asking price does not reflect the car's true condition.
I find it easiest to hit the seller with an offer quickly so as not to give him or her time to rebut on any of the discretions you've just listed. Depending on what's wrong with the car, I like to start at 50 to 75 percent of the asking price, then work to meet in the middle from there. Being a skilled negotiator takes practice, quick thinking, and a keen sense about what's actually a fair price for a car.
What people seem to forget most about buying a car is that you can simply walk away. Whether the car is too far gone mechanically, or the seller won't budge on price, there are plenty of fair reasons to simply remove yourself from the situation. Chances are there's another car just like it out there somewhere, so there's no need to make a commitment you don't feel comfortable with. Always remember, the buyer has the money, and therefore, has the control.
If you take the car buying experience seriously, there's no question you'll end up with a better deal. There have been several times in the past where I've had to look something up on my phone last-second in a panic because I didn't do proper research before buying a car, and I can tell you, it's not fun. Doing the research beforehand and applying yourself while inspecting the car means you'll always be ahead of the game, ready to make an informed purchase for a logical price.