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How to Sell Your Car on Craigslist

By Wes Schwengels - January 18th 2018
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Knowing how to sell your car on Craigslist the right way can help you get top dollar for your vehicle, speed up the process and keep you safe. But it’s not always simple. Let’s examine how to sell your car online while avoiding headaches.

for sale

Presale prep

Title and documents

Make sure you have the title in your possession and that it’s “clean.” In order to transfer the title, you can’t have any liens against it and it must be eligible for sale. If your car was in an accident serious enough that the insurance company declared it a total loss, it may be marked as a “salvage” vehicle. In most cases, this makes it illegal to drive.

Depending on your local laws, other people listed on the title may have to sign off on a transfer, as well, so touch base with them to make sure you’re on the same page. If you don’t have a copy of the title, arrange to get one from your state’s department of motor vehicles.

If your car has had extensive repairs or specialty modifications, gather up this documentation for prospective buyers. It may help them if they need more work done, may serve as support for your sales price for the vehicle, and will help you build trust with buyers. If you don’t have receipts or documentation, gather accurate estimates online to demonstrate what the typical costs for such repairs are.

Minor repairs

If you’ve been holding off on minor repairs, this is the time to do some of them — especially cosmetic issues. Buyers sometimes latch onto small things, like broken headlights or cracked windshields, and use them to try to drive down the price. By fixing small problems before creating your ad, you may draw more interest and get more money. 

It’s generally best not to spend more than 10% of the car’s value on repairs ahead of a sale, so use a repair estimate tool, such as the one at RepairPal, to get pricing for this, too. 

Detailing

A spotless car can fetch you a higher price and more interest. If you can afford it, have the vehicle professionally detailed. If not, make sure it gets vacuumed, clean the upholstery, and give it a full wash, wax and a general wipe-down of the interior.

Posting your ad

Photos

Take high-quality photos of your car. Many people will tell you to shoot during daylight hours, but this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule professional photographers use. 

“The best time to shoot will be a few minutes after sunset (or a few minutes before sunrise),” automotive photographer Desmond Louw writes on his site. “Use a tripod and get that perfect soft light on the paint.” Louw also says nighttime photos can provide gorgeous results, but you’ll have to go to a completely dark area and then experiment with lighting techniques to see what works best. Be wary of distracting backgrounds, obscure reflections, and choose a backdrop that’s appropriate for the vehicle.

Craigslist allows for several photos, but not enough to capture all the areas prospective buyers will want to see. You can open a free account on a photo hosting site, such as Flickr or Imgur, to house the rest, then add the link in your posting. Be sure to capture as much as you can, specifically the following:

  • Front, back and sides of the vehicle (four images total)
  • Close-up of the wheels and tires (to demonstrate tire wear)
  • Driver’s seat
  • Back seat
  • Full dashboard (with clear shot of odometer and proof no warning lights are on)
  • Entertainment equipment (stereo, CD/DVD player, other entertainment controls)
  • Under the hood (especially the engine)
  • Inside the trunk (including spare tire and jack)
  • Special features or aftermarket add-ons (such as sunroofs, rims, tow hitches, GPS)
  • Damage (no need to highlight damage, but don’t hide it either) 

Research

Do some research to determine a fair price. Kelley Blue Book is a good place to start, but you’ll also want to browse other listings of similar vehicles in your area to see what they’re going for. Be realistic with the price you set.

Find relevant links to include in your post. Trust is a major issue for prospective buyers, so try to include reputable sources that will demonstrate you’re being upfront with information. Consumer reviews are excellent to include, as are product listings from the manufacturer. And again, this is a good place for repair estimates for work you’ve recently had done.

Writing the listing

Let’s start with the title: You want it to be informational and catchy. Craigslist limits the number of characters you can use, so focus on getting the year, make and model in first. After that, see if you can work in one of the best benefits of the vehicle. Leather seats, navigation systems, sunroofs, third-row seats and video entertainment systems are features buyers frequently look for. If the mileage is low or the car gets good fuel economy, that can be worth a mention, too.

For the body of the ad, write a comprehensive, yet easy-to-follow description. It’s generally best to break up the description into easily digested bits, so readers can scan them. Start by listing the important stats, like year, make, model, color, mileage, engine type, warranty details and condition. 

Then, break up the rest of your post by car section and explain the features and benefits of each. For example, Ford’s Focus-dedicated page breaks the details down into these categories: technology, exterior design, driving dynamics and interior craftsmanship. Check out how your automaker writes the description and craft yours in a similar way. 

Discuss any damage or concerns near the end of your post for the sake of transparency.

Be sure to include your terms of closing the deal. Certain things, like only accepting a cashier’s check, can minimize the chances of you getting scammed. (More on that later.) List any payment conditions in the ad, as well as any other personal guidelines you have for the exchange.

Working with prospective buyers

Screening

Before you agree to meet with anyone, screen them carefully by phone. This is important for a number of reasons. First, it lets you weed out people who aren’t serious, as well as those who won’t find your vehicle to be a good fit for their needs. 

Secondly, you’ll get a better idea of their intentions. For example, if the individual begins using aggressive tactics or starts trying to drive down the price right away, you could be dealing with someone who wants to flip your car for profit. You’ll likely get a better price by passing and moving on to the next person. 

Chatting with the person about their needs will also help you spot potential scammers or people who might seem unsafe to deal with. Trust your gut. If someone seems off for any reason, don’t move forward.

Pricing

Even if you’ve set what you feel is a fair price, be prepared for people to try to talk you down a little. Know what the absolute minimum price you can accept is in advance, and negotiate with this in mind.

Scheduling

Decide when you’ll be available for test drives and schedule accordingly. It may be helpful to let prospective buyers know you’re showing the vehicle to multiple interested parties, as this can encourage them to make a decision more quickly. If you can, schedule appointments for days and times the DMV is open, so you can go and transfer the title right away.

Negotiation

Be ready to make a counteroffer. Even if the prospective buyer offers a price within your acceptable range, try asking, “Can you do $X?” This simple, nonintrusive question can help you get the most for your vehicle.

If a prospective buyer is hesitant about the price you want, it’s OK to walk away. Your nonchalant attitude may spur them to action, or you may have to wait for the next buyer, but having the right mindset ahead of time will help you get the amount you want and make the sales process simpler.

Safety and security

Your information

Scammers love getting their hands on any details they can. Don’t mention any personal addresses, places of work, names, or other details in your ad or emails. Hold off on giving a phone number until you’ve carefully vetted the individual through email exchanges and have verified they’re not giving off any warning signs. If you choose to use a photo hosting site for extra images, make sure you use the account only for this sale, that the public account details can’t be linked to you in real life, and that the only images included on the account are those of the vehicle. 

Speaking of photos, keep identifiable info and details out of your pictures. Things like notable buildings, reflections of faces and license plate numbers should all be blurred out in your photos.  

It’s also worth noting that savvy thieves may ask for your ID as a security measure, then use your identity to carry out scams. Don’t give anyone a copy of your ID, and don’t trust that an individual who sends you their ID is really who they say they are.

Scams

Watch out for signs of a scam. Digital expert Kim Komando writes on her site that scammers often use generic templates for their correspondence, say they aren’t local, ask to work through a third party, suggest suspicious methods of payment, make offers that are too good to be true, or express a sense of urgency. If you notice any of these signs, cease contact with the person and report it to Craigslist.

Keep working through the Craigslist relay system. If someone really is scamming you, chances are they’ll want to get off the relay system quickly, so they don’t lose contact with you if the site catches on. By staying with the relay system for your initial contacts, you keep your personal data safe and minimize your risk of getting scammed.

For payment, accept only cash or a cashier’s check. Scammers often try to pay by personal check or wire, and will sometimes even offer to pay you extra for your trouble. Don’t get fooled. 

If you’re worried about receiving counterfeit cash, have the buyer meet you at your bank with the money in hand. That way, the bank can verify if the bills are authentic and you’ll have the added security of video footage.

Test drives and safety

Meet and conduct the test drive in a single public location — definitely not your house. Some people choose to meet at police and fire departments for the added security. However, any highly populated and well-traveled public area will work.

Have a friend go in a separate car to the meeting. For the sake of safety, someone should know where you are and who you’re meeting, regardless, but you’re going to need a ride home if you sell your vehicle. Have your friend stay behind at the meeting point when you go out for the test drive. This reduces the risk of anything happening to you while you’re out, as the buyer will know someone is waiting for you to return. 

If you must go alone, don’t get in the car with the buyer. Instead, discuss the length of time they may have the vehicle out, and set a clear expectation for when it should be returned. A reasonable yet cautious buyer may want as much as 30 minutes behind the wheel.

Grab a photo of the buyer’s license before handing over the keys, and send the image to the friend who is with you and another friend who isn’t there. At this point, you can easily tell whether the person on the ID is the person checking out the vehicle, so having the image is a safety measure.

Create a map for the test drive to follow. If you’ve picked the area, you probably know it better than the buyer does. Generate a map with a route that requires various rates of speed, terrain, climbing and turns. Share it with a friend and with the buyer. 

Once you’ve completed the sale be sure to take down your ad. This will keep you from getting more emails and prevent shoppers from getting their hopes up.

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