How (Not) To Sell a Car on Craigslist – Part 1

by Steve Edwards

Here is an unassailable fact: the free market and the automobile are what made America great.

But unfettered capitalism and horseless carriages wouldn’t realize their full potential until the advent of the single most important Internet phenomenon ever: the “Cars + Trucks” ads on Craigslist.

When Adam Smith and Henry Ford stopped being “Strictly Platonic” and headed straight for “Men-Seeking-Nazis”, they had a hot and heavy night in the backseat of a Pontiac Catalina. And the child of this unholy union was the amazing wonderland of trucking, bartering, and serial killers that is “Cars + Trucks”.


  Craigslist, where it’s always 1998.

Craigslist, where it’s always 1998.

It’s hard to say exactly how many hundreds of thousands of cars of all stripes are bought and sold on Craigslist every year (mostly because Craigslist does not keep these kinds of statistics), but it is far and away the largest automotive marketplace on earth.

Of course, largest doesn’t mean best. Imagine that you distilled every single sleazy characteristic from your local used car salesman (Buy Here! Pay Here!), added healthy dashes of arrogance, cluelessness, passive aggression, plain old regular aggression, unchecked illiteracy, hubris, terrible photography, SHOUTING, and meth, and then baked them together in a flaky, buttery shell of pure paranoia. The result is the “Cars + Trucks” section.

  “I’ve got a real nice wood chipper that I could trade you for that Miata.”

“I’ve got a real nice wood chipper that I could trade you for that Miata.”

It’s a scary place to be if you’re not well versed in its “vocabulary” (I use this term very, very loosely), or its arcane and opaque ways. However, you cannot consider yourself a fully realized homo economicus until you have bought and sold a car on Craigslist. And that’s what I’m here to help you do.

There comes a time in every motoring life when your automobile needs to find a new home. Maybe you spilled a liter’s worth of dip spit and seven years of Taco Bell wrappers between the seats, and you just can’t quite get it clean. Maybe your transmission has been possessed by demons and is seeping human blood. Maybe you decided that riding your bicycle to work is a healthier option (it’s not). Maybe you’re trying to skip town for reasons that are unclear even to you, and you need to rid yourself of all your worldly goods. 

  “Runs good, could be a fast car with a little TLC.”

“Runs good, could be a fast car with a little TLC.”

Whatever the reason may be, there will be a time when you need Craigslist and you need it fast. Here are some tips on how to not get scammed by a dude living in his parents’ basement.



We are starting with the selling side of things. Let’s discuss a few general rules for posting your automotive ad on Craigslist:

1. Never, ever include your actual phone number. Trust me, fielding all the email spam in the world, and fighting off every single Bolivian phishing operation is infinitely more tolerable than giving your phone number to local Craigslist strangers.

2. Try to be accurate in the description of your car, and include information that’s not painfully apparent in the photographs. “Silver Porsche Cayenne for sale, $23,500 obo” is not a sufficient description. I can see from your single thumb-obscured blurry photograph that this is indeed an overpriced silver SUV. How many miles does it have? Any recent maintenance? Known problems? Dead hookers in the trunk? What does “obo” even mean?

3. It’s a Camaro, not a “Camero”. The kinds of buyers who search for “Cameros” are the kinds of buyers you can expect. Come to think of it, if you’re driving a Camaro right now, this probably doesn’t even make sense to you. Never mind.

4. Avoid these common phrases:

  • “NO SCAMMERS” (Because: This really scares ‘em off!)
  • “Don’t waste my time” (Because: Advertising your car for sale in the first place, and turning your unwanted vehicle into cold, hard cash is a waste of time?)
  • “No joy rides” (Because: Your car is so fucking awesome that people just want to show up and drive it for fun; see “Don’t waste my time”, above.)
  • “Ran when parked” (Because: This is always a lie.)
  • “Will consider trades for guns, ATVs, gold coins” (Because: Never offer to trade your car for anything, ever. The proposals you will receive in turn would shock even the most hardened serial murderers.)

5. Your Honda Civic is not “fast & furius” (sic), and it does not have a “racing tran]mission” (sic). Typing those things IN ALL CAPS does not make them true.

6. Don’t treat photographs of your car like they are rare gold doubloons. Digital photography is generally free these days, and Craigslist allows up to 24 photos in each ad, so don’t hold back. You can even take a picture of the inside of the car, and the engine. It’s true! It may require opening the door, or the hood, but you can do it. Try taking these photographs during the day.

7. Your license plate is something that everyone sees in public wherever you drive all the time. Obscuring it in a photo with a well-placed finger or a paper towel in a misguided attempt to protect your identity only signals to a buyer that you are genuinely dense.

  From an actual Craigslist ad.     “That one. That one right there.”

From an actual Craigslist ad.

“That one. That one right there.”

Note that the seller couldn’t even be bothered to move to the other side of the fence to take this photograph. “Ugh, I have to open the gate?” It was the only picture included with this particular ad.

8. If you’re a natural introvert, steel yourself, because you are going to meet an eye-popping range of bizarre, villainous, downright dumb, and occasionally hilarious people. You will be surprised at the diversity of human beings who live in your city just by announcing “Hey! I’ve got a car for sale!” on the Internet.

9. Here are just a handful of my own honest-to-God interactions with car buyers on Craigslist:

  • A New Zealander brought $10,000 in cash (mostly twenties) stuffed into a manila envelope, and his mother, to my house so he could buy a Volkswagen from me. He didn’t even haggle.
  • I sold a Mercedes Benz 300SD – possibly the largest sedan in the history of the world – to a “bona fide midget” (his words) from a town 200 miles away. At 3’6” he couldn’t even test-drive the car. I had to do that for him, and his 15 year-old niece (not a “bona fide midget”) drove it 200 miles back to wherever they came from. (This story deserves a post all on its own.)
  • One Craigslister engaged in an in-depth, barely coherent email conversation with me for nearly three weeks about an eight hundred dollar Volvo I was selling, and never came to see it. When the car didn’t sell the first time around and I had to repost the expired ad, he emailed me again with the same exact questions.
  • I sold a set of wheels and tires to a buyer who, when he came to see them, angrily accused me of misrepresenting the condition of the wheels in my pictures. When he showed me the photos in question on his phone, he was looking at someone else’s ad. An ad listed in another city.
  • Once, I posted a Nissan Pathfinder on Craigslist, and I started the bidding at $2000. One buyer who came to look at it offered me $1750, which I was willing to accept, but then he asked if he could give me $150 that day, and make payments on the rest. No. No, you cannot. He thought I was being unreasonable.

These are the kinds of people you will encounter in your Craigslist odyssey.

10. Temper your expectations, and price your car accordingly. Your 1992 Dodge Shadow is not a “rare model”, and putting $400 worth of new tires on your $300 car does not make it worth $700. There are a number of online resources that can help you value your car, such as NADA Guides and Kelley Blue Book. But know this: they are bullshit.

11. Did you know that there’s an entirely different NADA Guide sold only to car dealers, with completely different values for the exact same cars listed in the NADA Guide available to the general public? The best way to value your vehicle is to compare how other ill-informed idiots are pricing similar cars in your local market. The best source for that information? Craigslist.

Once you have that well-crafted ad-copy in place, and have uploaded your Flare-filter photos, get ready to rake in the pesos. In our next installments, we’ll deconstruct an actual Craigslist car ad, talk about how to prepare your vehicle for a quick and profitable sale, and summon the courage to manage negotiations with real-life psychopaths.

If The Blowhard is the new Gawker, then Steve Edwards is your Jalopnik. He owns four cars made in four different countries, one of which is fully functional. He blogs about cars and travel here, and sometimes here.