Things to watch out for when selling your car on Craigslist

This is a true account of a newbie’s (that’s me!) experience selling his car on Craigslist. The transaction happened a few days ago and I had some time to reflect on it more. The purpose of this post is to document some of the things that, in hindsight, seem suspicious and to let others know what to watch out for while selling their vehicle. Note that most of what I have written are quite speculative – there is no way for me to prove or disprove them. I am just documenting why I think they were (very) suspicious. If you are ever thinking of selling/buying a car, you might want to read through this to form your opinion.

By the way, one thing you should know about me is that I am a rather cynical and skeptical person. Unless I can verify it, I usually don't believe anything that people tell me. Blame this on getting duped by religion for a good decade of my life. So I might be viewing everything too suspiciously. OK, enough about that, let's get on with the story.

My roommate, posted a Craigslist’s ad for our 2001 Volkswagen Passat at 1 am on Thursday. Our car didn’t pass the smog and emissions checks and we were reluctant to take it to California with us. We were second owners of the car and the car is in pretty good condition. We were aware of a few minor defects (like the seat not reclining completely, etc). We weren’t asking for a high price. We were asking for $4600 which was decent given the known defects. We paid $9995 for the car when we bought it about 7 years ago. It’s a GLX so it has all the nice extras such as a V6 engine, leather seats, heated front seats, styling, etc. It has 150,000 miles on it so it’s not a new car but it has been well-maintained.

We were leaving campus soon and we wanted to sell off our car quickly. We were prepared to lower the price quite a bit. The money we get back will help subsidize the down payment for a new car.

Though we posted the ad at 1 am, by next morning, we had around 5 requests to see the car. One person was prepared to offer $3750 in cash. There were a few others who tried to bargain it down immediately. One person was even more prompt: he requested to see the car at 10.15.

Let's call this person F. F is the main character of the story since he ultimately ending up purchasing the car.

F came by and looked at the car. He told a story about how he was purchasing this car for his daughter who was going to study at Georgia State in the fall. He was looking for something that would be good for her. Because of the broken seat that couldn’t recline, he was not able to test drive it. So he wanted to ask his sister to come by later to test drive it. His daughter was not around to test drive it now.

One of the easiest way to form rapport is to tell a story about a family member in a similar situation. In this case, he used the story of his daughter who was going to college. As college students ourselves, we can definitely associate with that and would be more sympathetic to his requests. Whether his story was true or not doesn't really matter. He was trying to form rapport.

Dale Carnegie wrote the book How to Win Friends and Influence People with very good advice on how to form rapport. It's been some time since I read it but I believe that this was one of the techniques. Carnegie, obviously, wasn't advocating for his techniques to be used in such devious ways....

F also asked if the price could be lowered because of the seat. We were aware of the seat and had anticipated lowering the price based on that. That was not a problem. We got a quote from the dealer on how to fix the seat and it was going to cost $241 for parts. Labor will probably cost another $100. At this point, he wanted to lower the cost to $3800, which we agreed to. Again, this might seem like a lost, but we felt it was all right – more on this later.

He said he can get $3800 in cash for the same day. And that we should do a buyer’s check at his mechanic. This was a reasonable request because when selling your car, you should always do a buyer’s check at the buyer’s mechanic of choice. It seems only fair.

So we met up at 6 pm to go to his mechanic. He was in his own car with three young children. I talked to him a bit and he said that they were all in elementary school.

It felt a bit weird to me that he will bring his kids with him to buy/sell a car. This is my most speculative suspicion in this post, but I think he might have done that again just to build some rapport. By showing that he is a family person with many kids to support, it makes us more likely to reduce the price. Again, this is pure speculation but I am not even sure if the kids are his. Maybe one of them was his and the rest were either his nieces or just some school friends.

His mechanic – call him J – seemed quite knowledgeable. He pointed out a few problems with the axle that we were aware of from talking to our own mechanic. They were not immediate issues but they were things that had to be taken care off if you were going to drive the car in the long run. All in all, the cost of repairs could be a few hundred dollars – maintaining a Volkswagen isn’t cheap since all the parts have to come from overseas. Repairing the timing belt alone could be $1000 according to our own mechanic.

The only issue with J the mechanic? He was operating from a very suspicious location. Basically, it was from a storage unit! If you have ever watched an episode of Breaking Bad, this almost felt like some shaddy location where they would do one of their exchanges. Fortunately, I had someone else come along with us in a different car. And I had told all my friends where I was going. So here’s another lesson for you: always bring someone else with you especially if you are going to sell the car and need a ride back. Don’t take the ride back from the buyer since you would be at his mercy.

After J pointed out the issues, F bargained to lower the price down to around $3100. Again, I didn’t mind since we wanted to sell this off and the issues the mechanic raised seemed fair (and matches with what our mechanic told us). This is also, where his story of buying the car for his daughter becomes useful. If it were true, we certainly would want this daughter to drive a car that had been properly fixed (timing belt changed, car axles taken care of, etc).

At this point, he mentioned that he only had $3000 in cash and asked if it would be all right to have the remaining $100 in check. We said fine. Why did we agree? At this point, we (my roomate and I) agreed $3000 was a good price. Whether we got the remaining check or not (maybe it will bounce) was not a problem to us.

The astute reader might have caught on the fact that he said that he was going to buy the car for $3800 cash. And now he only mentioned that he had $3000? Where did the remaining $800 go? Clearly he wasn’t prepared to pay the $800. This was very suspicious. If we were not prepared to go down to $3000, we would have canceled the deal immediately.

So we drove to his house to pick up the money. It was raining that day and I believe that he took the most circuitous route to arrive at his place. It was much longer and further than it needed to be. And he used all the backroads. I am speculating that this was a ploy to tire us out mentally. It was already late in the day, raining and we simply didn’t want to have to deal with these hassles again if the deal didn’t go through.

At his house, he took his time trying to get the cash. He was fumbling around and finally said that he couldn’t find his wife’s check book to write us the $100. Again, at this point, as sellers this was a red flag and you should cancel the transaction immediately instead of giving the buyer the benefit of doubt. He said that he will bring the check to us tomorrow at our place. We managed to get the $3000 though, in cash, which was important. So we sign off on the title and handed him the car.

As mentioned earlier, we weren't counting on getting the $100. There was the real possibility of his check bouncing. Or him no showing up the next day.

Anyway, as any good researcher would do, I took this as an opportunity to conduct an experiment. If he had actually showed up with the check the next day, my faith in humanity would be restored. If he didn't show up, then it just proves that you can never trust people when it comes to money.

F, however, did something really unexpected the next day....

I was about to contact him the next day for the remaining $100 when he called me first. He told me that after talking it over to his wife he decided that he didn’t think the car was a good match for his daughter’s needs. They would prefer something that she could drive immediately without having to make the repairs. Then he was “nice” enough to say that he return the car and give us a “few hundred back” for our time.

I told him that the sale was final and he had seen the car and its condition. Since he talked to his mechanic, he should also be aware of the cost and time of repairs. I also said that we had signed off on the title.

F then replied that he “talked” to people at the DMV and that usually buyers and sellers have a “48-hour period” to back off. He also mentioned that it was possible to just restore the original title at the DMV.

I said no. He seemed fine with the decision. But it was not clear if he would pursue the “48-hour period” issue.

I was really concerned about the “48-hour period” issue he raised. If this were my own home country, it would be easy to call this bollocks. There is no such rule from where I am from. However, this is the United States. If you buy something there is always an accompanying return policy, usually a very permissive one. I wasn’t sure if this applied to cars sold privately.

So, now I have something else on my plate. I needed to go seek legal services to see if what he said has merit. Perhaps he would pursue legal matters to settle this. And I just didn’t have the time to deal with this unexpectedness.

We talked to a couple of my American friends. Most of them said what F said was plain nonsense. However, none of them are legal experts so I still couldn’t be sure. I made an appointment with student legal services to get to the bottom of this.

When I finally met with student legal services, the lawyer confirmed that there was no such “48-hour period” thing. Once the title has been transferred and the payment has been received, the transaction was over. When I asked if I should prompt F for the remaining $100, the lawyer advised against it. His words were “let sleeping dogs lie”, which I completely agree with.

Of course, after all this, the issue of the remaining $100 was never raised again. So F got what he wanted – a good car for $3000. This was probably his ploy from the beginning.

All in all, I don’t mind selling the car at a cheaper price to F. Getting $3000 was good enough for us because it can be used as a down payment for a new car. I just wished he didn’t pull the stunt with trying to return it. He might be a professional buyer who prowls Craigslist for cheap luxury cars from university students and then tries to sell them for higher later. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a workable business model. But he just didn’t need shit to pull that off. The fact that he knew what to say, how to handle the business transaction, etc seems to strongly suggest that he has done this before.

To summarize here are the list of suspicious things that you should definitely watch out for while selling your car:

  1. Watch out for people telling a story about buying a car for his/her close family member. It’s probably a way to form a connection with you as the seller. It’s probably best to be as apathetic as possible.
  2. Know the condition of the car before selling it. Do your own check at a mechanic you can trust. That way you can see if both assessments match.
  3. Be firm on the price that you are willing to accept and don’t go below this. Ours was $3000.
  4. Know that you have should walk away from the deal anytime you feel something is suspicious. Always do all the transactions in public spaces and be sure to have a witness.

Again, like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have no way to prove any of what I have written. It’s all speculative. However, given the number of red flags, I think it is safe to say that F definitely had something up his sleeve from the beginning.

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