My wife and I are about to buy a used truck from its former owner, and there are a lot of (mostly online) steps you can take to make your life easier. I thought I’d pass them along. Here’s how we did it:
1. The set-up: My wife has wanted a little truck for a while. She has a company vehicle but is only allowed to drive it to/from work, so she’s been stranded at home in the afternoons until I come home from work. Strangely, this bothers her — and a little truck really would come in handy for us, so I supported this concept as well.
2. When we felt we were in good enough of a financial position to buy the truck for cash, we started shopping. I used three primary outlets to search for a truck online: Craigslist, Cars.com and Autotrader.com. All three take ads from dealers, although most of the Craiglist dealer ads come from small-lot outfits that I wanted to avoid.
3. Since my wife is almost certain to drive it less than 10,000 miles a year, I didn’t want to spend too much money on a truck — but also didn’t want a ‘beater.’ I started searching for Ford Rangers, Toyota Tacomas, Nissan Frontiers and Mazda trucks (which are basically Ford Rangers with a different grill) that were less than 10 years old with less than 100,000 miles on them, at a maximum cost of $7,000.
4. We purchased a one-month Carfax.com subscription for $40. Carfax lists the history of major repairs, sales, etc. of almost all vehicles. Thanks to Carfax, we discovered some dealer-lot trucks that might have been title-washed, were rebuilt from salvage after being declared ‘totaled’ in major accidents (in one case, twice!), had questionable odometer readings and so on.
5. As it turns out, Craigslist gave us the best leads. The first truck we pursued belonged to an owner who was leaving town for a week (why would you advertise a vehicle for sale and then leave town?). The second was a 2002 Ranger with 72,000 miles. A quick check of Edmunds.com and Kellybluebook.com indicated his price was in an appropriate ballpark for a private sale.
6. My wife called him up; she said he was a straightforward guy who was just seeking to sell his vehicle and buy a new one — he used the truck as a daily driver — and she went to give the truck a test drive. That went well, and she said the only problem she saw was a cut in a sidewall of a tire — which I knew would mean the tire would have to be replaced.
7. We made an offer contingent on a mechanic’s inspection. Now, this used to mean that you’d have to get the vehicle to a garage, which was inconvenient for both you and the seller — but no more.
8. We hired Carchex.com to send an inspector *to* the vehicle, go through it and give it a test drive of his own. It cost $150, and within two days, we had a detailed online report about the vehicle, complete with a list of minor problems (the aforementioned tires and the paint, which is scratched and will need some reconditioning). Included with the report were more than 60 (!) photos of the truck.
These reports are really useful. When you’re negotiating with someone over a sale and you point out a potential problem, it can get personal. Sellers get tired of whining tire-kickers, or they have too much personal pride in their vehicle and have a hard time looking at it objectively, or on rare occasion are simply trying to rip people off and are willing to get personal to do it. Having an inspection from a third-party mechanic helps calm everything down when you get to this stage of the deal.
The inspector pointed out the paint issues, almost all of which I felt I could resolve with a weekend’s work, and said both front tires would have to be replaced. Actually, for a seven-year-old vehicle with more than 70,000 miles, those are minor problems. We reduced our offer by a few hundred dollars, pricing in the cost of replacing tires, and the seller accepted.
Now we have to close. This requires going to the seller’s credit union because he’s got a little bit of loan to still pay off. We made sure the credit union, as well as the seller, knew we were coming to do this — and we’re ready to go. Hopefully, by Monday afternoon, the truck will be ours.