We recently bought a used van off Craigslist for cash.
I've been burned before when buying a cell phone off Criagslist, in which the teen owner had not had his mother take his phone off the lost/stolen list before selling it. Fortunately, his parents took my panicked calls and met us at the phone store to activate the device in my name.
We've also had a bad experience with a used van. A thousand dollars will buy a running vehicle, but there are always a few catches in those great deals. Since I had been hit in the Blizzaster snowstorm by a speeding SUV that hit ice and totaled my third-previous minivan, we bought fast from a guy who turned out to be very sketchy. He had altered the title and taken a hammer to the odometer, but had our cash in his hand and had turned over the key before we realized these defects.
So we approached the van purchase this time around with an abundance of caution. We had a list of priorities in mind, a price range, only what we could afford to pay in cash, a mileage range, and some repairs that my husband said he would be willing to do, versus a list of car defects that we would veto.
Craigslist in the Madison, Wisconsin area was much more promising than the few listings we saw in the Chicago area, so we headed up to the Cooksville farmstead on the Fourth of July to sleep on the options.
On Friday the fifth, we headed to Madison, passing first by an auto dealer on a country road near the farm. I liked the idea of dealing with a small business. We saw a few vans on the lot, and were unsure about the prices because the painted figure on the front of the windshield was significantly lower than the price listed on the paperwork hanging on the passenger side. Still, we saw a couple promising vehicles and went to the office to inquire. Unfortunately, the doors were locked up and the sign read that the owner was away, please call his cell phone. I called and left a message. That's when I noted the other sign on the door of his business:
activist against gun violence I didn't know if I could buy a van from a person so prone to mistrust.
We had emailed a few other sellers and had heard back, but wanted to set appointment times. Friday after a holiday on a long weekend is not the best time to bother people at home, but one woman took our call. She was on her way out on a bike ride, but said she'd wait for us if we came right away. We liked her van, and she handed us her keys to test drive it. I thought I should give her a credit card, so I offered her identification, but she said she trusted us, and we were leaving our truck by her condo. She told us the van had taken her family to Florida many times, but that her boys were independent now and she'd replaced the van with a smaller vehicle, so it was time.
The van drove smoothly, but we had agreed to think about the price and choice over lunch. So we headed to a Thai restaurant to think it out. We were greeted with a welcome sign:
Over Pad Thai and green curry, we discussed the pros and cons. The owner had a folder with a record of all repairs and maintenance. She had agreed to come down by $400 on the selling price. Our dream vehicle, the Honda Odyssey, (which seats eight!) was elusive. We liked the color, seven seats is enough for us, the price was good, mileage was not too bad.
When we went back to buy the van, the owner was just returning from her bike ride. She invited us in to meet her dog and to sign papers. We found out that we are both teachers. She showed me her herb and flower garden, and then we counted cash together. As she hand-wrote a bill of sale, she offered me her social security number, which I said I didn't think I would need for registration. She said to call if we needed anything.
As we were driving away we realized that we still had her license plates, so we went back to her door again to see whether she wanted to keep them. She seemed a bit nervous, perhaps wondering if we were having second thoughts or if the van had a problem.
As I thought about the risks fo doing business with strangers, it made a lot more sense to deal with people who base their interactions on mutual trust and human decency, rather than relying on the threat of killing their customers. In my humble opinion...