The Craigslist economy, Part 2

The Thinker by Rodin

I can see now why newspapers like The Washington Post are hurting. It used to be that if you wanted to sell something big, like a house or a used car, you called up The Washington Post classified desk, gave them your credit card number and a couple of days later your ad would appear in their classifieds. For a small ad, you were out $50 to $100.

In the 2000s, the way to sell your stuff online was to auction it on eBay. It’s still a good solution but of course eBay wants its cut. I tried it some five years ago when I had people bid on our very used 1992 Toyota Camry. I expected that people might want to first come and test-drive it, but no, just having photos online was enough. It was sold sight unseen for about $1000. I regretted the experience and wished I had paid for a Washington Post classified ad instead. I figured I would have gotten a lot more money for the car.

Given my recent success on Craigslist finding labor to remove an old basketball post, I thought I would try it for the larger task of selling a used car. I did not like my experience with eBay, at least for something as large as a car. And paying for ads seemed so yesterday. Granted, even on Craigslist some people have to pay to advertise. If you are selling commercially, you are expected to pay for your ad. (Apparently, many businesses figure fees are optional and are pretending car sales are private sales, when they are not.) However, if you are just an average Joe with something to sell, you just post it on Craigslist for free. No credit card numbers. No waiting for days for your ad to appear. The ad usually appears online within ten minutes.

As I discovered selling our 1997 Honda Odyssey, selling an automobile on Craigslist is not that hard. Craigslist can give you a temporary email address that forwards mail to your real email address. Call me paranoid, or too scared that the average Craigslist surfer is one of the unprincipled, erotic denizens haunting its casual encounter community. I decided to ditch my Yahoo account that I set up in 1998 for these purposes (too much spam) in favor of a new GMail account instead. Better safe than sorry.

There were also the minor matters of preparing the car for sale, taking pictures of it to post and figuring out a good sales price. I knew that if I sold it as a trade in, any dealership would give me a lot less than a private sale price. Selling it myself is a hassle, but not so much of a hassle that I wanted to take a $500-$1000 hit to avoid it. Therefore, I went to edmunds.com instead, where I determined my minivan was worth about $2000. It seemed a good starting price. I advertised it for $1999. And in a fit of honesty I did not hide anything in my ad. I warned buyers that the antilock brakes did not work (our mechanic said it was not worth the cost) and going between second and third gears the transmission jumped a bit. Otherwise, it was in great shape. I don’t know what’s Honda’s secret is, but thirteen years later the body almost looks new. No nicks, no scrapes, no rust, nor was I meticulous about washing and waxing it.

While my first encounter with a Craiglist denizen (Shawn, the guy who removed my basketball post) went well, I was still a bit leery. First, there is a large community of scammers out there preying on people, particularly on people selling automobiles. So I decided I would not accept any personal checks. I would accept no cashier checks either, unless they were from a local bank or credit union. Cash was fine but I figured it was unlikely someone would pay cash. Who would carry around $2000 in cash?

My ad went up Wednesday night. Ten people inquired about the car. Perhaps the most unusual inquiry was from a guy who rang me up Friday night. He was calling from out of town, exact location undisclosed, but he said he can fly for free. He wanted to fly into Dulles, check out the car and if okay, drive it home. Driving it home seemed problematical since it did not have a set of plates on it. He said he would pay cash. He sounded very serious. He had me opening the hood of the car and telling him the type of engine I had. Maybe he was just scrounging for parts or hoped to steal the van if I gave him our address. In any event, he did not call back the next day to tell me he was flying in.

Another guy came by to test-drive it. It was technically illegal to test drive the car, as its vanity plates had been put on its replacement (a Subaru Impreza for my wife). However, I felt it was safe to ride shotgun while he drove it around the neighborhood. He had the same model, 1998 edition and he liked it so much he wanted another just like it. He liked what he saw and made a verbal commitment to buy the car if I would come down in price. We dickered and settled on $1700, which was probably less than it was worth but I wanted it gone. Of course, these things are complicated. He worked late at the airport, my wife was at work all day and she needed to co-sign the title, so he would have to come by in the evening. He planned to but had to work late and did not make it by our 10 p.m. deadline. When I called him this morning, he was concerned about the car’s lack of an ABS, figuring it would not get through inspection, which was not true.

I kept wondering how I would feel if the private sale were done in cash, like this guy wanted to do. He seemed nice enough, but he suggested that my wife just sign the title when she was home, then we could conclude the sale at our convenience. I thought: would I be comfortable with this man alone in my house? He was African American, which made me wonder if I would feel the same way if the guy were white. I honestly did not know the answer to that one but felt somewhat bad that the thought went through my brain. Given my suspicions about Craigslist people, maybe we should transfer the title in a public place, like a Starbucks? I figured better safe than sorry.

After our call this morning, I sensed cold feet and told him I would put our van back on the market. I had other people interested in my email box. One of them showed up this afternoon with his wife and three kids. He spent ten minutes driving it with his family around the neighborhood. He was ready to purchase now. His wife had already been to the ATM and withdrawn the money. So we all went inside our house. I guess no Starbucks was needed if the guy is driving a Toyota Camry station wagon and the kids are enjoying jumping in the back seat of their new car. His wife plopped down $1900 in cash on our dining room table and gave me a check for the $99 balance. We gave him the keys, signed the title, wrote up a bill of sale for DMV and handed over our maintenance records. And there it sits in our driveway for a couple of days until he gets the plates and drives it away.

$1900 in crisp, twenty-dollar bills paid out right on our dining room table. Maybe drug dealers are used to carrying this amount of cash but I am not. All that cash made me nervous. We shook their hands and wished them luck. I was frankly surprised they did not negotiate the price down.

Thus concludes, I hope, my latest Craigslist adventure. I have a feeling more Craigslist adventures lie ahead for us. What’s next? Advertise our house for sale by owner on Craigslist? It seems like you can sell pretty much anything on Craigslist. If we ever sell the house, I sure hope the buyer doesn’t bring a suitcase of twenty dollar bills.