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I bought my first car on Craigslist—here's exactly what the process was like in 6 steps

The author, with her Craigslist car
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Having lived in New York City for the past five years, it's been a while since I've had a car — and all of the expenses that come with one: insurance, gas and maintenance, to name a few. But when I moved to Los Angeles this month, where pretty much everybody drives, all of that changed.

I've never bought a car on my own (my parents helped me navigate the process in high school) and I had no idea where to start, so I consulted experts about steps to take, common mistakes and negotiation tactics.

I didn't intend to buy on Craigslist — I'd never even used the site before — but wound up finding exactly what I wanted within the budget I had set. Here's what the process was like.

1. I figured out exactly what I wanted

According to the experts, before you walk into a dealership or start test-driving cars, you should know exactly what type of vehicle you want to buy.

Settling on something within your budget that is right for you and your lifestyle is important for two reasons: If you're shopping at dealerships and show indecisiveness, "you're at the mercy of the salesperson," former car salesman David Weliver, who now runs personal finance website Money Under 30, told me. If the sales rep is good at their job, they'll play off your emotions and steer you towards something that's more profitable for them and more expensive for you.

Secondly, if you don't pick a car within your budget ahead of time, by the time you start test-driving, it'll be easier to convince yourself to buy more than you can afford.

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I knew that I wanted a small SUV with decent gas mileage. I also knew that I wanted to buy used and keep the total cost under $12,000 so that I could pay in cash and avoid financing the car. That in mind, I settled on the Toyota RAV4, which I'd driven as a rental car before and liked.

Since I didn't have many specific requirements or must-have features, I didn't labor over choosing the perfect model. If you want to put more time and effort into the selection process, you can use tools like Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book to research different cars, read reviews and compare models side-by-side.

2. I shopped around

Once you know what you want, experts recommend getting quotes from at least three dealerships. Using Kelley Blue Book, which lets you search for specific used cars in your area, I reached out to a few dealerships and asked for the total selling price of the car I was interested in.

Immediately after I expressed interest, emails, phone calls and even text messages from sales reps started flooding in. It was overwhelming, hectic and felt disingenuous. That's when I decided to try Craigslist, which lets you search for used cars and trucks for sale in your city.

After sifting through a few listings on the site, I was drawn to one RAV4 in particular and emailed the seller asking if it was still for sale. He confirmed it was so I called him up for more information. It was also cheaper than most of the listings I'd seen at dealerships. That lined up with what Matt Jones, the senior manager of insights at Edmunds, told me: "Private party tends to cost less than buying from a dealership."

That's because dealerships have certain rules and standards they have to adhere to when selling used cars — the brakes have to work, for example — and you pay a premium for that. "You have no recourse if you buy a car from a person," he said. "If you buy a car from a dealership, you have a little bit of recourse. The downside is, it will cost you more."

Buying from a private seller would mean more work on my end in terms of making sure I was buying a car with solid bones, but it seemed well worth it.

3. I asked for the VIN and other key information

With such a major purchase, I didn't want to just communicate via email. Talking to the seller on the phone, and hearing about the vehicle history and why he was selling the car, gave me confidence that it was a legitimate listing and priced fairly. As it turns out, we even had a mutual connection.

Talking to the seller on the phone, and hearing about the vehicle history and why he was selling the car, gave me confidence that it was a legit listing and priced fairly.

From our conversation, it sounded like a well-maintained car, but he also sent me the VIN (vehicle identification number) so I could do my own due diligence. The VIN is a 17-digit number that's assigned to every car in the U.S. and allows you to pull a Carfax vehicle history report. The report checks for things like accident history, service and repair history, estimated miles driven per year and recall information. It's a good way of confirming that what the seller is telling you about the car is true.

I ran the report for $43.54, which the seller offered to reimburse if I ended up buying the car, and it lined up with everything that he told me about it.

I also asked if he had the title and maintenance records. He had both.

4. I test drove the car

Since the seller had the proper documentation and the car, a 2007 model with about 108,000 miles on it, was well within my budget, I expressed interest and asked to test drive it.

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We met in a public place — the parking lot of a supermarket — in broad daylight. I also brought my mom along.

I inspected the interior and exterior of the vehicle, asked about the features, reviewed the maintenance records and took it out for a spin. I had zero complaints and told him I'd take it.

5. I bought car insurance

To register the car in my name, I would need proof of insurance. I got a few quotes from different providers and settled on one that met my needs for about $60 a month. The process took no longer than an hour.

6. I transferred the title and registered the car

The day after the test drive, I met the seller at the bank and wrote him a check for $7,849, the cost of the car. He wasn't open to negotiating the price — he used Kelley Blue Book and CarGurus to price it fairly, which I double-checked — but did reimburse me for the Carfax and threw in some nice add-ons, like floor mats, a car charger and a tire inflator.

We both signed the title, making me the official owner, and he handed over the keys.

Next, I headed to the DMV to change the registration to my name and get new plates. To do so, I needed proof of insurance, my drivers license and $5 in cash for the notary fee.

In total, I owed $317.89 at the DMV. Here's the breakdown of the fees:

  • Registration fee: $36
  • Certificate of Title: $52
  • Highway-use tax (HUT): $142.50
  • Property tax: $67.39
  • Vehicle fee: $20

The final step was for the seller to remove his plates and for me to install mine. Here's one last pro tip: Bring a screwdriver.

Don't miss: 3 important questions to ask before buying a used car

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The author, with her Craigslist car
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