So You Want to Buy a Car on The Internet…

I’ve been shopping for a used car. I know exactly what I want. The problem is getting it.

The vehicle I want isn’t common in my area, so I turned to the Internet to find one. What’s I’m finding, however, is that outside of buying via ebay, the shopping experience varies widely.

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Since this is the third time I’ve shopped for cars via the Internet, I had a pretty good idea of what I’d need. In preparation for the search, I made sure I had my handy-dandy Internet tools ready: I have a subscription to Consumer Reports online, I have a subscription to CarFax – so let’s hit it.

I used two big websites – autotrader.com and cars.com for my primary vehicle search engines. Almost immediately I hit a pothole – again and again. I naively assumed that, if the dealer is offering the vehicle via the Internet, that means the dealer has some clue about Internet basics — wrong! While some dealers have been very quick to respond to an Internet request (which they generally receive via email), some can’t even spell email. Some don’t actually READ the email or comments you enter. For example, one dealer keeps contacting me via phone even though I specifically stated in my contact message that I wanted email contact only! As a matter of fact, you generally can’t complete the contact forms with email only – you must include a phone number. So hurdle # 1 – dealers have difficulty responding/communicating via the Internet. They prefer the old school hard-sell tools like the phone call.

The difficulty that some dealers have in dealing with the web leads us amost immediate into Hurdle # 2 – dealers can be very bad at keeping the web data up-to-date, especially when it comes to removing “sold” vehicles from the web. I’ve seen at least one case where the dealer has reposted an already sold vehicle no less that 4 times in the past 3 months. I’ve notified them of it, they apologize and notify me it’s already sold, thank me, the vehicle disappears for a week or so, then reappears. This disappearing, reappearing trick happened to at least two other vehicle I was watching.

Hurdle # 3 – not all dealers are completely “honest” in their descriptions. Buyer be ware! As I mentioned earlier, I have been trying to be a “smart” shopper, so I also bought a subscription to CarFax. It really only provided some rudimentary info about vehicle registration, servicing, and accidents, but it’s better than having no information at all! It amazed me how many times the delear description of the car made reference to “amazingly clean, one-owner, blah blah blah” only to find the vehicle had been in a serious accident or two. The bottom line – don’t sign until you see the vehicle and test drive the vehicle (and have a mechanic look over the vehicle if at all possible). In any case – thanks, CarFax!

So after all the sifting and searching, taking my time looking at different vehicles and finding a dealer who had what I wanted at a price I wanted to pay, then what? Should have been easy at this point, right? Well, sometimes the best-laid plans come apart and this one did too. The problem was the insurance. This vehicle, a small SUV similar to one I already have, was going to cost significantly MORE to insure than the one I already had, even though it was a year older. Why? I was never given a good reason, just told that it’s “code” was different and it came up higher. I simply refused to pay almost 20% of the purchase value of the vehicle for the privelege of insuring it each year – wasn’t going to happen.

So, in the end, I decided not to complete the purchase this time, but the lessons learned have carried me through other vehicle purchases in the past and will likely serve me in the future. In any case, I’m sure I’ll be doing this again soon enough – maybe after I change insurance companies!


About the Author

Christopher Gavula
Chris has been a COBOL programmer, a desktop support technician, network engineer, telecommunications manager, and even a professional musician. Currently, he is focused on deploying Voice over IP technologies in a large, corporate setting. He started working full-time at the tender age of 14, even before there were PCs, and will probably be working and trying to finish “just one more project” as he’s lowered into the grave.