You've found what seems to be the car of your dreams. Unfortunately, it's on the other side of the country. Conventional wisdom tells you not to buy it until you've driven it and had it inspected. Can you make sure it's not a lemon and get it at the right price without checking it out in person?
These days, many people are perfectly happy with cars they have purchased virtually sight unseen. The key is to use an array of Internet tools and buying, inspecting and shipping services. By using them, you can shop from a much larger pool of vehicles and can often find a better bargain.
Exploit Regional Differences
Certain cars sell at a premium in some sections of the country due to regional preferences. For example, the affordability of all-wheel-drive Subarus makes them strong sellers in the Northeast and Northwest. Someone who lives there could shop for a Subaru in other areas of the country, perhaps the Southwest or Texas, where cars with all-wheel drive are priced lower, and probably save more than enough to cover shipping.
This is just one example of the private-party used-car shopping you can do on eBay Motors, Autotrader.com and Craigslist. These sites allow buyers to use filtered searches to connect them with just the right cars.
But the fact remains that most car buyers want the security of inspecting the car to make sure it is what they want before they buy it. Here's how you can make that happen without jumping on an airplane.
Start With Photographs
One online buyer told us, "I've done at least 100 transactions over the Internet and I've never had a bad experience." However, another experienced car shopper flatly stated, "I'd never buy a car sight unseen. Everyone lies about something." Clearly, there are many different types of car shoppers who require different levels of detail before they will make a purchase. There's a fair amount you can do to assess a car's condition from afar, starting with photos.
Nearly all online ads these days include photos of the vehicle that's for sale. But many of them are poorly composed and show little more than the outside of the car. To get the most in-depth information, focus on the vehicles that have a complete set of pictures that show high-wear areas such as the driver seat, the front end (often pitted or dinged from parking) and the underside, which may have been scraped or damaged. If there are photos showing tire tread, that's also a great help. A new set of tires can run from $500-$1,000 and drastically affect the negotiated price of the car.
Ask the seller if the photos are current, and look for ads that actually mention damage or imperfections. That may indicate that you're dealing with a seller who will give you full disclosure about all aspects of the car's condition. Once you're in discussions with a potential seller, you also can ask to see additional photos.
Vehicle History Reports
Most car ads now provide the vehicle identification number (VIN). Using this 17-digit number you can run a vehicle history report through a service such as Carfax or Autocheck. (Carfax also allows you to run reports by using U.S. license plates.) Many online classified sites will even provide a vehicle history report in the ad at no cost to potential buyers.
You can buy single reports or an unlimited number for one price. (Vehicle history companies vary in how they offer unlimited reports; check their sites for details.) We recommend that you go for the option of multiple reports when you're starting your car buying process.
We can't stress strongly enough the importance of running a vehicle history report on any car before you purchase it. The vehicle history report will warn you about potential problems including salvage titles (from a serious accident or flood damage), prior accidents, multiple owners and odometer rollbacks.
Mobile Vehicle Inspections
If you're considering spending $20,000 on a vehicle, it makes sense to spend $100 to inspect it. If you have friends in the area where the car is located, you could send them to take a look at the car. But unless one of your friends is a mechanic, you're better off hiring a mobile inspector such as Alliance Inspection Management or the service advertised on eBay Motors, SGS, to look over your planned purchase.
Usually, these inspectors can generate a report within 24 hours. While they don't test-drive the car, they can often detect frame damage, evidence of serious accidents, dings or paint damage and interior wear and tear that might not show up in photos or the owner's vehicle description. Knowing exactly what shape the car is in will give you the ammunition you need to negotiate intelligently. It can also prevent you from buying a lemon.
Online car buying has become the target of scammers who are often overseas and are advertising cars that don't exist. They pressure interested buyers to send money to bogus escrow agencies, keep the money and then fold up their tents and move on.
Online fraud is not hard to avoid, and the best defense is just to use common sense. For starters, it is essential to make phone contact with the buyer and verify that they're in possession of a car that actually exists. You can then use follow-up questions about the vehicle's condition and discussions about payment and delivery details to further confirm that you're dealing with an actual seller. Remember, legitimate sellers will be open to phone calls, while con artists will try to hide behind e-mails and texts.
Close the Deal Remotely
You don't want any money to exchange hands until you've taken possession of the vehicle. The seller doesn't want to ship the vehicle until you pay for it. How do you break this stalemate?
One solution is to use a service such as Escrow.com. Basically, this service acts as a middle man to verify that payment has been made so the seller can release the vehicle. Both parties are protected if anything goes wrong.
One more thing about escrow services: This is NOT a product that Edmunds.com provides. If you see anyone asking you to send money to "Edmunds Protection Vault" or "Edmunds Autos," for example, it is a fraudulent use of our name, and very likely a scam.
Coast-to-coast car shipping used to be difficult to arrange for the average car shopper. But most shipping services have opened their operations to private-party buyers. This means you can shop nationwide for your next used car and have it shipped to your door. Direct Express Auto Transport is just one company that works with individuals. Google "auto shipping" and be sure to compare rates. Shipping a car coast to coast can cost $2,000 in a covered truck. Shipping in an uncovered truck costs less. Choosing a longer shipping time drops the price even further.
When you're shopping for a bargain, remember that you need to save enough money by buying remotely to cover the shipping cost.
Verify, Verify and Verify Again Before You Buy
While there is more risk when you're buying a car from afar, there are several advantages, including lower cost and a larger selection. But remember not to cut this process short: The name of the game is verification and communication. If you do both, you are well on your way to a smooth transaction and a great used car deal.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.