Driving a new car is exhilarating, even if the initial excitement is short-lived. But the process of buying one is rarely so: Pushy dealers. Endless negotiations. Upsells.
It’s even worse when you buy a used car. Many dealers shunt you off to a second-rate sales experience when you opt to buy used.
For many reasons (worthy of another post) I prefer to buy late model used cars whenever I can. After my family’s second car finally called it quits over the winter holidays, I begrudgingly set out to find a replacement.
Off to the used car lot
My first stop was CarMax. CarMax has a lot of good things going for it. If you’re trying to narrow down a short list from a lot of different cars, you can check many of them off your list in an hour or two at CarMax. They carry just about every make and model. It’s very efficient.
This was my first time test driving at CarMax and I came away wondering how the company stays in business. I sold a car to CarMax a while ago and the process was very easy. But just about every car I test drove at CarMax had a problem with it.
The plug-in hybrid had no battery life left. Worse, it had a serious transmission problem.
Another car had a flat tire and was running on run-flats.
Another had a seriously jacked suspension.
It was almost comical. When I got into each car I played a guessing game about what would be wrong with it.
To the big brand dealers
My next stop was to the luxury brand dealer used car lots. It was a step up from CarMax because the cars actually worked. But I was flummoxed by a couple of things.
1. I had a few specific requirements for the car, including a backup camera. I found that most dealers are inconsistent in how they label the features their used cars have.
2. Pushy salespeople.
The BMW dealer was particularly frustrating. Its website had a horrible user interface. Figuring out which options the cars had was almost impossible. Some car listings had all of the features listed while others had just basic info.
I assumed that the salespeople would have better data on which cars had which features. So when I sat down with a salesperson and told him I wanted to drive a car with a backup camera,
I was shocked at what happened next. He literally opened the website, went to each car listing individually, and clicked through all of the pictures looking for which ones had photos of a backup camera!
Nirvana at Carvana
Frustrated with my real-world experiences, I decided to check out online car sellers.
The idea of buying a used car sight-unseen might be scary to you. I’ve done it before, though.
Online-only used car sellers tend to have generous return provisions to make you feel comfortable. For example, Carvana has a 7-day, no questions asked guarantee.
Carvana seems to be the heavyweight in online used cars. It’s a publicly traded company with a $3 billion market cap. Compared to a couple of other online used car sites, Carvana has higher standards for the cars it will sell. It doesn’t sell any cars that have accidents reported on their CarFax report. It also seems to stay away from cars that were used for a special purpose, such as fleet and rental. [Update: it seems that Carvana has been adding more fleet/rental cars.]
And compared to all of the dealer sites I visited as well as used car aggregator sites like AutoTrader, the user interface and search features were much, much better on Carvana.
You can search by dozens of different features so that you can find exactly the car you want:
I found a 2015 BMW 3 Series that met my requirements.
Ordering at Carvana
All of Carvana’s cars have fixed prices, so there’s no haggling. You reserve your car online through a checkout process, much like buying anything else online. There’s a bit more information they need, of course. We’re talking about a big purchase with state regulations.
I was paying cash for the vehicle. Carvana needed to verify the funds and offered an online way to connect to my bank account. I was a bit uneasy about giving my bank account info to a third-party tool, so Carvana did a simple phone verification instead. They called me and then three-wayed with the bank to confirm the funds.
I spent a total of about 10 minutes online and 10 minutes on the phone to complete the process.
There was one drawback to buying a used car at Carvana rather than a local used car dealer. Carvana required me to add the car to my insurance before receiving the car. When I buy a car from a dealer in Texas they need to see that I have insurance but I don’t need to add the new car. Since my insurance company covers new cars for 30 days without adding them to the plan, buying a car at Carvana essentially required me to pay for an extra month of car insurance.
Carvana has a cool gimmick for getting your car. They have “car vending machines” in select cities including my hometown of Austin. Your car is delivered via an elevator and conveyer belt from a five-story machine.
They will also deliver the car to you via flatbed truck for free. I watched a video of the vending machine online. It was really cool, but seeing the video was good enough for me. I didn’t want to spend an hour roundtrip going to the vending machine. You can check out the vending machine here:
My delivery person called an hour before my scheduled delivery to verify I would be available. She then showed up right on time and unloaded the car (see photo above).
She let me take the car for a quick spin to make sure there wasn’t something obviously wrong with it. Next up was about 5 minutes of signing paperwork.
That was it. Then I had seven days to drive the car and get it inspected. Any problems? Just return it.
Trying the return policy
This review is going to be a bit different from others you read because I ended up returning the car and testing the return policy.
Let me start by saying this was not Carvana’s fault. The car was fine. I just made a mistake. I’m meticulous, so I’m a bit ashamed to admit my mistake…
The car came with “keyless entry and ignition”. I assumed that this meant there was a button on the door that I could press to unlock the car. My retired Infiniti from 2007 had this feature. So surely a 2015 BMW would.
But everything on a BMW is an option.
“Oh, you want the car to drive? That’s an upgrade.”
It turns out that opening the door without taking the keys out of your pocket requires an additional package called Comfort Access. This package is part of another package, so it wasn’t listed on Carvana’s listings.
When I realized my mistake a couple of hours after getting the car I felt a pit in my stomach. What an idiot. This was one of the few must-have features I wanted and the car I selected didn’t have it. It was a true face-palm moment.
So it was time for me to test Carvana’s return policy. I called them up and told them I wanted to return the car.
No problem, sir. And no questions asked.
Maybe they would have asked if I didn’t tell them why I was returning it. But they didn’t give me any grief. They offered to pick the car up within 48 hours.
At this point, I was so enamored of the company and how it operates that I offered to return the car to their vending machine. I wanted to see what it was all about. I returned the car the next day. The entire process at the vending machine took about 3 minutes. I signed a piece of paper and they initiated an ACH transfer back into my bank. They even paid for an Uber for my ride home.
If you’re in the market for a used car, I recommend checking out Carvana.