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Buying a used car online

Using cars.com and autotrader.com


Using the Internet as a “vehicle” to buy your vehicle strikes many people as a foreign process, but just foreign cars became a part of our mainstream life buying a used car online can too. I bought my first used car online in the year 2000, just bought my fourth and have begun looking for a fifth, so far 2 each from cars.com and autotrader.com. When done for the right reasons and taking the proper precautions, using the net to buy an automobile opens up options that can be achieved in no other way. I have not bought a car offline since my first online purchase and while I may go back to the more conventional auto buying methods in the future, I’m sure it would only happen after reviewing my online Internet options first.

Advantages – Selection & Inventory

            Living in a city of only 40,000 people the number of used cars for sale locally falls far below those available to used auto buyers in larger metropolitan areas, the Internet more than evens the playing field. For anyone willing to drive extra miles to pick up a used vehicle and either save some money, find more selection or both, used car shopping online has come of age. Most used car online search engines such as cars.com and autotrader.com offer a basic search and an advanced search. Where to start depends on where you are and the type of used car you want to buy. As a quick example: a basic search for a Ford Taurus anywhere from 3 to 7 years old within 25 miles of New York City yields a list of about 200 vehicles available for sale at cars.com almost 400 used cars for sale at autotrader.com. The same search for the Fort Worth, Texas area produced 112 autos for autotrader.com and 57 cars for cars.com. A search of the classified ads in my local paper showed 1. On the other end of the scale a search throughout the entire United States for an Infiniti G35 with All Wheel Drive provides only about 40 results for all of the major online used car search engines combined. Even worse, upon further inspection many of these results prove to be dealers offering new cars at new car prices. Buying a new car online can be advantageous as well, and may be the topic of a future article, but a reason for finding a used car includes not wanting to pay those new car prices.

Advantages – Available Features and Options

             Now suppose you wanted only red paint, all wheel drive or a convertible? Even in areas with many used cars available exactly what you want may not be there. Using cars.com or autotrader.com provides advantages again. By expanding the area or the search for your used auto as described above you may find what you want by driving a bit farther. In addition, newspaper display ads or used car classified ads would never offer the type or volume of information about the car as one finds in Cars.com or autotrader.com. Use the advanced search features at each site to locate exactly what you want. Advanced search features on autotrader.com allow these filters: Make, model, body style, color, mileage, doors, engine, fuel, drive type, transmission, year, price and distance from your home. Cars.com filters by vehicle type, make, model, year, price, distance from your home and a “free text” field so that you can search for absolutely anything you want. You can set the tool to filter based on any of your terms, all of them or an exact phrase. Keep in mind the tools are only as good as the descriptions people input for each used car, so if you need all wheel drive you may need to search for “all wheel drive” and again for “awd”. If you are looking for something like a six disc CD changer you may find the tool does not locate many vehicles because the sellers did not put that in the description. Try looking for just “CD” perhaps. Some auto options like heated seats may be something a car has, but people don’t think of putting in their descriptions. Particularly with cars.com the ads can originate with auto ads from newspaper classified advertising sections so by definition space for text requires abbreviation and brevity. Cars.com offers a way to search for only certified used cars, but for now that tool only connects to certain auto manufacturers.

Selection –details no trips to many dealers

            As much as the process of test driving new cars offers fun and excitement, I find the process can be so time consuming the part of the joy of a new car purchase includes the relief that the hours allocated to finding a used car become free for another use once more. I can’t imagine how long it might take to drive to every dealer in a 500 mile radius of my home to see what they have for sale. Phoning them would represent a less impossible yet still unimaginable quest. Many times the vehicle you want comes from a private owner. If you want a particular used car in low supply the time saved using cars.com and autotrader.com leaves any other option almost unimaginable as acceptable alternatives.

Selection  - Use geography to your advantage

Some used vehicles command different values depending on the geographic area. If you need a car in high demand in your area, traveling to an area where sellers offer discounts to move vehicles can mean saving thousands. For example, four wheel drive or all wheel drive used cars in northern areas of the United States receiving lots of snow may sell at a premium. In southern locations these same cars may be looked at with great distain by purchasers who view the all wheel drive or four wheel drive and an option that they do not need and reduces fuel efficiency.  Three times I have traveled from Massachusetts south to save $2000 to as much as $5000 on a used car I found using an online search. I expect someone in a snowbound area looking to sell a used convertible in the winter would find the need to sell the vehicle at a discount, potentially making someone from a sunny state willing to travel a happy used car buyer. Sometimes cars for sale in the city where they were manufactured could be cheaper because they never had higher destination charges or there end up being many of them there and the laws of supply and demand kick in. Think of your own auto needs and how this might work for you.

How to find Your used car

Try to find a balance of distance from your home and flexibility with your vehicle selection a few times until you find a number of choices you find reasonable. Too few cars? Expand the distance you can travel. Maybe you need to spend a bit more? Expand the search to allow for cars with fewer option requirements. Even try competitive models or other similar models. One of my original searches involved a Chrysler Town and Country Van, when I couldn’t find one I liked I looked for a Dodge Grand Caravan, essentially the same van, and I bought a Dodge. One step further in this direction would be to search for all vans without regard to make or model. Too many cars? Reduce the mileage from your home or even better, search based on more restrictive parameters. Cut back on the number of years of manufacture you will accept or the number of miles on the car. Major used car search engines can filter results based on body color, interior color, and many other options. If you are really willing to travel and want a popular auto you may discover you can search for something with precise detail as if you were ordering from the factory and find your wish coming true. Of course, everything I have discussed to reduce a used car search works in reverse for expanding a used car search and vice versa. 

Cars.com Vs. Autotrader.com

            As someone who has bought used cars from both cars.com and autotrader.com which do I prefer? cars.com for me, that’s an easy one if I have to choose. The organization and the ease of reading the results from cars.com puts them way above auto trader in my book. On top of that cars.com has fewer ads or annoying pop-ups. The interface on cars.com shows me 24 cars on my laptop screen without scrolling in a clear organized way allowing me to sort by either year, vehicle description, price, mileage, photo, seller, body type, color or distance from my home zip. When I select a vehicle a more detailed summary appears at the bottom of my search results making it easy to view many used cars quickly without loading new web pages each time. When I really like a used car selection I can load another page with the complete information. My autotrader.com screen show only 4 cars without scrolling, more information always requires a new page load and back command to return to the original used car search. Without a free text search tool the results often include auto choices that the computer could eliminate for you if you could let it know, sometimes it means most of the results are unwanted. I just did a search for turbo Toyota Supras with a targa to. Because autotrader.com had no way to search for the turbo I  had to wade through mostly unwanted listings. Auto trader's “convertible” box didn’t really mesh well for finding the targa topped Supra and I only found 1 car in the country that way. An open search taking time to sift through all the results showed many targas in the database, just no way to filter the search.  In fairness I must mention that the number of cars listed on autotrader.com can often outnumber those on cars.com by two to one, sometimes that may outweigh the ease of use. Other systems such as stone age offer competing used car searches, but their databases remain too small to warrant much time.

Price and Negotiation

Negotiating an online purchase shifts the advantage to the buyer. At my local car dealer, for many car models, the next closest dealer would require an hour’s drive or more. The local dealer may treat you as if they have you in their power because you as a buyer have few options. Even with used cars, only a dealer can sell you a certified used car and new dealers often have the best selection of used cars for the brands they sell new. When negotiating with an auto dealer, many miles away, you found through an online used car search, the dealer knows that if you can go that many miles in their direction you can just as easily go that many miles in the other direction to another auto dealer. Price matters most and price drives the deal. Particularly used and new car operators who specialize in internet sales know they must offer the lowest price to make a sale. Distant dealers also feel that your deal from so far away represents a transaction they would never have seen anyway, as such it appears more like a bonus sale and they will take less profit on such a sale. Even more, car dealerships from outside of your local area love to take sales away from your local franchise. This may seem just mean spirited on the part of the distant car dealer, but the savvy used car buyer can use this to their advantage.  Widening the distance you will travel to find a used car often times allows you to include in your search the dealers who offer the best deals in the region. For example, if you could see who has the best prices on used cars within a 100 mile radius and compare that with the best prices in a 1000 mile radius, you might well find the larger search will yield used car dealers who have more aggressive prices compared to the dealers inside the 100 mile radius.  Some auto sellers just have better pricing and offer a better deal, that’s a fact of life. The more people you include in an online used car search, the more likely you will uncover that one car with the best price.


            While there may be some downsides to buying a car online, they do not outweigh the advantages. Try cars.com, see what you find. Expand your search area or criteria if you need to. If that still does not uncover what you were looking for or you just want more choices try autotrader.com. If that doesn’t do it try again on both used car search engines in a week or so. It may take a while to find that perfect car, but you only need one. Buying used cars online provides fun and adventure both finding the used cars and bringing them home; on top of that you can save thousands of dollars and end up with the exact vehicle you were searching for.


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