I bought a car online, sight unseen, during a pandemic

Anna Swartz 1600

Published June 1, 2021|7 min read

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I browsed for used cars on the Carvana website for at least a year before I actually bought one. I liked the sleek design of the site, the way you could spin the cars around to see them from every angle, and the little pop-ups that let you know that a given car had a lower-than-average mileage, or was fully loaded with options. But my wife and I lived in Brooklyn, and while I fantasized about having a car for grocery shopping and weekend getaways, it was hard to justify the expense and hassle of having a car in the city.

Then came 2020 — in the worldwide reshuffling of the COVID-19 pandemic, we moved out of our Brooklyn apartment and into my parents’ home in Massachusetts, and we put a halt on taking public transportation. By August 2020, it made sense for us to finally buy our first car.

Car shopping online

It wasn’t that I was totally opposed to buying a used car the old-fashioned way, from a dealership, but the pandemic made shopping online seem appealing, and the few dealerships we reached out to took days to return our calls or told us we’d have to make multiple in-person visits. After a few weeks of serious shopping, it became clear that the convenience of buying online through Carvana was worth the potential risk of buying a car totally sight-unseen.

Carvana was founded in 2013, promising an online used-car buying experience with no haggling. Shoppers can browse hundreds of cars on the website, sorting by make and model, or price, or for features like leather seats and all-wheel drive. Buyers can have their cars delivered to their homes or pick them up at a Carvana “car vending machine,” where they must, no joke, insert a giant coin to have their vehicle lowered down to street level. 

It was already a fast-growing company by 2018, but the COVID-19 pandemic boosted revenue as people like me scrambled to buy used cars for their new lives. The month I bought my new car, the Wall Street Journal reported that Carvana’s total revenue had grown 13% from April to June of that year, to $1.12 billion. Clearly I wasn’t the only one buying my first car.

Picking out the one

I had identified the perfect car for us months before the pandemic hit, a one-or-two year old Kia Soul, preferably with a backup camera, and preferably in dark gray or blue. My wife and I both liked that it was safe, relatively affordable, and roomy enough for our suitcases and dog to fit comfortably in the back. Plus, we liked the controversial boxy design. 

It wasn’t long after we decided to go the Carvana-route that the perfect car showed up. It was silver, not gray or blue, but it was a 2020 model with a backup camera and fewer than 14,000 miles. The price was right — it was listed for about $500 more than an identical car at a local dealership but it offered free delivery. A little digging revealed that it had briefly served in the fleet of big car rental agency, which we were both fine with — I figured that meant it had probably had more routine maintenance than a lot of privately owned cars. And besides, it was less than a year old.

Carvana allows buyers to hold a car in their carts for a certain amount of time, but we didn’t take long to decide that this was the right car for us. All of the nitty-gritty of the buying process can be completed online or over the phone, and, all told, submitting our licenses and payment information was a pretty painless process (it also helped simplify things that we were paying cash for the car, although Carvana does offer financing).

We also lined up our car insurance fairly quickly once we started the buying process. It helped, of course, that I work in the industry and already knew where I wanted to set my limits and deductible amounts — all we needed to do was get a few quotes, and pick the most affordable one from a company we still trusted. Then we set the policy to start on the day our new car was set to be delivered, and had our new insurance company send proof of insurance straight to Carvana. Within what felt like hours, the car was ours, and we were scheduling a delivery date.

Getting cold feet

Of course, any major financial decision comes with baggage — and this was a big one for us. We’re not homeowners, so buying a car was the single biggest purchase my wife and I had ever made. The night or two before our car was set to arrive, I stayed up late reading negative reviews — one buyer received a car that reeked of cigarette smoke, another got one with an engine that leaked oil, yet another was still waiting on Carvana to get them their license plate months after receiving their car. I spiraled, worried that we had made a huge mistake and drained our savings for a lemon.

The day of delivery arrived, and, as the single-car carrier pulled onto my parent’s street, I eyed our new car with trepidation, looking for scratches or signs of damage. When it was safely in the driveway, we both got inside and — it was perfect. No bad smells, no extra scratches aside from a small one on the side that we already knew about. The delivery driver waited while we took it on a test drive, but it seemed totally, amazingly fine. 

The only hiccup we encountered was that our car only arrived with one key, even though the listing had promised two — but a few hours later our delivery driver called to say they had found the extra key back at the facility where our car had come from, and were overnighting it to us. 

On the road

Carvana officially offers buyers a seven-day trial period with their new cars, during which they can return it and get their money back, so we took ours to a local mechanic for a checkup. The folks at the mechanic shop gave it a clean bill of health (one even said that it was “showroom quality”) so at the end of our seven days we told Carvana we were keeping our purchase. Now the only thing left to do was to wait for our new license plate to arrive. 

Negative reviews had warned me to wait weeks longer than expected for our plates, especially since the pandemic had slowed down operations at motor vehicle agencies across the country, but our streak of good luck continued, and our plates showed up well before our temporary ones expired. 

With our new plates finally on and our car driving like a dream, I felt prepared to declare our online car-buying experience a success. Now, nearly a year after our purchase, I’m still happy with how everything worked out, and would do it again in a heartbeat. But I do have some tips for shoppers who decide to buy through Carvana or one of its online competitors, like Vroom or Shift. 

We lowered our risk of major issues by buying a relatively new car, with high reliability scores from third parties like Consumer Reports. And we bought our car in August, so there was no chance of snowstorms or icy roads pushing our delivery date, which seemed to come up in some of the reviews I read online. And we set aside time to take it to a mechanic during our week-long trial, so if any issues came up, we would have plenty of time to return it. 

Of course, car-buying experiences vary, even from the same website or dealership, and considering the shortage of used cars on the market, my best piece of advice for fellow car shoppers might be to stay vigilant, and if you see the perfect car, put it in your online cart before anyone else does.