I bought a car online. Here's what I learned

Anna Swartz


Anna Swartz

Anna Swartz

Managing Editor & Auto Insurance Expert

Anna Swartz is a managing editor and auto insurance expert at Policygenius, where she oversees our car insurance coverage. Previously, she was a senior staff writer at Mic.com, as well as an associate writer at The Dodo.

Published|5 min read

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It’s increasingly possible to do all of your shopping online, from groceries to clothing to furniture. Consumers can pick out almost anything and have it delivered within days, or even hours. But what about buying a car?. Would you purchase a vehicle online without driving it first? Or even seeing it in person?

Online car buying may not be the norm yet, but more and more drivers are eager to complete the process without leaving their homes. A 2017 survey from Chase Auto Finance found that 47% of Americans said they would be comfortable buying a car completely online, from the initial research to the financing. Websites like Carvana or Tesla’s online ordering process aim to totally eliminate any in-person steps.

We spoke to Chris Caufield, an engineer living in Orient, New York, who needed a second car while his wife was going to grad school back in 2012. Caufield decided on the type of car he wanted, a used Mazda Miata, and hatched a plan to buy it with the help of a friend. Pretty soon, Caufield had bought a used car without ever seeing it in person. Here’s how he did it and what he learned along the way.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Did you consider looking locally and going through a nearby dealership? How did you decide to do the whole process from a distance?

Rather than simply buying a car, I decided to make an experience out of the situation. I had narrowed the car down to two similar options, Mazda Miata or Honda S2000, but I was pretty open about the model years. I had been looking at online listings locally for a month or two passively.

I decided that I wanted to buy a Miata, and I had a friend in Portland who was a Miata owner and enthusiast. I told him that if he could find me a good used Miata and would take the drive with me (from Portland to Washington D.C.) that I'd fly him home.

The two of us bounced car ideas off each other from Autotrader other websites until we found a good target. He took the car on a test drive and gave it a look over. From that point, I dealt with the dealership over the phone.

When you were looking at online car listings, what were you looking for?

I think photos are probably the most useful to me. I'm an informed enough buyer that I know what the options and packages are available for the particular model year, so being able to determine which of those things a car is outfitted with is helpful. Sometimes I can get that from a photo, "Oh, I can see this one has the sports seats," sometimes it can be in the listing, but often I find that dealer descriptions are useless and filled with platitudes like "Ice cold AC!"

Did you have any hesitations trusting your friend to do the test drive?

Nah, my friend is a gearhead and was very familiar with this kind of car, so I considered his opinion to be more useful than mine for this case.

Were you able to do the actual car-buying online?

I dealt with the dealership over the phone. They FedEx'ed a package of documents to me along with a return envelope. The entire process was pretty inefficient from that standpoint and it was pretty clear to me that the dealership was jumping through their own process hoops to make things work.

I wasn't able to do anything at all online or via fax. I asked whether we could do something like that and the salesman said that they needed all original signatures. I found the whole thing to be ridiculous ... I have been able to sign off on documents for buying a house using digital signatures on my phone, but they needed ink and paper for an eight-year-old used car.

Were there any surprises once you finally saw the car in person? Everything look and feel as you expected?

No surprises. The car I bought had 80,000 miles on it at the time I purchased it in 2012. It now has 140,000 and hasn't had any major problems other than wear items.

Would you do it again? Is there anything you'd do differently next time?

Definitely. As a bit of a car enthusiast, I am sometimes looking for unusual configurations or special editions which had limited production runs. If there were only 1,500 of a particular kind of car made, you really want to have both patience (look for a few months) as well as willingness to travel, because only a few will be for sale at any given time.

If I were going to buy a used car from a distance without the benefit of a mechanically-inclined friend in the area, I would look for a local mechanic to perform a pre-purchase inspection. Depending on my level of confidence I would either arrange this ahead of time or immediately prior to pickup (in person) if I were confident and just wanted professional assurance.

How would you feel about an even more online process? What about buying a car through an app?

I would be comfortable with a more online, or fully online process. As far as used cars go, it would be nice to have a reference that identifies things like packages and options associated with cars by year, alongside the options that you are looking at. Some sites like Cars.com and Edmunds kinda do this, but I find that you need to hit up Wikipedia a lot to figure out things like "What's the difference between the 2014 and 2015 model year?"

An app is fine but if I'm being frank, the 30-inch screen on my desk that can hold a dozen browser tabs is more suited to viewing options than the 6-inch screen in my pocket.

If I were buying a new car, where I don't have to worry at all about the condition and the factory options are all very clear, I would absolutely want the entire process to be online. A red Ford Focus ST with black leather interior and package XYZ is the same no matter where you buy it from. I hate car dealerships. I hate the stupid "let me check with my manager" negotiating dance that they play. I hate the time that they waste.

The entire concept is obsolete. I can configure a Tesla on their website, purchase it, they'll build it for me and I can pick it up when it's ready, exactly as I specced it out. If I go to a traditional car manufacturer's website, I can do the same thing up until the "purchase it" step, when they'll say "see local options" and they'll show me what their local dealers have and then we're right back into the traditional model. Just let me pick out what I want, give me a real price that I can use to shop against other models without playing "negotiation" games, and let me do the whole thing from my house on my own time.

Image Credit: Imagine Golf