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There are two kinds of car buyers. One type loathes the entire car-buying process and avoids it for as long as possible. Given a choice between sitting in a chair at the dentist for a root canal or cruising through a dealership lot, they will pick the root canal every time.
Then there’s the constant shopper who prowls car sales like a serial monogamist on Tinder. Their web browser has more than 40 bookmarked favorites and 27 open auction tabs at any given time. Whether it's the thrill of something new or the joy of haggling, there’s always a different car in the driveway.
For both types of buyer, the best way to find your next car might be online. And to help with that, I compiled a list of our favorite used-car websites. With this information at your fingertips, you can spend less time at car lots than in the dentist's chair. And the salesperson won’t steal your fillings.
Our Favorite Places to Buy Used Cars
As we mentioned in our guide for the Best Places to Buy Used Motorcycles, online shopping is easier than ever. Many websites provide car values, let you negotiate with the dealer, and apply for a loan. Other sites simplify the transaction process. Some will even deliver a vehicle directly to your house. There are things to watch out for, however, so you don’t get taken for a ride.
Car dealerships are the most common way to find vehicles locally, and most of them have a website. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new car dealership or a used-car lot with a mobile-home office. To find a dealer, just enter the dealer’s name. Or you can search for “car dealers near me” with your favorite search engine. From there, it’s just a matter of scrolling through the search results and clicking on any links that interest you.
Dealer websites are also an excellent way to look at cars when you don’t know what you want. Maybe you have a vague idea, like a wagon-type thingy that’s dog friendly. You could search a dealer website for wagons and SUVs, then you can narrow it down, searching for options such as leather or fold-down seats. The results will show vehicles by model, manufacturer, and even categories such as age and mileage. You can also see if a car comes with a warranty, either the remainder of the manufacturer’s warranty or a limited warranty offered by the dealer.
The primary advantage of buying from a dealership is also the biggest potential drawback. You are paying for convenience. Need a loan or have a vehicle to trade in? The dealer has you covered. Want a service contract, aftermarket wheels/leather/stereo, or fuzzy dice? The dealer has you covered. Worried about the cost? Don’t worry; the dealer will just add it to your payment.
Car dealers have gotten a bad reputation for being shady and unscrupulous. However, you’re more likely to get taken advantage of by an individual seller. The key is to do your research.
Pros: Convenience, large selection of vehicles, one-stop shopping with easy financing. Many vehicles have warranties, even if just for 30 days.
Cons: You’ll pay for convenience. Risk of dealing with predatory or unscrupulous sellers.
Third-party websites such as Autotrader are also popular places to shop for cars. These sites also let you shop by vehicle type, manufacturer, and model. They also check a variety of dealerships and individual listings. You can search locally or nationwide by price range and even options and colors.
Autotrader is one of the oldest, most comprehensive sites. It offers a great selection of tools in an easy-to-use format. One of its best features is an advanced search function that makes sorting through its millions of listings much less daunting. Beyond simple make, model, and year, the site offers detailed filters for nearly any search criteria, including gas mileage, exterior and interior colors, transmission type, and technology.
AutoTrader also publishes a number of resources for car buyers and sellers. These include comprehensive how-to guides, financial calculators, current car reviews, research, and news articles. They will also help sell your car, either by placing your own ad or selling to a dealer.
The drawback to AutoTrader is it can be hard to determine the condition of a car from the pictures. There are also no options for financing or shipping. If you’re buying a car halfway across the country, you’re almost buying the car sight unseen. Additionally, you still have to work with the seller, whether a dealer or private party, secure your own financing, and make other arrangements.
Pros: National and local ads, including dealers and private sellers
Cons: Difficult to identify cosmetic and mechanical issues or defects, no financing or shipping options
If you prefer to avoid human contact and hate negotiating, ask your doctor if Carvana might be right for you. Founded in 2012, the company offers a virtual showroom with detailed photos and 360-degree views of the interior and exterior. They provide close-ups of scratches and imperfections, allowing you to zoom in from any angle. If you purchase the vehicle, you can choose to have it delivered to a local Carvana location or your home or office. You then have seven days to decide if you like it or return it at no cost.
As with Autotrader, you can search for cars by vehicle type and price or payment range in addition to make and model. Each car gets a 150-point inspection, a CARFAX history, and a 100-day limited warranty. Unlike Autotrader, you can also finance your car through Carvana. All pricing and information is presented in an easy-to-read format on its website.
Carvana will also buy your vehicle, even if you don’t buy theirs. It takes less than a minute to get an offer. If you accept, they will pick up your car at your door and take it away. Everything is convenient with no hassle and no pressure.
Of course, you pay a premium for convenience. Carvana’s prices are typically higher than what you might pay at a local dealer. They might also offer less for your trade-in. Ultimately, it’s a trade-off between cost and convenience.
Pros: Straightforward pricing and delivery, seven-day return policy
Cons: No in-person checks on cosmetics or mechanical parts for issues and defects until after you accept delivery, no financing or shipping options
The daddy of online vehicle auction sites is eBay Motors. If it has wheels, it’s for sale on eBay. Need parts for a vehicle, want a boat, RV, motorcycle, or ATV? Find it on eBay. The site offers several options for buying and selling anything auto related. The auction format is familiar to people, but you can also purchase items by making an offer or clicking the “buy it now” button. The layout is easy to use, and you can either shop by category or use the search field to find what you’re looking for.
One of the key benefits to eBay is security. Buyers and sellers have reviews so you can read about their previous transactions. Vehicle Purchase Protection is available for up to $100,000. You can order an AutoCheck report with the vehicle’s history. There are various payment options including financing, PayPal, or major credit cards.
If you’re buying outside your local area, you can hire a third party to inspect the vehicle. This inspection can include an appraisal, a review of cosmetic and mechanical conditions, detailed photos, or a video of the vehicle. You can also get estimates for shipping costs or make arrangements to drive it home.
On the eBay Motors site, you can find bargains or get caught up in the fervor of auction bidding. You’ll find people with an unrealistic view of the value of the vehicle they are selling, quoting prices from Barrett-Jackson or Bring A Trailer. At the end of the day, there is a buyer and seller for everything, and eBay Motors is better than most sites at bringing them together.
Pros: Vast selection of vehicles, lending and shipping options, lower prices
Cons: Auctions can turn into bidding wars, values can be inflated or unrealistic
Craigslist started as a local, San Francisco-based free community website. Now it’s a worldwide presence with more than 20 billion page views a month. Somehow, it still looks like a 1990s web bulletin board. You can find garage sales, places to rent, lost and found items, personals, and cars and car parts for sale.
On Craigslist, you can conduct a general search or look for a specific make and model. These searches default to an area within a radius of your location, but you can also search other locations. Ads can be filtered by price, location, and date of posting. You can also filter dealer ads or those from individual sellers.
Craigslist gives you a good point of reference for the type of vehicles in your area and their asking prices. You can even find deals if you’re patient. Lots of people turn to Craigslist if they need money or to sell things before they move. People are generally honest and reasonable, but you can never be too careful.
There are a lot of scammers on Craigslist. The list includes dealers posing as individuals, title jumpers, people selling stolen cars, even thieves and murderers. When meeting with an unknown buyer or seller, let people know where you’re going, bring a friend along, and meet in a public place. Play it safe, and the worst thing you’ll have to worry about is someone who won’t deal with lowballers.
Pros: Local and in person, lower prices than dealerships
Cons: Scam artists, dealers posing as individuals, people who know what they have
Facebook Marketplace is the new Craigslist. Most people who used Craigslist migrated to Facebook Marketplace to buy and sell things. In some ways, Facebook Marketplace is better than Craigslist; in other ways, it’s worse. Before you roll your eyes and mutter, “OK, boomer,” hear me out.
Facebook is local, pulling up ads for items in your immediate area before expanding its radius. The ads are all created by Facebook users, so you have access to their profile. That means you can see who you’re dealing with and as with those six degrees of Kevin Bacon, there’s a chance you know someone who knows the seller.
The downsides to Facebook Marketplace are the same as Craigslist. There are scammers but fewer of them. You may still have title jumpers and dealers who pose as individuals, but there are a lot fewer issues. Also, Facebook makes its money collecting information about you. They track every like and frowny face, every click or site you interact with, and even some you don’t. That’s why once you search for a Mercury Grand Marquis, you suddenly see more Mercury Grand Marquises for sale. Your Facebook feed begins showing Mercury clubs you can join. And you see ads for Mercury cars, car parts, and AARP discounts.
Pros: Same as Craigslist but very local, you know who you are dealing with
Cons: Less likely than Craigslist to end up in someone’s freezer but not by much, car ads show up after searches
Things to Consider When Buying a Used Car
Before looking at any car, research it. Look up its retail, private-party, and wholesale values on sites such as Kelley Blue Book or CARFAX. Do the same for your vehicle, if you plan to trade it in. Know what interest rates are available and the terms you qualify for if you take out a loan. Finally, look at reviews of the dealership or individual if available. Once you have all of the information, you can feel confident about the transaction. Some other things to watch for:
In addition to pictures and basic info about the vehicle, many dealerships include links to the vehicle history from Carfax or AutoCheck. This information is helpful to determine how well a vehicle was maintained. It will also show you if the car was in an accident or if the title is branded.
Branded titles include salvage and rebuilt titles. A salvage title indicates if a vehicle was declared a total loss due to damage, an accident, or flood. A rebuilt title indicates the vehicle was totaled and then rebuilt. Finally, a branded title may indicate the car was a lemon buyback or there was a discrepancy with the car’s odometer.
All of these factors affect the car’s value. Low mileage, well-maintained vehicles are worth a premium. Damage, high mileage, and branded titles detract from the value. When determining the value for a specific vehicle, always make sure you include the car’s age, mileage, and condition.
If the vehicle does not come with a warranty or has a limited dealer warranty, get a pre-purchase inspection from a mechanic. The inspection will cost you money, but it’s worth it to find out if the car has potential issues or needs repairs.
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.
Q. Do I have to pay for a used-car site?
A. Used-car sites typically charge sellers who want to post an ad for their car. Pricing can be as low as $25 for a basic ad that will run for a month with the cost increasing for additional photos, words, and other advertising boosts.
Due to the nature of the vehicles they sell, car sites that sell classic cars or cars from certain eras charge more, typically $90 or more. Auction sites will also take a commission fee, which can start at 4.5 percent of the sales price.
Q. What is considered high mileage for a car?
A. Most people drive between 10,000 and 15,000 miles a year. Below that amount, a car is regarded as low mileage. More than 15,000 a year is considered high mileage. To figure out the average, take the car’s total mileage and divide it by its age in years.
Q. How many miles on a used car is too many?
A. There's no absolute number of miles that is too many for a used car. Consider 200,000 as an upper limit, a threshold where even the sturdiest cars begin to succumb to the years of wear and tear.