Shopping & Style

East End Tech: Putting a Wrench in the Car Buying Process

The automobile has been around for more than 100 years. But in many ways, the process of buying a car hasn’t changed much at all. I recently purchased a new vehicle, my first in four years. While the dealer experience was much improved, the transaction still had many confusing and secretive aspects.

Why did their friendly sales guy hand me over to their dour Russian finance lady when it was time to sign papers? All she did was shake her head dismissively every time I turned down those unnecessary “buyer protection plans.” Why did my lease terms change based on the zip code where I will most likely drive the vehicle? Couldn’t I game the system and tell them I’ll only drive it on Gin Lane?

I got home from the dealer and flipped on the television. Almost instantly, I began noticing commercials for online car buying sites. The timing was perfect; it felt like they were tracking my every move. It turns out there are lots of sites that purport to revolutionize your auto-buying experience. Here’s an overview.

Online Stores
It’s pretty easy to buy a car online. Sites like cars.com, autotrader.com, carsdirect.com and others all let you do pretty much the same thing: search for specific vehicles, compare price quotes from dealers and individuals, access information about cars, and more. You can also sell your car on some of these exchanges.

But how do you tell them apart? Honestly, it’s hard to say. Some sites seem to focus more attention on used vehicles. Others do a better job with links to insurance and financing options. Here’s the good news: All of them offer a fair amount of information and simple UI.

To get started, you enter the make, then click to add model information, pricing and other filters. The sites also feature editorial reviews presumably written by automotive experts. This adds an air of objectivity to the process.

Another good option is eBay motors, especially for classic cars and specific models. The auction process is well managed and contains plenty of information about the car. It helps to find someone local who can actually kick the tires on it before you jump in.

Finally, if you’ve decided on the brand or model of the car you want, don’t forget to check out the company website. You can build your own vehicle right there, check inventory and run through finance options that are virtually identical to what’s offered at the dealer. It’s unclear whether you’ll be able to negotiate any “extra savings” online, but I’m highly dubious of those in-store specials to begin with.

Informational Sites
Many people are OK with buying from a dealer. We like the tactile experience of sitting in the vehicle and getting a real feel for the engine. But come armed with as much unbiased, objective information as possible. There are lots of options here. Carfax is a popular site. You simply enter the VIN number for the car you have in mind, and the site retrieves a cache of information: accident reports, repair invoices and more. If the prior owner never took the car to a legit dealer for repairs, you’ll end up with a barren Carfax—but that should be a red flag in and of itself.

Kelly BlueBook (kbb.com) also provides objective overall pricing ranges (and resell values) for your desired year, make and model. It’s the bible of the auto aftermarket and the generally accepted standard for used cars. Another plus: The site has a very clean, search tool.

Remnants + Rollovers
One site I’d like to see is a place where we can shop across brands for excess inventory. The travel industry has led the way here. Sites like hotels.com and priceline.com give travelers last-second deals on unused rooms and seats.

So why isn’t there a site for cars? It’s a great question, but one that I cannot answer. Maybe someday…

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