Saturday, December 20, 2014

Buying Used Cars Online

Lately, I've been looking at Corvettes of the C3 variety (those built between 1968 and 1982), to find a good candidate for my next project.

At this time I am not sure if I want to restore or follow the restomod route, although I am leaning more and more toward a mid-generation C3 (1973-1977), powered by an LS1 or LS2 motor, coupled to a 5-speed manual tranny.

My search started around mid November and—considering I am not sure which model I want—it will continue for a while longer.

However, since this article is not about which C3 Corvette model year is the best, or more desirable, or rarest, etc., etc., I will try to stay focused on the subject matter instead, which deals with buying vehicles online.

First, I looked through eBay and Hagerty in order to get a feel for Corvette prices, but then turned to Craigslist.com for the actual search.

My rule is simple: I have to see the vehicle in person.

And so I searched. Talked to many people. And drove quite a bit to go look at a whole bunch of third generation Corvettes.

The first thing you discover is that—just like with online dating (that's a subject for another post)—cars usually don't look like the pictures posted.

Remember that sellers, as a rule, want to make a good impression, and they dig out the best photos they can find, some of which may have been shot years earlier.

Then there are the recent pics, where you can see that the car was just washed (wet cars always look shiny), and freshly waxed.
Hint: If the photo shows a vehicle siting in a puddle of water or wet cement, it's just been washed. Nothing wrong with clean cars, of course, but again, some sellers will use the wet-car trick in an attempt to enhance the "quality" of the paint.
Anyway, I did find an ad for a '79 Vette fairly close to my house (proximity is always nice), so I went to look at the car, and—to my surprise—this one did look as good as the online photos, which is always a good sign.

The asking price was around $9,500 which is not unreasonable for a Vette of that vintage in good condition, but since the car would need some TLC, I told the seller I would be a cash buyer at $6,000. He replied he could not go that low, and that was that.

A few days later I saw this same vehicle advertised on eBay for the same $9,500 so I decided to "watch" the sale out of curiosity, since he also was accepting best offers.

Fast forward a couple of days and the eBay listing was gone. The curious thing was that the Craigslist ad was still running, but the seller had reduced his asking price to $8,900. "Oh well," I thought. Then, a couple days later the eBay ad reappeared, but this time it explained that the glass T-tops had been broken and the price was further reduced to $8,400.

Since I had spoken to the seller personally a week or so earlier, I sent him a text and we talked about the car again. I did not mention that I had seen the eBay ad but he gave me the same story about one of the T-top panels being damaged and that he had sold them both to a friend of his. It really sounded like a cockamamie story, but I chose not to question it.

The seller quickly explained that you can find replacements online for around $500, but I had already researched the subject and replacement tempered glass T-tops sell for around $1,200 to $1,500, and they require a $300 core exchange (you have to send your old T-tops in order to get the additional $300 back). Used T-tops (solid fiberglass) sell in the $400-700 range, depending on condition.

Anyway, the seller quickly reduced the price to $6,500 without my asking, and I made an appointment to come look at the car again—this time with a good friend of mine who has also restored a few cars—and test drive it, something I chose not to do the first time around.

The car still looked great, and even better at $6,500 in spite of the now missing T-tops. My buddy and I looked at the car all over and he pointed out a few things I had missed, which proves that an extra set of eyes is always a good idea when you're looking at a vehicle that's for sale.

After the visual inspection was complete, the seller gave us the keys and told us to take the Corvette for a test drive.

The motor sounded good and it drove well, albeit rough as most cars of that era. But as we reached the main road I gunned it in order to merge with traffic, and all hell broke loose.

We're not sure if it was the transmission, the drive shaft, the differential, or a combination of all three, but considering the car made a horrible grinding noise when I gunned it, we quickly made a U-turn and drove back to the guy's house. We tried again a few times to recreate the issue, and every time it sounded like the car was going to fall apart. My friend did not even want to drive it, so we just went back to the seller's house.

Upon arrival we explained what had happened, and the seller acted surprised. I must add that the guy was a pretty bad actor, so I gave him the keys and told him to take me for a quick drive around the neighborhood to see if the car would make the grinding noise again.

He agreed and he drove his car out of the driveway. I told him to step on it which he did, in such a lame way, I must add, that it was obvious he did not want the car to look bad. I told him that he had to stomp on it, and he said OK.

We got to the next intersection, made sure there were no cars on the road, and I told him to gun it! He did, and voila, the car obliged and made a racket that I think scared the seller a bit. He sheepishly said "That's strange. It's never done that before." I told him that we did not break it and that it sounded like something serious.

When we got back, he said that he was not sure what was causing the noise. I told him that I was no longer interested in the car, thanked him for his time, and that was that.

The thing I find a little disturbing is that he's lowered the price again, while making false claims about how great and dependable his car is. After test driving it, it is obvious (at least to me), that the car will need some drivetrain repairs, which could be significant.

Unfortunately that's the reality of buying cars—or anything else, for that matter—sight unseen.

Ads can show you the best photos, and ad copy can explain the condition of a vehicle with great detail. Even tell you how much money has been spent on the car. For the most part it's worthless information.

Unless you can see the car in person, and then test drive it and—ideally—have a mechanic do an inspection, buying a used car online is a risky proposition. I am not saying that all ads are deceptive, but you have to inspect a vehicle before you decide to start doling out money.

Most ads, regardless of the number of photos, are not going to give you the whole story, and after personally inspecting several cars that were advertised online, my advice is to try to buy local at all costs.

If you are considering buying a car without seeing and test driving it, pay someone who's qualified to go look at it before you start bidding or offering any amount of money for it.