I fondly remember browsing copies of Autotrader print magazine in the local 7-11, but those days are long gone. Finding a good used car in the world wide web is easier, but also filled with far too much nonsense. Scammers, con artists, and axe murderers lurk around every turn, but if you are cautious and diligent, you can find all sorts of marvelous cars for a fair price. Time to examine the various sites you can find used cars, starting with the big ones.
Ebay MotorsEbay isn't just a site with thousands of cars for sale, it also features one of the best interfaces for finding what you want and quickly. Just type in the name of the car you are looking to buy and presto -- the results are filled with items matching and related to your search. Should you feel adventurous, you can also search by specific make/model/trim/transmission type/fuel/engine -- but be aware that sellers don't always input that information correctly and you might miss out on good deals.
You can also browse by category, but there is a catch! If you really want to find the good stuff, you've got to use the drop down menu on the left side of the ebay motors homepage and select Powersports & More, and then click on Other Vehicles. You are now taken to the mysterious land of vehicles that don't necessarily show up in the normal ebay motors Cars & Trucks search spots. Yes. Mysterious indeed. In the Other Vehicles category you can further refine your hunting by selecting from such choices as aircraft (groovy), buses (mmmkay), military vehicles (better...), race cars -not street legal (now we are getting somewhere) and finally other (oooo...the holy grail....). That is right, there is an others subcategory in the other vehicles group under powersports and more. In here you will find all manner of things like the World's Largest Food Truck, a giant pig trailer, a home built desert fox dune buggy, 2/3s scale Corvette replica...its basically a swap meet for ebay rejects! Yes!
CraigslistIf eBay is a three bedroom single family residence, then craigslist is the mobile home located on the edge of town. It isn't that the cars on craigslist aren't as nice as those on eBay, it is just the free and anonymous listing service offers a low barrier of entry to hackers, 419ers, derelicts, and bargain car buyer/seller alike. Craigslist offers a fantastic native search function that was only recently augmented with the ability filter your search by year, make/model, transmission type, odometer reading, all kinds of stuff. Unfortunately, the ability to search across nationwide craigslist is still something you need to head to google, onecraigs, or autotempest for...more on that later. The key to buying cars on craigslist is to the use the simple rule -- if it is expensive, ignore it because the seller won't take an offer, and if it is cheap, it's probably a scam. Clear? If you want my honest opinion -- this is the place to get deals on cars. The ride will be wild, but the potential might outweigh the risks. What is the worst that can happen?
AggregatorsThese aren't sites that involve reptilian powers, but they do offer a great way to surf multiple listing services without filling your browser with new tabs. Autotempest is one of my favorite for its clean interface and comprehensive packaging (autotrader, craigslist, ebay, carsdirect, cars.com -- all in one place), but there are tons of other similar sites, like autolist, and many others. These are great for finding some oddball classic or rare model, but a bit overwhelming if you are searching for a popular vehicle, so I tend to stick to the native site unless looking for something really specific in a wide area. Know of another aggregator that does a great job? Put it in the comments below.
ForumsMake/model specific forums are fantastic places to research information about a particular car and typically offer a classified section. Although you can get your fix at any number of oddball model specific sites, I prefer highly active user forums like NASIOC. Some classifieds are limited to specific vehicles with all kinds of rules, while others are a free for all where you can post your Evo-powered Pinto without fear of being flamed. One of the cooler things about many forums is that you can post up a "wanted" ad and get tons of feedback from dedicated enthusiast (aka nuts) about that particular make/model and perhaps a few good leads. Just be aware that forums are going to be filled with people who love their specific make model a little too much, and conversations that go like this:
Dude A: Here is my awesome limited edition hoopty mobile for sale.
Dude B: That car is sweet, I've already got three, but this is a great deal.
Dude A: Still for sale.
Dude B: How has this car not sold yet? So sweet. Just picked up another at a pick-a-part yesterday.
Dude A: If this car doesn't sell today, I'm gonna paint it a confederate flag on the top and keep it for ever.
Dude A: Bump to top, still for sale.
Dude A: Price lowered, still for sale.
AutotraderAutotrader.com is what is left of the king of car listings from a few decades ago, and what it lacks in quantity compared to craigslist, it makes up in the fact that paying sellers aren't going to be scammers...well...at least they are less likely to be scammers. One of the funny things about AT that I've noticed is that the demographic of users is strongly skewed towards older men, particularly the guys 40-60 years old who remember the print magazine in their prime. These guys don't have a problem paying $50 to list a car and probably think craigslist is mostly used for drugs, casual hookups, and murder-for-hire (and they are likely correct). Expect AT to be a great place to buy a Camaro or C4 Corvette for many years to come, but don't expect to find a psychopathic drug dealer looking for a quickie.
HemmingsFor a place that has the reputation of being a hoity-toity site for the Pebble Beach crowd, you can find quite a few good deals on Hemmings any day of the week. Mostly on marques that the leather glove and fancy watch crowd won't touch, like a vintage Saab or Simca. Hemmings has a very interesting parts section that is filled with all kinds of engines that aren't as good, reliable, powerful, or cheap as an LS1, but would make for an interesting swap.
Cars.comA personal favorite search tool of DT's Hunsbloger is cars.com. Almost every dealer in the country has their inventory immediately tied into it and it is just as popular with newer cars as autotrader.
Hunsbloger is happy to point out that he bought his last 5 cars sight-unseen online. The ones for fun were found on eBay and craigslist and were not seen 'in the flesh' until they were delivered by trailer. The ones bought for daily driver duty were cars found on cars.com. In each case, the cars were located via cars.com, then dealer was contacted and a deal made subject to inspection at time of delivery. Then, depending upon distance Hunsbloger either flew in (had the dealer pick up at the airport) or drove to the car and then drove it home.
Cars.com has the best filters for narrowing your search but you have to know to click on the 'advanced search' tab to utilize them. Once in the advanced search, you can narrow or broaden your search to include not only specific make, model and year, but you can also search for two types of cars at the same time filter by price, distance, and vehicle mileage. We use this as a very quick market survey of where any particular car with a range of miles is trading for on dealer lots. (As with all dealer and private party listings, the prices vary wildly)
Hunsbloger just concluded a very long search for a 2010 Passat wagon with just 20K miles on it last week. It is best to look nationally because if the car is priced right, you'll find a number of cars, but that model is so wickedly popular with VW-dealers and searchers alike that most were gone w/in 24 hrs of hitting the dealer's lots. Cars.com also allows you to save a search and will notify you by email when one meets the criteria you've established. It was an email from Cars.com, notifying Hunsbloger in the evening that a new 2010 had been listed that allowed him to find the car he just bought.
Start your searches by looking nationally for a specific year, make, model (body type), then filter by lowest mileage and scan the results looking for a deal on price where lowest mileage and moderate price intersect. Don't shy away from dealers on cars less than 10 years old because they generally have access to the cleanest ones via their own trade-ins and by dealer auctions. They also have their ear to the price of the market so they tend to be greedy (but not crazy) in their asking price.
By the time that you've located a car using that method, you've become very quickly aware of several things that help you with the dealer, but the very best tool, tip or advice that we can offer you is;
a) dealers also typically include the car fax report which gives you a great read on how the car was cared for and whether or not it was wrecked (eliminates a lot of otherwise attractive cars) but, here's the jewel:
b) they also include the exact mileage in cars.com. If a car is purchased at auction with say 20,138 miles, and the dealers cars.com listing shows it with 20,142 it was probably trucked to the dealership from auction. Then, if you will call the salesman and very innocently ask, "could you please send me a picture of the dash showing the current odometer reading on the car as it is right now on the lot?' What you will yield is GOLD. If the car has another 250 miles on it, the dealer has been driving it because he likes it so much, or if it has the exact same mileage or just 2 or 3 miles more, you know that NO ONE HAS BEEN TEST DRIVING IT!! If they've had the car for say 30 days and it hasn't been test driven, you now have that in your arsenal to use when you're looking for a price discount.
When dealing with dealers on out of state cars its very important to remember that you don't want the AVERAGE salesperson, you want to speak with their internet sales manager if they have one. The reasons are many, but they include, they can negotiate price, they understand the issues of state tax reciprocity and the easiest way to transfer title best way to transfer title to an out of state buyer and they may have good information for a cheap way to transport the car if you want it trailered to you. Many sales people and many car dealers still have never concluded an out of state transaction over the phone.
Blog SpottersThese are sites that are dedicated to providing a daily (hourly...or weekly) listing of the more interesting cars around the interweb. Naturally, you'll want to visit the best -- DailyTurismo (that's us, in case you accidentally clicked on this story thinking you were at the Wall Street Journal's section on farming tips), but plenty of other sites provide curated listings, BarnFinds, BringATrailer, Jalopnik's Nice Price or Crack Pipe, Hooniverse, Fast In Fast Out, Petrolicious, Germancarsforsaleblog...the list goes on. What do they all have in common? A passion for all things automotive, and you can't beat that with a robotic search engine. Obviously each site has its own slant on things, but expect competition for the good deals to be fierce and you'll need to act fast to beat other buyers.
YouSay what? This is one of my personal favorite ways to find cars for sale -- look for them. See a for sale sign in a car as you are driving to work -- flip that illegal U-turn (in California it is customary to extend a middle finger to anyone nearby as a thanks for giving you the right of way) and check it out. Walking around at a car show? Half the cars are for sale, and probably overpriced, but who knows, you just might get lucky. Keep your eyes open. Talk to you friends/neighbors, let them know you are a car guy, and chances are good you'll find cars falling in your lap. They might need some work or have a few cobwebs in the wheel wells, but some of my favorite cars were found via word of mouth.
A few more thoughts...The real trick when you are searching for your next ride is that you shouldn't be simply trying to find "the one", but you should also be cataloging and surveying the market. Do you see lots of cars languishing for months on craigslist or not meeting reserve on fleabay? That means the market is soft and you might find similar issues if you try and dump your ride in a year or two. You should keep a spreadsheet or a folder on your personal computer (for the mobile loving kids out there, these are the big things that old people use to surf the web...) with a catalog of the cars you've found, and don't be afraid to peruse eBay's completed listings; this gives you a great idea of what the market looks like and who uses shill bidders for their auctions. What did I miss? Put it in the comments below.
Stay tuned for Step 3 of Daily Turismo's How To Buy A Used Car Series: First Contact: How to screen potential cars via web/phone/email.