Buying a used vehicle online – pros, cons, and best practices

Evaldas Zabitis

Evaldas Zabitis

In the digital age, the process of buying cars has evolved. With a bit of caution, you can save lots of time and money by buying a used vehicle online. Before doing so, however, it's good to know about the drawbacks, issues, and scams.

Let’s check the best practices of how to buy a used car online, including how to research, negotiate the price, and inspect vehicles.

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Online used car marketplace landscape

The Information Age transformed the used car market, bringing many new possibilities, revolutions, and challenges. The internet is the most popular place to sell used vehicles today, therefore private sellers, dealerships, and BHPH dealers rely on online marketplaces for used cars. For new buyers, the abundance of choice can be confusing – here are a few key things you should know before buying a used vehicle online.

Types of online used car marketplaces

Nowadays, the internet is rich with different online used car marketplaces. The classic websites where anyone can place ads of vehicles are still the most popular. However, other great digital options are also appearing.

For instance, many car review websites, financing companies, social networks, and dealerships have their own online marketplaces, where they can also implement their services in vehicle ads.

Online auctions are another booming way to buy a used vehicle today, especially for those looking for cheaper deals. You can bid on a car you like, hoping that your bid is final and you’d get a nice deal. However, many known auctions don’t provide much information about vehicles on sale, therefore there's a considerable risk of buying a lemon.

Inspection options

You can only evaluate the current condition of a vehicle after properly inspecting it, but a proper inspection can be a problem if you’re buying a used car online. Some private marketplaces offer remote inspections by photographing and filming vehicles how potential buyers want, but pictures and videos often don’t reflect reality correctly.

There are dealers who can bring the car to you for inspection. If you like the car, you can pay for it, plus the shipping. If you don’t like it, they’ll take the car back and charge you for the shipping. Just be aware that shipping costs vary depending on your location and transportation type.

If you can’t inspect the car yourself, you can hire an independent automotive expert to do this for you. They’re usually car mechanics or enthusiasts who know the weak spots of various cars, can check the car you’re interested in, and provide you with an unbiased opinion about it.

How can you pay for a car?

Since various used car market scams occur quite often, paying for a car is one of the most important steps of a vehicle purchase. The way you pay for a used car depends on you and the seller, but these are the most common options today:

  • Physical bank transfer. If you and the seller can meet in person, the best way to pay for a car would be by performing a physical transfer at your bank. That way bank employees will ensure everything is legit, and the seller will receive the money shortly.
  • Electronic bank transfer. Most online used car deals are made via electronic bank transfer. It allows you to transfer money to a person anywhere in the world, and have the transaction on record. Usually, electronic transfers are completed in 1-2 working days.
  • Cash. People don’t use physical money often these days, but you can still pay for a car using cash. Some sellers agree to close the deal after the buyer receives the vehicle, allowing you to pay for it in cash. But be aware that such transactions aren’t on record and leave you vulnerable to scams, so make sure your printed sales receipt has the full price of the vehicle and a line saying the price was paid fully in cash.
  • Cryptocurrency. While cryptocurrency is still not a popular option among used car sellers, you can go along with this option if a seller is willing to accept it. Make sure to fill out a sales receipt to avoid scams.

Thoroughly check every line of the documents you’re signing – make sure the license and vehicle identification numbers match, avoid any shortcuts. Finally, save all the documents you signed when buying the car. You may need them if the deal goes sour.

Used cars can also come with a warranty

One of the biggest concerns when buying a used car is the possibility it will break down after handing over the money. Some dealers and even private sellers provide a limited warranty, ensuring some problems will be repaired for free during the first month or longer. This is a good feature when looking for a used vehicle, but make sure to learn everything about the conditions of the warranty because the price of the vehicle is probably higher.

Pros of buying a used vehicle online

The used car market has changed a lot since the advent of third-party websites for selling and buying used cars. They’ve given us a wider selection, lower prices, and faster operations.

Here are some of the main reasons people prefer to buy used cars online.

Wider selection and convenient browsing

black and white car, line of cars

Since most people sell their used cars online, there’s a wide selection of different models available. All you need is to choose the preferred make and model, or prioritize other characteristics, such as the fuel type, engine size, or body color.

When buying online, you can do extensive research on any model without anyone rushing you. For instance, vehicle owners often share their experiences of maintaining particular models on various forums and social media – this information can provide you with strong facts about model-based flaws.

Also, you can take your time and check the vehicle’s history, reviewing recent MOTs, mileage records, and other data. All this information allows you to make an informed decision instead of relying on trained salesmen at a used car dealership.

Effective car price comparison

A wider selection of cars allows you to compare the prices easier. You may not know how much a particular car’s worth until you take a look at other similar cars on sale. The current condition, additional options, maintenance records, and even color has an impact on a car’s value, so you can check other ads to evaluate the car’s price properly.

Cons of buying a used vehicle online

Some used car buyers are willing to pay for a car without having seen it. For them, the photos and the seller’s word is enough. While this simplifies things, it may not be a great idea – if you like your money, that is.

Here are some of the greatest risks you may be facing if you buy used cars online.

Undisclosed damage or mechanical issues

One of the biggest risks of buying a used car or any other vehicle online is that the seller may be hiding facts you can’t verify without a physical inspection. There may be scratches, bumps, corrosion, mechanical problems, or worse.

A car may also vibrate and make various strange noises, warning about damages and safety issues. These issues are more difficult to avoid when you buy used cars online (especially when buying from private sellers).

Scams and fraud: is it safe to buy a used car online?

Deceiving used car buyers through online platforms is easier than in person, and here are some of the most common scams that you may encounter:

  • Title washing. It’s an illegal operation that clears a vehicle’s title, deleting critical information. Thankfully, all the information about historical damages, mileage records, and other aspects is still available on vehicle history reports.
  • Fake ads. Some scammers place fake ads for cars they don’t even own, hoping that someone will pay in advance. Always ask for specific photos of a vehicle or meet the seller in person to avoid this scam.
  • Curbstoning. Salvaged and damaged vehicles have a much lower value, so sometimes people try to sell them as perfectly running. They expect to find a buyer who won’t check its title, so be careful and always make sure that a car’s VIN and the seller are legitimate.
  • Gift cards. Never agree to pay for a vehicle in gift cards – scammers often use this untraceable payment method to lure money out of you.

These are only a few of the many possible scams. The best way to avoid them is to meet the seller in person and see the vehicle with your own eyes.

Shipping, taxes, and other additional fees

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Source: Flickr / THE Holy Hand Grenade!

Additional fees and taxes can add up when buying a vehicle, especially online. Depending on where the vehicle is located, you may have to pay for its shipping, which can get expensive considering the weight and complexity of the load.

If you’re buying a used car online on finance, ask about all the additional fees and ties. Finally, registration, insurance, and maintenance costs add up very quickly after buying a used vehicle. Getting insurance quotes, comparing rates, and having some leftover money for additional taxes could help in this case.

Best practices for buying a used vehicle online

Since a car is usually the second most expensive purchase in people’s lives, taking precautions to avoid a bad purchase is essential.

Research the vehicle

Spontaneous purchases are the most likely to cause problems. Here are a few aspects to consider when choosing your next car:

  • Make sure it has all the necessary features. Since you’re buying a used vehicle, you can’t just tick the boxes of the options you want to get. Make a list of must-have features and skip the options that don't have them. If you don’t get that cruise control you wanted for road trips, you’ll probably soon start looking for another car.
  • Don’t ignore obvious problems. You’ve probably done some research online and learned the weak spots of a particular model. Believe the reports: if other owners often talk about transmission failures, prepare to face this problem or choose a different model.
  • Take some time to choose where to buy the vehicle. Mainly, used cars are sold by private sellers, dealerships, or auctions. Private sellers may be the most balanced option: (reputable) dealerships have more expensive but also better vehicles, while auctions offer phenomenal deals but with the most risk.

When you find a vehicle you like, make sure it has service records and all the regular maintenance has been done on time. Also, ask about the current issues and recent repairs.

Ask for a VIN number and get a vehicle history report

vin number, where to find vin, windshield, car speaker, vehicle vin code, car history report vin code
Source: Flickr / Spencer T.

Getting a history report is one of the most essential steps of buying a used vehicle online, so make sure to get a VIN number. Many sellers will have it in the ad, but you could also ask directly.

A history check may reveal deal-breaking facts like serious damages, legal issues, or mileage rollbacks.

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Source: carVertical

When looking for a used car online, you can check the history of any vehicle even without meeting the seller or seeing the vehicle – just enter a vehicle’s VIN number on our website.

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Source: carVertical

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Finding damage records doesn’t always mean that you should ditch the deal, especially if you like that particular vehicle. You should, however, take a closer look at previously damaged areas to ensure that everything’s been fixed properly.

You may find sellers who think that a VIN number is personal information that can reveal sensitive details, which is not true. If a seller doesn't give you the VIN – they may be hiding something.

Use reputable platforms

When looking for a used vehicle, check multiple third-party car selling websites and make sure they’re well-known. You probably know a few reliable third-party websites right from the top of your head, but you should still know how to recognize a reputable website when you find one.

Firstly, look for platforms with a large vehicle selection – more people means it works. Also, consider if the site is easy-to-use, whether you have lots of filtering options, and more.

Don’t push yourself into buying the first used vehicle you like. It’s probably not the only and may not be the best option for you. Take some time to find, research, and inspect the vehicles you like before buying them online.

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Evaldas Zabitis

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Evaldas Zabitis

Evaldas has been writing since middle school and has had a passion for cars for as long as he can remember. Right after getting his driver’s license, he spent all of his savings on shoddy cars so he could spend time fixing, driving, and selling them. Evaldas is always interested in automotive technical innovations and is an active participant in automotive community discussions.