Used Cars: Should You Buy a Car You Haven't Seen?

Last Updated Dec 13, 2010 6:48 PM EST

You would never buy a used car without kicking the tires, taking it for a spin, and looking for damage, right? Well, if you are looking for a hard-to-find model or you're choosy about color and options, you might consider it. With internet shopping, Carfax-type vehicle records and mobile inspection services, buying a car from far away has become reasonably safe.

Statistics from two of the biggest online auto ad services show that many buyers are venturing far beyond the local auto mile. More than 75% of the searches on AutoTrader.com are for vehicles located more than 50 miles from home and more than half are 100-miles plus. On competitor eBay Motors nearly three-fourths of vehicle sales involved interstate transactions. "In the past few years the whole used car buying experience has been reshaped in the consumer's favor," says Phillip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. "With the tools of the internet, available inspections and affordable shipping, long-distance buying has become feasible."

Lorne Caplan of New Rochelle, N.Y. really wanted a used Honda Pilot, but he thought its price was too high. After reading a review of the Kia Borrego (pictured at right) comparing that SUV favorably to the Pilot, he decided to look for a used one. But since it was made for only one year -- 2009 -- the Borrego is not widely available as a used car. Caplan tracked one down in Smithtown, N.Y. with 18,100 miles on the odometer. He paid $19,600 for it -- about $10,000 less than a 2009 Honda Pilot would've run him.

Even rarer was the 2008 Mercedes-Benz SLR convertible sought by Bobby Anastario, who lives in Western Kentucky. He saw only a handful advertised anywhere in the country. But he spotted one in Houston advertised on eBay Motors, talked to Mercedes-Benz to verify its warranty and service records and bought the high-powered beauty with gull-wing doors for $240,000. The car was shipped to him.

Online buying lets you not only seek out hard-to-find cars but exploit regional price difference on certain vehicles. For instance, Subarus with their all-wheel drive are much prized in snowy New England but less popular in warmer Sunbelt states. A 2007 Subaru Outback wagon with about 48,000 miles is listed on AutoTrader.com in Burlington. Vt. For $17,990. But in Austin, Texas a similar model with 6,000 fewer miles is listed for $16,990. If you were in the mood for a break in the warmer weather and a long drive, a one-way plane ticket from Burlington to Austin recently cost $150.

One caveat about today's used car market: Prices have risen so sharply that if you are looking at used cars two years old or less, check the price on a new car before buying. It may be cheaper to go with the new one. But consider three-year old used cars -- prices are lower and supply tends to be larger because of models coming off lease. When shopping online, follow these guidelines:

Look for plenty of photos. Almost all ads come with photos, but many don't give you too much information. Look for offerings from private sellers or dealers with a full set of photos inside and out and maybe even a shot of tires showing a healthy tread. Edmunds' Phil Reed offers one caution: Colors don't always reproduce accurately in internet photos, so if you're choosy about the shade, you're taking a risk by purchasing a car sight-unseen.

Get a record check and inspection. Near or far, for any vehicle you consider, get a report from CarFax or competitor AutoCheck. Most ads contain the vehicle identification number or VIN. With that, you can get the history of previous owners, verify the mileage and be alerted if the car has been totaled in an accident or flooded. CarFax will sell you five reports for $44.99, and AutoCheck gives you unlimited reports for the same price. But to get more detailed information, you need to hire an inspection service. Edmunds' Reed says that services like Aim Mobile Inspections are good at spotting potential trouble like damage to the frame in an accident. (One giveaway: Bolts on repaired frames look different than original factory versions). AIM will charge you $129 for an inspection or $149 for an inspection combined with an AutoCheck report.

Look at shipping If the car is somewhere you wouldn't mind spending a few days, flying and driving home usually is the cheapest. But if shipping looks more feasible, auto transport companies that haul for manufacturers will sell single empty spots on their trucks. A company such as National Transport will haul a car from Los Angeles to New York City for about $1,000.

Close the Deal Carefully Obviously you will be reluctant to send money without having the car in hand. If it is being shipped, consider a service like Escrow.com. For about 1% of the transaction price, such outfits will verify to the shipper that you have paid and hold the funds. Then you can release the money when the car arrives.

Of course, it is still easier to find and buy a used car locally. But if the car you are looking for is not so easy to find, long-distance internet buying may be well worth the trouble.

Kia Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jeff Glucker Mercedes-Benz photo courtesy of Flickr user exfordy
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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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