10 Tips for Buying a Vehicle Online

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In my family, we have a lot of used car salesmen. It’s just our thing, I guess. Maybe it’s because I’ve been around the car industry my whole life, or maybe it’s just because I love to travel, but I thought nothing of it the first time hopped on a plane to go buy a car. I’ve bought cars from North Carolina and Alabama and Mr. B and I have traveled to St. Louis and the opposite end of Ohio to buy boats. By expanding our search radius, we’ve gotten some amazing deals that we wouldn’t have otherwise found, but along the way we’ve noticed something: people think it’s kind of crazy to go so far.

Yes, I’ll admit, it’s a lot of extra work. But the way we see it, if a day or two in the car helps us get a great price on something we will love for years, it’s worth it. Plus, we both love to drive and truly enjoy traveling together, so it isn’t a hardship for us to spend time on a plane or in a car together. We’ve had to drive to get the boats (we needed to take the truck with us so we could haul them home), but our first trip together was actually a flight to Alabama followed by a 12+ hour drive home in my new-to-me convertible. We’d only been dating for about 2 months, if that, but we had a blast and we’ve loved traveling together ever since. 


Here are our tips for shopping outside of your hometown for cars, trucks and recreational vehicles:

1.) Look around home first. You never know, you may get lucky and save yourself a road trip. If nothing else, you will have a good starting point when comparing prices and options. If you are looking for a car or truck, this is a good time to test drive vehicles to make sure you love that particular make and model before you start shopping for it 3 states away.

2.) If you are new to this, start with eBay or stick to purchasing from dealers. We purchased our new boat from a private seller we found on Craigslist, which is super-risky, but we have experience with this so we knew what to look for to avoid scams. If you don’t know what to look for, or if you just aren’t comfortable dealing with an individual you found in the classifieds, stick to a site like eBay, who works to protect purchasers from scams and a**holes.

3.) Realize that there is a very real possibility that you will come home empty-handed. You may arrive at your destination only find out that the seller left out some important information about the item in question, or it simply may not be as fabulous in real life as it sounded on the internet/over the phone/in the photos. It sucks, but it happens, so make sure you…

4.) Ask lots of questions! Don’t head out to see it if you don’t feel like you know everything about it. One important question to ask a private seller is “Why are you selling this?” It may sound a little nebby, but it is a legitimate question and it helps you get a good feel for the seller’s motivation. If it sounds fishy, or if they don’t really have a reason, beware – there is likely something wrong that they don’t want to disclose. If you are buying a car, ask the seller for the Carfax report (most dealers will provide this free of charge) or ask for the VIN number so you can run the report yourself. 

5.) Also, ask for additional photos. A reputable seller will be more than happy to snap shots of whatever you want to see, and you will be able to see the condition of the item from every angle. This is also a great way to avoid scams. If they don’t really have the item, they can’t send you more pictures, can they?

6.) Before you send the seller any money, go see the vehicle for yourself. If you are purchasing from a reputable dealer, you can wire them the money and they can ship you the car/boat/whatever, but we make it a rule never to give anyone money for something we haven’t seen. This is especially important when buying from a private seller. Do not send them any money for a “deposit” or to “hold it”. If you are too late and someone else buys it, well…that sucks, but it is better than losing money to a scam artist. If a private seller asks you to send them money before you see it, don’t do it! 

7.) Take the money with you. Don’t waste your time or the sellers. Get your finances in order or get the money from your lender before you go. If the vehicle is what you want, you can make the transaction when you arrive instead of having to make a second trip. Mr. B and I made this mistake when we purchased the last boat. We didn’t take the money with us so that there was no pressure for us to buy, but it was more hassle than it was worth because Mr. B made two 14 hour trips. He was not happy. Now we know to ask the seller to give us a few moments, step aside and discuss the purchase. If we like it, we have the check with us and can take the purchase home that day.

8.) Do your research. Make sure the vehicle is what you want before you go see it. You are going to make sure the vehicle is in the condition you were promised, not to see if you like that particular make/model. Trust me, you do not want to drive hours just to test drive a vehicle you don’t even like. If you aren’t sure it’s the one for you, gather information; read reviews, product descriptions, visit the manufacturer website and talk to people who own or are familiar with the item to make sure it’s exactly what you are looking for. If you aren’t familiar with cars/boats/motors/whatever it is that you are buying, have it looked at by a reputable mechanic or by someone you trust who knows about your purchase before you buy it. Again, a seller with nothing to hide should have no problem with this, especially if you are the one paying for the mechanics time.

9.) Crunch the numbers. Figure out the expense of travel, time off work and anything else that will cost you money along the way. Add this to the cost of the purchase before you head out on your road trip to make sure it’s actually a good deal. 

10.) Know the laws, make it legal. I know, I know, more research. But make sure you know exactly what documents you will need and how to transfer them before you go. Ask the seller to locate a nearby notary to help you out with the legal requirements, so that the sale is legal before you leave with your purchase. It is also wise to discuss this with your financial institution and a local notary because they are familiar with the process and the laws of your home state, which may vary from the laws of the seller’s state.

Keep in mind that these are the guidelines that have worked for us, based on our knowledge and experience. Every situation is different, but in every single situation it pays to use your head. Pay attention to the details and get all the information before you commit to such a major purchase.

Lovely Readers, have you ever traveled to make such a purchase? Is it something you would consider doing? Do you have any tips to add to the list? 

Oh, and I know I promised new boat pictures, but the new boat is still in the process of being thoroughly cleaned (it was pretty filthy when we bought it). Clearly, I have an unrealistic idea of how productive I really am, since I thought I would have it all shined up today. Photos will be posted as soon as it sparkles.