It was time, sadly, to put my car out to pasture. Time to shift out of the pre-cupholder, roll-down-your-own-windows era into the modern automotive age. So after 13 years, I mustered all my courage and ventured back into the market.
But how did I end up shopping for such a major purchase on eBay? I am, after all, a confirmed and proud technophobe, the owner of no iPods or PDAs whatsoever. I didn't have the chops to shop for a car on eBay. It just turned out that way.
I tried to buy the old-fashioned way, I really did. I knew the make and model I wanted, and I knew I was looking for a used car. I even had a target age: three years old, one of the constant stream of vehicles that roll into dealerships after coming off a lease. My intended car came with a four-year, 50,000-mile warranty, so I'd have the better part of a year to find any kinks and get them fixed for free. All in all, almost-new wheels, at less than an almost-new price.
That was the plan, anyway.
I liked the salesman at the dealership. I told him that I was ready to buy, but that I wasn't going to do it that day. Today, I said, I want to drive and ask questions. Tomorrow, I'll come back and talk money. As the 3-year-old son of a friend once told me, with a withering glance I would have thought impossible for someone his age: "Yeah, right."
In the lot, I checked out a few possibilities, picked out my favorite and took it for a ride. I loved it. When the radio blared Bill Withers's "Lovely Day," it only served as confirmation: This was definitely my car.
But it never happened. The salesman first offered a "today-only" deal, which I turned down, and that car was sold before I could return the next day. Then he mentioned a similar car whose price was higher. I set up an appointment to return the next day.
The salesman called in the morning. The car was up on the lift, he said, getting a stem-to-stern checkup so any defects could be fixed and it could be sold as a "certified" used car, commanding a higher price tag. I tried to hide my disappointment. Certification would put the car beyond my reach. Call me when they're finished, I said. The call never came.
And so it came to be that I stumbled -- or was I pushed? -- onto the Internet to buy a car. Okay, so the only thing I had bought on eBay was a pair of sandals. In an age when the online universe is so pervasive that my own mother is Googling me (hmmmm), I figured it was worth a try. In its five years of existence, well over 1 million cars have been sold through eBay Motors. If all those folks could do it, so could I. Maybe.
It was time for the Great Car Hunt, Version 2.0.
Searching for a car on eBay is fun, and frustrating. Type the make of your would-be wheels into the search engine, and dozens of cars are likely to appear, each with exhaustive lists of specifications and sometimes dozens of photographs. You may not have as many pictures of your own children.
And then there are the tantalizing dollar figures. A few dealers set their initial bids at zero or close to it, creating a feeding frenzy -- and an optical illusion, essentially. I'm sorry to say, but you're not going to snag that snazzy Audi for $250, though it may look like that if you watch an auction (usually 10 days long) as it begins. Other sellers start bidding at more realistic levels.
On the opposite end of the equation, some sellers advertise -- usually with capital letters and several exclamation points -- no reserve, which means the bidder with the highest offer at the end of the auction gets the car, even if the final offer is low. But most sellers set a reserve, or minimum price, that is unknown to buyers, so if the auction doesn't catch fire, there's no sale. And then there's a hybrid option in which there's an auction as well as a "buy it now" price.
Whoa, I thought one day, making my daily online rounds and spying "my" car, a 2001 Saab in purportedly flawless condition, 40,000 miles -- not fantastic, but not bad -- and at only $13,000, with two days to go in the auction. Okay, so the car was in Pennsylvania. I could figure something out, I reasoned.
I jumped. Count me in, up to $13,500, I wagered. I waited. For a couple of hours, no higher bids appeared. Could it be this easy?
Yeah, right, as my 3-year-old friend would say. Not a chance. When I returned to my keyboard a few hours later, my bid had been buried by offers that climbed thousands of dollars higher, the victim of an essentially efficient market.
Sure, you may get those vintage jelly-jar glasses for a steal in another wing of the eBay colossus, but it isn't going to happen with a purchase that has as large a buying audience -- and so much money at stake -- as a car. There are thousands of people trolling the same listings, looking for the same bargain. That means the drop-dead bargain doesn't exist. Look at it this way: Why on earth would a retailer accept a substantially lower price online for a car that he could get from a customer who had walked into his showroom?
All the same, that car ended up selling for a good price -- as it turned out, the lowest price I saw for a comparable vehicle, probably $2,500 to $3,000 less than it would have sold for at a Washington area dealership.
Sure, I knew, in my brain if not my heart, that finding a fantastic deal was highly unlikely. Still, I tried two other eBay auctions, with the same distinct lack of success. It took a lot of mental energy, as auctions stretched over days, and most of the final selling prices seemed to eerily resemble the prices I had seen advertised in showrooms.
And then I found Lenny. Or, rather, I saw a car listed that looked like "mine." This one had a "buy it now" price, which was considerably less than others of its type and was only a couple of thousand dollars more than the latest bid. The auction had a long way to go, and the bids would probably eventually reach the same level as the "buy it now" price.
In other words, I could save a lot of time and effort by acting now, as they say on TV. It would be like losing the crowd by riding the elevator all the way to the top, rather than taking the stairs with everyone else, step by step, and hoping to win the race.
But I'd never seen the car in person, much less driven it. And there was the fact that it was in New Jersey, and I was in Washington. Come to think of it, the whole notion of spending many thousands of dollars on a car, sight unseen, tires unkicked, was pretty outlandish. So I picked up the phone and called Lenny.
The dealership's phone number was at the bottom of the listing. Actually, it wasn't a retail dealership, but a wholesale operation, as the guy who answered -- that would be Lenny -- explained. Wholesalers buy cars at to-the-trade auctions and then resell them to retailers. Some also "flip" cars to individual buyers.
It made sense to me. And these guys didn't tack on the fees I had seen nearly everywhere else, both in online auctions and at dealerships: $150, $200, even $300 for "documentation" costs. Nuisance fees, it seemed to me, like paying them to sell you their car. I liked that Lenny didn't do that.
And this place, I found after making a few more clicks, sold some fancy used cars. BMWs, Jaguars. It shouldn't have made a difference -- after all, anyone can buy whatever they want from auction -- but for some reason, it gave me confidence that I wasn't about to do something really stupid.
I got a history report on the car by clicking on its vehicle identification number on the listing. For less than $10, CarFax, an independent firm, coughed up the details on the car's life, including whether it had sustained major damage, been stolen or whether its odometer appeared to have been rolled back. Everything came up roses.
What the heck. It was time. You take your chances. I sealed the deal.
After weeks of searching and dozens of cars perused, I would "buy it now." After competing with thousands of other bidders in the world's largest virtual bazaar -- and losing -- I got my quarry pretty much the old-fashioned way, by knowing a good deal when I saw it and by trying hard not to be distracted by games or gimmicks.
A few days later, I hitched a ride with a friend who was heading north. Little more than a couple of hours later, we arrived at our place.
There were cars everywhere on a piece of pavement that served as a showroom, and a makeshift office that -- let's just say -- apparently had not been tidied up in recent millennia. At the desk sat Lenny, disheveled but helpful, seeming at 2 p.m. as though he had just rolled out of bed. Across the lot was a considerably fancier work in progress, a bona fide showroom, with car logos and everything. These guys were moving on up.
And there was my car, looking as though it had just left the factory. About 10 minutes later, I was rolling merrily down the highway.
After a lot of work, it seemed easy. And I was lucky, no doubt about it. Nearly a year later, the car has heroically withstood a battery of endurance tests, and I got it for a lot less -- I'd guess $1,300 to $2,500 less, although it's impossible to know for sure -- than I could have haggled for from a local dealership.
Plus, my 2001 Saab 9-3 convertible, for which I wound up paying $19,700, is a lot of fun. Much more so than my eBay sandals.