Can You Get a Good Deal on a Car — Sight Unseen, No Hassle?

Photo (cc) by pedrosimoes7

What was your last car-buying experience like?

Did you schlep around to multiple dealers, pretending to know what to look for? Did the sales rep make you feel like you were being unreasonable (or an idiot) when it came to price negotiations? Did you drive off the lot second-guessing your decision or wondering if you really got a good deal?

The newest players in car sales are banking on the idea that you’ve felt all that and more. They are also hoping you’ll be willing to step outside the box in order to avoid feeling like a schmuck when you buy your next car.

What is this new way to buy a vehicle? It involves forking over your cash without seeing your new ride in person first.

Buying cars like you’re buying shoes

The used-car sales website Vroom.com is one of the companies hoping to turn the traditional car-buying model on its head. Selling used cars online, in and of itself, is not groundbreaking. After all, people have bought cars sight unseen on eBay, Craigslist and other sites for years.

However, with those sites, you are usually on your own when it comes to evaluating vehicles and securing financing. And you could ultimately end up haggling over the details with a stranger who leaves you feeling creeped out or uncomfortable.

Vroom seeks to eliminate the back-alley feel of many online sales situations and instead replicate the showroom experience. Vehicles are cleaned and reconditioned prior to sale; Vroom eliminates commission-based sales and complicated pricing models that make car shopping stressful; and, as icing on the cake, financing can be arranged through the site as well.

“People love cars but hate the process of buying them,” Emily Frankel, vice president of marketing for Vroom, told me. “By bringing the process online, we’re removing the whole idea of haggling. We’re giving a real good deal upfront.”

Vroom reconditions used cars to get them as close to “like new” condition as possible. The company claims that, even after reconditioning, it’s able to price used cars an average of 8 percent below market value.

The company works with a network of lenders to provide financing. And, once the deal is sealed, Vroom will deliver the car to your doorstep for free in any of the lower 48 states. What’s more, you have seven days and 250 miles to decide whether you made a mistake. If so, you can return the vehicle, no questions asked — and Vroom will come get it with no pickup or restocking fees.

“People used to say, ‘Why would you buy a pair of shoes without trying them on?’ ” Frankel says, noting that Zappos eliminated that concern when the online shoe and clothing site offered free returns. Vroom’s money-back guarantee does the same for online car sales, she says.

Of course, buying a pair of shoes involves little cash out of your pocket compared with the amount spent on a car. That may, understandably, make some people a little nervous about buying sight unseen. And that’s where people like Dave Bentson come in.

Let someone else do the dirty work

Bentson is not a car broker and doesn’t have a dealer’s license, but he makes his living by helping other people buy cars.

“We’re a lot of things to a lot of people,” he says of his business, Precision Automotive Group. “Part of our job is saving you from yourself.”

Noting that the auto industry spends billions on marketing, Bentson says the best way to avoid being taken in by slick ads and sales talk is to remove yourself from the buying process. He says he would never buy a vehicle sight unseen, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have someone else see it for you.

For example, you could hire someone like Bentson to be what essentially boils down to a “head hunter” for your new car. For a price, Bentson tracks down the right car, personally inspects it, negotiates the price and will even have it delivered directly to you.

“You’re paying me because I’m an expert,” he says. “We’ll take care of everything.”

Avoid feeling manipulated

While Precision Automotive Group specializes in higher-end cars, Bentson argues that everyone could use a little help when it comes to getting a good deal. He says dealers have stacked the deck against consumers, and he doesn’t mince words about his concerns.

“The auto industry is corrupt at all levels,” Bentson says. “[It’s] very unregulated. The dealers’ lobby is who comes up with the rules.”

That sentiment is echoed by Frankel.

“At some point, the dealer is going to win,” she says. According to Frankel, online risk-free auto purchases are the best way to avoid feeling like you’ve been manipulated at a dealership.

Bentson charges his clients a flat fee rather than a transaction-based fee — and in this way can reassure them that they aren’t simply being directed to a vehicle with the highest profit margin.

Frankel and Bentson have different business models, but they share a common belief: There is no reason car buyers have to see a vehicle before buying it, so long as someone working on their behalf has done the legwork.

“People go to car dealerships because it’s what’s always been done,” Frankel says.

While Bentson and Frankel think this new car-buying model is poised to go mainstream in the years to come, it remains to be seen whether customers will be willing to fork over their cash without sliding behind the wheel first.

What do you think? Would you buy a car without a test drive first? And we know you auto dealer employees are dying to add your own 2 cents on this subject. Feel free to do so in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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