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The Hassle of Selling a Used Car Online

“What’s the lowest you’re willing to go?” That question was the way 90% of buyers interested in our 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid struck up a conversation with me. Regardless of whether it was through email, eBay, Craigslist, or text, everyone wanted to know just how low we were willing to go. This isn’t my first rodeo, and I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I know how this game works. But our latest experience selling two of our cars online has us leaning toward avoiding selling privately in the future.

selling a used car
Joel Patel/The Manual

My wife and I live in Baltimore, Maryland. Like any other city, parking is expensive, hard to come by on the street, and an additional expense that we find to be excessive. Working from home means that I hardly need a vehicle, and writing about cars has the perk of being able to get press vehicles on a weekly basis. So, owning a car doesn’t make much sense – at least that’s what the head of the household told me.

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Eventually, we decided to list both of our cars – a 2002 Toyota 4Runner and a 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid – for sale. Initially, we hypothesized that the 4Runner would be the difficult one to sell, with the newer, shinier Optima Hybrid drawing more attention. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

4Runner aficionados will know that SUVs in decent shape are going for absurd money. Mine wasn’t exactly pristine and it was pushing 180,000 miles, but it did have five new tires, a lengthy book of receipts for work that was completed, and a box full of expensive parts that would go to the new owner. I wrote out an elongated history of my two years with the SUV in 770 words and posted the 4Runner on Craigslist and eBay for $5,000.

It didn’t take long for people to reach out to me. 4Runners are hot and placing the vehicle for sale in October meant that it was a good time to attract buyers looking for a winter vehicle. With the 4Runner being a 17-year-old vehicle, buyers simply wanted to know what was broken. Maryland being one of the few states that require emissions and safety checks, buyers also wanted to know if it would pass. Rust was a big issue, too.

Roughly a few weeks after posting the SUV, I received a message on eBay from someone stating that they wanted to buy the car sight unseen. I grew up in the digital age, and I know all about the Nigerian princes asking for money. But this buyer wasn’t a Nigerian prince, nor did he want any private information. He was an older gentleman that truly wanted to buy the SUV, but lived in Wisconsin and didn’t want to see the car. Instead, he wanted to pay me for it and get it shipped to him.

selling a used car
Joel Patel/The Manual

It seemed sketchy. What person buys a car before looking at it? My pictures were good, but they weren’t stellar, and while he was asking good questions, it’s not something I would’ve done. To make sure he felt comfortable buying the SUV without seeing it, I made him a five-minute video, providing a walkaround of the 4Runner, a look at what it sounds like driving, and proving that the four-wheel drive actually worked. He appreciated the gesture and my forthcoming nature.

Shortly after, I received $4,500 in a newly opened savings account and we discussed shipment, which he footed the bill for. A few days later, a massive pickup truck with an enclosed trailer came to take my 4Runner away. Sure, I was sad – I am after every car I sell – but I was happy to get it off our hands so quickly.

Unfortunately, the Optima Hybrid sat, and sat, and sat.

I listed both vehicles at the same time and on the same websites, but for the Optima Hybrid, we also decided to pony up the extra $25 to post the car on Autotrader. Admittedly, we priced the car at $10,500, a little higher than Kelly Blue Book thought it was worth, because we figured that people would send lowball offers anyway, and that serious shoppers would be willing to haggle. Boy, were we wrong.

Initially, we received a decent amount of interest, with a lot of interested buyers sending lowball offers our way or stating that they were interested but never making a set time to see the car or contact us back. One individual emailed us to enquire about fuel economy and then stated that their Pontiac Aztek was getting nearly the same mpg. Carvana even called us out of the blue and offered us roughly half of our asking price for the vehicle. We thought it was a good sign. So, over the coming months, we lowered the price $500 here, another $500 down, but still, no bites.

selling a used car
Joel Patel/The Manual

Our Autotrader ad ran out by the time we reached the $9,000 mark with zero real human interest, though a few bots wanted us to purchase a VIN report through their shady website. Overall, paying $25 for an ad with just three photos and a hard word count is worse of a deal than paying Starbucks $4.45 for an iced caramel macchiato. When the ad expired, we didn’t renew it.

Time went on, the price of the Optima Hybrid continued to go down and we both realized that we weren’t going to get what we wanted from the used market. Then, someone reached out and told us that they wanted to pay for the car in full and wanted it to be shipped to Florida. A familiar thing had happened with the 4Runner, so it didn’t sound ludicrous. The only catch was, this buyer wanted to send me a check. Leary of just how often fraudulent checks exchange hands during car purchases, I hesitantly agreed, but with a few stipulations.

One of them was that we would have to talk on the phone before moving ahead. It was an immediate red flag when the buyer inconveniently called at 3 a.m. in the morning claiming to be in Panama. We did speak to one another once, but the buyer simply said “yes,” “OK,” and “no” with a lot of static. The other one was getting a certified check and not sending a regular check that would bounce with the car on the shipping truck. Lastly, I told the buyer to send the check through certified mail so that we could see exactly where it was and when it would be arriving.

My red flags went off the instant the buyer reached out to me, but I wanted to see just how far some frauds are willing to go to try to get a free car. Needless to say, we were sent a fake check that looked somewhat official, but was for the wrong amount, had a random buyer’s name on it, was from New York and not Florida, and was from a bank that didn’t exist. When I told the buyer, he simply said, “It’ll work, just take it to the bank.” I didn’t do that.

A month later, and the car now at $8,500, a young college student came down from Towson with his friend to test drive the car. This was the first real bite we had on the vehicle, so we made sure to make our best impression. The car was cleaned, smelled fresh, and gassed up. We met at a local Target, just to be on the safe side and things quickly went south.

The buyer and his friend took a few seconds to look over the car, didn’t ask any questions, and then asked to go on a test drive. It didn’t take long to see that this buyer didn’t know what a hybrid was. “Why is the engine making noise only some of the time?” he asked. Uhh, I was taken aback. I tried to explain that this was a hybrid and that it ran on electricity in the city and when driving around town, which is why it was silent until you jumped on the gas. “Oh, yes, yes, yes,” he said, but I could clearly see that he still didn’t really get it.

The test drive was short, we went through a little of the city and then a few miles on the highway before heading back. I felt dismayed. Like there was something that I could’ve done to make the test drive better. My wife wasn’t so sure, claiming that anyone that comes to look at a hybrid without knowing what a hybrid is can’t be helped.

selling a used car
Joel Patel/The Manual

We lowered the car to our bottom dollar, listing it for $7,000 and no one reached out to us. Defeated and tired of having to worry about a car rotting on the street, we went to CarMax under my wife’s guidance. I didn’t think it would be a good idea, we’ve all seen just how terrible their offers can be, but we went. Surprisingly, they offered us $6,500, above Kelley Blue Book, within 30 minutes of being there. We, at our wit’s end, gladly accepted. The paperwork was completed within the next 30 minutes and we mobile deposited the check when we got home.

Could we have gotten more money? Yes, I believe we could have. But it would’ve taken a lot more time (we already had the car on sale for four months), patience dealing with buyers that don’t know what a hybrid is, money on insurance for a car we weren’t driving, and a greater risk of the car breaking down, getting hit, or being stolen while sitting on one of Baltimore’s streets. We were happy with the offer and don’t regret it.

One would assume that the internet has helped buyers become more knowledgeable about the cars they’re shopping for. There are a plethora of places to find information on the web, but it doesn’t look like everyone uses them. Despite living in a digital age, online car sales still require one very old-school element – trust. That’s why the majority of the time, you wind up physically seeing the car, talking with someone, or finishing the deal in person. The human touch is still very much alive.

I hope the buyer in Wisconsin is happy with the 4Runner, and I was more than happy to give him a good price, seeing as he was one of the few genuine people that we spoke with. As far as CarMax is concerned, they’re asking $13,998 for our Optima Hybrid. All I can say to that is good luck.

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