Buying a used car doesn’t have to be a headache.
In fact, the whole process can be easier than you think, thanks to dozens of websites and apps designed to cut all the guesswork out of your search. With just a few clicks, you can get hundreds of results of used cars which fit your criteria.
Overwhelmed by too many responses? You can narrow your search down even further to find the exact model, color and extras you want in your next car.
But what we think is interesting is that, while finding a specific used car may be easier than ever, choosing the website or tool you want to use to do that search can be a pretty daunting task in itself.
So, we did some research on our own and compiled a list of six used car buying websites and we rated them on ease of use, results and several other factors. The websites we chose to use were:
- Kelley Blue Book
To make our comparisons and reviews as fair as possible, we searched the same car on each website, a silver 2010 Honda Accord.
Carvana is a relatively new website who claims to offer consumers a car-buying experience that’s a cut above the competition. How do they achieve this objective? By letting you try a car for seven days with no obligation. Don’t like the car? You can return it, free of charge, if the car has less than 400 miles on it. Anything over 400 miles will cost you $1 per mile.
But that’s not all. The company has two “vending machines” – one in Nashville and one in Atlanta. It works just like it sounds; go to one of the two car centers, punch a confirmation code into a screen and your car is picked from a cylindrical parking garage and delivered to you like a can of soda.
If you want to pick up your car in person at those locations but live far away, Carvana will give you $200 to put toward your plane ticket to Atlanta or Nashville.
If that doesn’t work for you, you can have the car delivered to you through a third-party, which costs an average of $750 if you’re moving a car coast-to-coast.
Now, all these perks are nice, but we want to know prices and availability. So, we did a search for the silver 2010 Honda Accord in the Seattle zip code of 98101.
Our search produced a grey 2010 Accord EX with 74,057 miles. The price: $13,000, which, Carvana’s ad noted, is $601 cheaper than the Kelley Blue Book estimate for the car (more on that later).
Carvana’s photos of the car were top-notch. It looks like they take the photos at their Atlanta or Nashville location. The Accord we found has 360-degree views, courtesy of a turning platform on which the car is sitting.
We noticed that you’re able to do a “tour” of the car, which is a visual walk-through of the car’s various features. One thing we liked is that this tour includes up-close photos of the car’s imperfections. In this case, the Accord had a scratch on the front bumper. You can also perform a 360-degree view of the interior of the car.
Visually speaking, we think Carvana’s photos are pretty amazing. But let’s remember – those photos have to be amazing because, chances are, you won’t be able to look at the car in person.
So, what’s our overall impression of Carvana?
The website is clean and easy to use. The photos of the cars are tremendous (they have to be, remember?), but, at the same time, the selection is limited because the company only has two locations. We were only able to find one vehicle in what is otherwise a plentiful make, model and year.
The main drawback of Carvana is that you’re buying the used car through them, whereas other sites act as a platform where you can choose vehicles from local dealers or private parties.
Kelley Blue Book (KBB)
Kelley Blue Book, for many years, was the authority on the true value of a car. So, when you wanted to buy a new Accord, you went to the Kelley Blue Book (a literal book) to find out how much the car should be priced at based on its features and condition.
Nowadays, you can do that through their website. And, they coupled that capability with car shopping. So, you tell KBB what kind of car you want. They give you what’s known as “Fair Market Value” based on the condition and type of car as well as the zip code you’re searching.
When you get the fair market value for the car, you also have the ability to search for that car in a particular zip code. We did the search and received 10 results, all of which were from dealerships. The closest result we got for our silver Accord was a gray 2010 Accord Ex, with a price tag of $12,999 and 61,169 miles on it. The seller? Northwest Motorsport.
Editor’s note: The car we originally found had sold by the time we took a screenshot, so we substituted an ad for a different 2010 Accord at the same dealership.
We clicked on the car and landed on a page with all the basic information as well as photos. The pictures we saw were solid, but were provided by the dealerships and didn’t include the same resolution and scope of Carvana’s photos. That’s understandable because KBB is at the mercy of the dealership to provide top-quality photos.
The photo panel also included videos that were actually TV advertisements from the dealership.
One thing we liked about the page was that you could click on a “Get Blue Book Value” link underneath the asking price, which would take you to a page that gave you the value of the car.
In this case, the car was valued at $14,444, which was nearly $1,500 more than the asking price.
So, what’s our overall impression of Kelley Blue Book?
We found KBB.com’s search features and photos to be pretty standard. If you want a good overall impression of the used car, KBB gives that to you. And we think it’s an added bonus that the site lets you compare the asking price of the car you’re interested in to the actual value of the car based on Kelley’s estimation.
In the case of our 2010 Accord, the value of the car was higher than the asking price. Don’t let that stop you from negotiating the price, though. Dealers are willing to bend to a certain point, and it’s your job to find that point whether the car is equal to, less than or more than the KBB valuation.
Like Kelley Blue book, Edmunds started out as a publication intended to give consumers an idea of how much a car was worth. As a result, it became a popular guide for both buyers and sellers.
Edmunds has the distinction of being the first “automotive information website”, the company says about the 1995 launch of www.edmunds.com.
When we used the site for our Accord search, it gave us 36 results. One of those results was the same gray 2010 Accord we saw on KBB.com. Right away, we noticed that the Edmunds car’s price was $14,299, followed by a “Get Special Offer” button.
When we clicked on the “Get Special Offer” button, a window popped up telling us we had to give our name, email address and phone number to get the special price.
While we won’t go as far as to say it’s a scammy tactic, the site did create a sense of urgency by hiding the price.
Just to see what would happen, we entered our information and sent it. We were then taken to a “Price Promise certificate” page that promised we could print it out and take it to the dealership for a no-hassle sale at the price quoted on the certificate.
That’s a great idea if the price of the car is below the car’s value, but if the price is too high, the certificate is a guarantee you’ll pay more than you should. In reality, these types of “promised price” initiatives have mixed results.
What are people saying about Edmunds.com’s Price Promise?
We found several examples of complaints about Edmunds’ Price Promise. One article from car site Jalopnik.com showed that the Edmunds’ Price Promise quote was actually $717 higher than what the dealership’s website showed.
Our advice? Take all quotes with a grain of salt. Edmunds’ Price promise and TrueCar, another site offering a supposedly rock-solid price you can take to the dealership won’t always make your car buying experience better. For example, 70 HighYa reviewers give TrueCar an overall rating of 1.6 stars.
Common complaints were that people were hounded by phone calls from dealers because TrueCar passes your information along to multiple dealerships.
Here’s what a few of those reviewers said:
- “Really rotten experience with this as it doesn't provide the customer any leverage.”
- “Do not believe your TrueCar estimate or the information that you receive from them.”
- “I just went on there to see what a car would cost me, and next thing I know I am being hounded on all levels by several dealerships.”
Another observation: We tested out the “Special Offer” button on a different Honda because the one we originally check out had already sold. Within five minutes of entering our information, we received an email from the dealership’s internet sales manager as well as a phone call from the dealership.
Bottom line: These are the kind of subtle techniques websites like to use to make you think you’re getting a better deal. Our advice? Don’t buy into the idea that secrecy equals a special deal. You only have to go as far as KBB.com, Autotrader, Cars.com or Craigslist to find the price of the car.
So, what’s our overall impression of Edmunds.com?
Edmunds’ search results produced more (20+) than what we got through KBB.com. That’s a good thing, because it gave us several different options for the kind of used car we were looking for. However, we didn’t like the “Special Offer” tactic they used to capture consumer information.
Like the last two websites we talked about, Autotrader started out as a publication. Unlike Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds, however, Autotrader was a classifieds-style monthly magazine that sold cars, trucks and other vehicles.
Each ad had a photo with a few lines of text that included details about the car and a contact number.
Like its two competitors, Autotrader went online with their classifieds service and are now one of the leading places to find used cars online.
Heading into our search for the 2010 Accord, we assumed we’d get more results through Autotrader since they are devoted to selling used cars and not to reviews, valuation and the other specialties we saw at KBB and Edmunds. However, we received only nine results.
Our guess is that, in order to post on Autotrader, you have to pay various amounts of money based on the features and add-ons you want in your ad.
Once again, we found the grey Honda from Northwest Motorsport. The price was $12,999, with a green alert next to it saying, “Price Reduced!” We noticed the car’s search result panel also included a Carfax logo, which indicated there was a free Carfax report available for the car.
When we clicked on the ad, we found a standard page similar to Edmunds and KBB with the same photos. The main difference here is the vehicle history report. We clicked on the Carfax and discovered the car had three owners, no accidents and an up-to-date title.
So, what’s our overall impression of Autotrader?
It’s our opinion that Autotrader is a really straightforward way to find a used car. It doesn’t use the subtle sales tactics we saw on Edmunds; prices were straightforward.
We were pleased to see that we could view the used car’s vehicle history report, something that wasn’t available on Edmunds. This point in itself is pretty interesting. The dealer chose to pay for a Carfax on Autotrader, but elected not to pay for an AutoCheck auto history report on Edmunds. This may have to do with the fact that Autotrader gets more traffic than Edmunds.
Cars.com is up there with Autotrader in terms of popularity for finding a used car. In fact, our search for the 2010 Accord got us 164 results; all of them were cars sold by dealers. The 164 cars that showed up in our search results dwarfs the sub-50 number of results we received from the other sites.
But here’s the catch; the Cars.com results also included cars from 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012. The results didn’t match the parameters (2010) we set on the home page when we did our initial search.
While it was nice to have so many results, we think this could go one of two ways with consumers. Either you’ll get annoyed at the extra results because you’re specifically looking for a 2010, or you’ll be happy to see other options that might fit your budget and needs a little better.
To remedy the extra results, we narrowed the search down to 2010 and got the exact results we did on Autotrader – nine.
As far as the individual ad itself, we noticed the photos were the same as what were posted on competing sites. One thing we liked about the Cars.com page is that, below the photos/features of the car, they offered up similar cars available at the dealership.
This is a great idea, but we noticed that three of the cars in that section were compact or economy sized, which is pretty different than the full-size Honda Accord.
Another thing we liked about the Cars.com ad was that you could click on the Carfax link to get the vehicle history report, just like you could on Autotrader.
So, what’s our overall impression of Cars.com?
We really enjoyed how many results we received when we did a search for a 2010 Honda Accord. But that’s just our opinion. For someone who is searching specifically for one year of a make/model, it could be annoying that the year of the cars you initially searched is outside the parameters you set.
Aside from that anomaly, we think the Cars.com page offers the same details you’d find on the Autotrader page – specifics about the 2010 Accord and a link to the car’s vehicle history report. Perhaps the only real difference on Cars.com was that the page didn’t indicate that the price had been reduced, and it also included a list of four similar cars for sale at the dealership.
Craigslist is the premier online classifieds website with a very simple visual side in deference to how easy it is to search for just about anything under the sun: companionship, jobs, community activities, and, of course, thousands of items for sale, used cars included.
One thing is nearly constant on Craigslist: variety. And that’s the first thing we noticed when we searched their Seattle/Tacoma site for a 2010 Honda Accord. We received 341 results. Also, these results included cars from dealers and private sellers.
Keep in mind, though, that Craigslist auto ads are free. Autotrader and Cars.com charge fees for ads depending on how many features and add-ons you want. What does that mean for you? You get access to cars on Craigslist you wouldn’t find on paid sites. However, many of the cars on Craigslist are also listed on Cars.com and Autotrader. Like, for example, our 2010 Honda Accord from Northwest Motorsport.
As we mentioned before, Craigslist doesn’t put any emphasis on a visually appealing site. So, the ad we saw for the Honda was as basic as any other ad: a big photo slideshow accompanied by plain black text listing features of the car and contact information for the dealership.
So, what are our thoughts about Craigslist?
Craigslist is the bare bones way to buy a car. Ads are simple and straightforward. We like how there are plenty of results, but that can be a little overwhelming if you’re looking for a specific year, model and make of a car.
However, if you want to find a used car for sale by a private owner, we think Craigslist is a great resource. Since the site’s listings are free, and there tend to be more used cars for sale by private owners than the other sites mentioned above.
Bringing It Home: What You Need to Know About Shopping Online for a Car
The sites we listed in this article all have their unique advantages and quirks:
- Carvana: Well-designed website with car-buying perks, but a little more like a dealership and less like a classifieds site.
- Kelley Blue Book: Nice to have a comparison of the selling price and actual value, but the ad itself is sourced from Edmunds.com.
- Edmunds: Basic ad with features common to other sites; didn’t like how you couldn’t see sale price of car without entering person information.
- Autotrader: We liked how the ads included the Carfax report
- Cars.com: Similar to Autotrader and Edmunds, but we liked how there were suggestions for other cars at the dealership.
- Craigslist: A bare bones approach to buying a car, but definitely more private-seller options than what we found on the other sites.
We think one of the most important things to keep in mind is that these car sites (aside from Carvana) serve as a way for you to narrow down choices of cars you want to look at. These aren’t intended to be the end-all way of finding a car, but, in our opinion, serve as a tool to narrow down a list of cars you’d like to own.
Will They Bring You the Car of Your Dreams? Maybe, Maybe Not
In my own personal experience, I’ve used these sites to buy two used cars. In one case, I went to a dealership to look for a car I saw on one of these classifieds sites. I left the dealership with a car we wanted but didn’t know what was on the lot until we were actually there, in person.
The second time I used these sites (just six months ago), I ended up buying a car I found in search results. In fact, Autotrader and Cars.com were my two main sites for this search, and all cars I viewed and test drove were found on these sites.
So, while we’ve emphasized that these sites are tools and not a magic solution for finding your car, we do want to point out that even though they’re a means to an end, they’re a pretty good way to sharpen your idea of what you want. And, in many cases, lead you to the used car you’ve been looking for.
More on Buying a Car:
- Expert Tips to Help You Decide on Buying a New or Used Car
- 8 Sales Tricks Car Dealerships Use & How You Can Beat Them