A future where human beings have been separated from the world around them, relying on digital representations of it to make decisions, live their lives, and direct their actions. A future where the virtual world can be manipulated to mislead people into believing things that aren’t true.
That’s the premise of The Matrix, obviously, but it also happens to be a pretty accurate description of online tools for car-buying. We’re talking about Cars.com, Cargurus, Carfax, Autocheck, Edmunds, Carcomplaints.com, the Kelly Blue Book, NADA (the National Automobile Dealers Association), TrueDelta, Truecar, and even dealership websites themselves.
They provide a real advantage right?
They’re incredibly convenient. Searchable, browsable, easy to sort and filter, using interfaces that are friendly and familiar from our experiences with online shopping. They make it easy to put together a list of interesting cars that are available nearby, and to compare key specs like age, mileage, accident history, and, most of all, price.
But the world they present isn’t the world as it really is. The problem is that dealerships—the same people trying to sell you cars—control what information is available on those sites.
Often, the information they post is incomplete, misleading, or flat-out inaccurate, as when they fail to mention how shoddy their reconditioning work was, or the fact that they didn’t replace any number of important parts that are on the verge of failure.
At the same time, the information they do share is carefully calculated to get you in the door. One common trick is for a dealer to check the NADA or KBB value of a car and list it on Cars.com at a much lower price. The website will slap on a big, bright “GREAT DEAL” label, and customers will start flooding in. When they arrive, a number of things happen, after all—and the “great deal” turns out not to exist. It was just a trick to give the salespeople a chance to bully, persuade, smooth-talk, guilt-trip, and otherwise convince you to buy a car that isn’t the right choice for you.
So online tools can be helpful, but need to be approached with caution. Dealers know exactly how you shop. They leverage that knowledge to design a world where you feel you have everything you need for an informed decision. You conclude that these tools provide a real advantage. It’s not that simple though.
What you find there can be helpful, and it certainly saves time relative to driving to each nearby dealership one by one to compare your choices. But remember that it’s mostly an illusion. Everything you see there was chosen by someone trying to get your money by getting you in the door. Don’t believe deals that are too good to be true. Be ready to walk out of a dealership if the offer they give you is different from the one that got you in the door. And most of all, independently verify condition if you’re serious about a used car.