How to buy a used car or a house — managing risk with online and offline resources


I just bought a used car and I’m on the verge of buying a used house. Making such purchases requires lots of information. You can’t collect it all online, but it sure helps.

Because I’ve been alive for more than 60 years, I am used to making big purchases with lots of personal hand-holding and a need for trust. I’ve bought eight cars and two houses in that time. I think people my age and older are used to spending a lot of time and effort on personal relationships and impressions when it comes to buying.

My children (in their 20s) are creatures of the online world. They prefer to do everything as much online as possible and are comfortable using the web and apps to generate a flood of useful information. In fact, when that’s not possible, they resent it — they perceive offline “friction” as a flaw in the system that ought to be remedied.

The two perspectives came together recently when I bought a used car, investigated the purchase of a house, and researched off-campus apartments.

Buying a used car online

I’ve bought a new car using the internet. New cars are commodities — for a given model, one is the same as another. But used cars are not commodities. Two cars of the same model and mileage are not the same — one may have been meticulously maintained and driven with care, while another was driven viciously and involved in multiple accidents.

Even so, online resources are essential. In my recent purchase, I determined that I wanted to buy a Honda CR-V, a small SUV. The web helped me determine that a CR-V in my price range from 2012-2015 was more likely to have the essential technology features I needed (back-up camera, Bluetooth) than a competing car, the Toyota RAV4. I also used Consumer Reports to assess that Honda CR-V owners were relatively satisfied with the car and its dependability compared to alternatives.

Having narrowed down to one model, it was easy to find cars in my area. I used cars.com and edmunds.com to locate vehicles. These sites show photos, list mileage and features, and identify the number of previous owners. Just as important, they give you a very good sense of the market. After you peruse a dozen used cars or so of the same model, you know about what a given car in a given model year with a given mileage should cost. It also keeps the dealers honest — if their prices get out of line, you can detect it immediately.

Once I’d narrowed down the list of vehicles to just a few, I used autocheck.com to identify maintenance histories and whether the cars had been in serious accidents. Carfax also does this.

But while there are services like vroom.com that will sell you a car from anywhere in the country sight unseen, I still felt as if I needed to drive the cars to make a choice. So I set up test drives with three different dealerships for four different vehicles. The dealerships were located within an hour of my home — by expanding my search to that larger area, I was able to see more alternatives for cars to buy.

Despite what you may have heard, I found these used-car salesmen to be helpful, professional, and clear. And I learned a lot from the test drives. There are two “trim levels” to the CR-V — I determined that the higher trim level was better. One car I drove was distinctly underpowered relative to the others — the transmission needed work. One had been owned by a smoker — I immediately rejected it based on the smell, which the dealer had been unable to cover up or remedy. The car I eventually bought had over 90,000 miles on it, but I had the maintenance history and my own test drive to show that the engine was still in great condition.

Once I’d committed, the dealership, Honda North, made it quite easy to complete the transaction and drive the car away. It only took two visits: one for the test drive and one to take possession, which was helpful since the dealer was 40 minutes from my house.

Buying a house online

I’m likely to be moving from the Boston suburbs to Maine in the next year, to an area near Portland. I’ve visited there several times in the past, but visiting somewhere and living there are two different things.

To begin my home research, I reached out to friends on Facebook to find out who knew about living in or near Portland. I ended up talking to three friends of friends, who were all very helpful. This confirmed that it was a great place to live and helped me narrow down the neighborhoods and suburbs to look in.

I started checking out real estate on realtor.com to get a sense of prices in different areas. About a week after I’d registered with realtor.com, I got an email about a house that was very close to what we were looking for, in an ideal location and at a good price. My wife was pretty psyched to see it, too. This was a lot faster than we thought we’d go, but we reached out to a broker provided by realtor.com and started inquiring about the house.

In addition to the information and photos on realtor.com, we used all sorts of online resources to investigate the house and neighborhood. Maps and web searches showed that there’s a university within a couple miles and a nature preserve a quarter-mile down the road. I checked out the stores and restaurants nearby and the local supermarkets. I determined how long it would take to drive to Portland, to Boston, and to the local airport. The town’s real estate records gave me all sorts of information, including the exact size of the lot and buildings on it, when they were built (the house is over 200 years old!), and the sales history of the property. I even checked out how the town voted in recent elections.

The buyer broker from realtor.com turned out to be a great guy and I’m looking forward to working with him. We’ll be seeing the house on Sunday. We’ll also be staying at a local B and B for a few days later this month to get a feel for the area.

There is no way I would make a purchase like this without checking out a lot of things in person — not just the house (Does it smell funny? Do the floors creak?) but the surroundings. But it was far more efficient to find this place because of all the online resources.

Risk, reward, deals, and fun

I’ve begun thinking about the web in terms of risk and reward. These sorts of interactions are now common. Both my children used similar methods to find apartments recently, for example.

If you have a big purchase to make, you want as many alternatives as possible, and you want to minimize the risks — the risk of getting a bad deal, of overpaying, or of buying something that has hidden flaws.

The web and apps are awesome resources for surfacing alternatives. Smart people do their homework there. Everything from purchase histories to maintenance histories to relative pricing is available there. You can get smart in a hurry.

But I’d never buy anything this expensive without checking it out in person, shaking the seller’s hand, and getting a feel for things. There are some risks — like shady dealers, smelly cars, and crooked floors — that you can only spot with an in-person visit.

This is the way of the future. Smart buyers need to master all the ways of gathering information. It reduces the anxiety and turns the purchase into a hunt. And that can actually end up being sort of fun.

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  1. Congratulations, Josh! There’s a lot of that going on right now. We just purchased a home in May (the only one of the 4 we looked at that actually was like the online photos portrayed). Even though this wasn’t our first, I purchased Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home (all the legal stuff), and Your Home Sweet Home (How to decide whether you should stay or move in retirement by Tzougros — all the emotional stuff.) We got our own agent referred by a trusted friend and she turned out to be fabulous. I cannot stress enough the difference it made to have her guidance and friendship. And we stayed away from fixer-uppers. Moving to Louisiana meant we also checked flood maps. Online-only information does carry risk. My brother ran into scams trying to get an apartment with listing photos stolen from old legitimate listings and email exchanges with stories saying, “I’m traveling right now. Send a check and and I’ll send you the key so you can look at it.”

  2. I learned a secret after spilling gasoline in my vehicle and not being able to remove the odor for two months. I bought an Ozone Machine for $50 on Amazon and it worked like a charm!! It also removed the smoke smell from my parent’s car (my dad is a smoker, so we did a test run). It was so easy and so effective, I am surprised every used car dealer doesn’t have one.

  3. Facebook Marketplace is also a great resource for used car shopping.

    Most of the vehicles you see on other platforms are there, but you usually can Message with the seller directly.

    Also, personally, I like the information formatting and filtering better than any other platform.