Jim Wang, a software engineer in Columbia, Md., has bought two cars on eBay. The first, a 2000 Acura Integra, was totaled in an accident after two years. Wang's insurer sent him $14,000 for his claim, almost exactly what he had paid for the car.
"It showed just how good a deal I got," said Wang, 27. "After two years of driving it, I got all of my money back. That's why I bought the second car online too."
Certainly, bidding for cars online is nothing new. EBay Motors, the auto division of the popular auction site, has been around since 2000, and more than 2 million vehicles have exchanged hands on the site. But its appeal has broadened from collectors and hobbyists to mainstream consumers, especially men under 35.
One reason for the growth, said Rob Chesney, vice president of eBay Motors, is consumers' increased comfort with purchasing big-ticket items online.
You also are shopping at a national scale, and, as Wang discovered, there's potential to snag a good deal.
Many auctions on eBay are settled at the car's wholesale price (what a dealer would pay if, say, you traded in a car), said Philip Reed, senior consumer-advice editor for Edmunds.com, an automotive Web site.
So what's the catch? Read any car forum online and you'll see there's potential for a lot of hassle and, in the worst case, falling victim to a scam.
In the Federal Trade Commission's annual ranking of consumer fraud complaints, Internet auctions came in fifth this year. So before you make a bid, or let the excitement of the auction get the better of your wallet, make sure you keep these tips in mind.
-- Is it too good to be true?
There are a few key signs of fraud, and too many times "people feel they're getting such a good deal that they overlook these warnings," Reed said.
For one, if the "buy it now" price on eBay, which lets you bypass the auction, is shockingly low, there's probably a reason why, and it's not a good one.
Do your homework and know the car's market value, which you can check at sites such as www.kbb.com, www.cars.com and www.edmunds.com. On eBay, you also may search prices of listings for similar cars.
Ask the seller a lot of questions about the car in advance of bidding. Once you bid, you are making an offer on the car. If you win, you generally have to pay, except in cases where a product is misrepresented.
If the seller is evasive or offers a suspicious tale--"I've been stationed overseas suddenly and have to sell my car"--move on.
On eBay, both buyers and sellers can write feedback about each other after a transaction. Read those comments. And check which type of transactions the seller has completed. If they have peddled only DVDs, you may want to deal with someone else.
-- See it before you believe it
No matter how detailed the car's description is, or how many pictures of the car are posted online, you should inspect the auto before purchasing it.
Some 68 percent of eBay vehicle transactions are across state lines. If you can't test drive the car in person, hire someone to do it. You can arrange for an inspection through eBay for about $100.
-- Don't forget road-trip costs.
If you buy out of state, factor in how much it will cost to either ship the vehicle (usually about $700) or to drive the car back yourself. Add it all up: one-way airfare, hotel, gas, tolls and roadside food.
If you want to avoid long-distance treks, you can search for cars locally on eBay, as well as use other online classifieds, such as Craig's List (www.craigslist.org).
-- Get it in print.
Finally, make sure you read through all the terms of the sale. Most vehicles are sold "as is." EBay offers a purchase-protection program up to $20,000 in cases of fraud, but there are limitations.
And make sure you will get the car's full dossier at the time of sale: the title, maintenance records and a bill of sale, which details the transfer of ownership and the purchase price.
"I wouldn't buy the car if the owner doesn't have the title yet," which occurs when an auto loan has not been fully paid, said Jeff Ostroff, chief executive of CarBuyingTips.com.
You don't want to have to count on the owner forwarding the title later.
For a bill-of-sale template, go to www.carbuyingtips.com/download.htm.
E-mail Carolyn Bigda at firstname.lastname@example.org.