The Internet is a great way for private car buyers and sellers to track each other down.

If you can buy a car from a neighbor or sell a car to a friend, by all means do so. But when a private auto sale comes down to buying from or selling to a stranger, your best bet is to hop online. It beats driving around town with a “for sale” sign in your car window or putting an ad in the local newspaper.

“If you’re a buyer, you’ve got the best selection. If you’re selling it’s a cheap, effective way to reach the most sellers,” says Chip Perry, chief executive officer of

AutoTrader.com.

AutoTrader.com has listings for 1.5 million used vehicles, with about 250,000 vehicles from private sellers. Other sites listing used cars for sale from dealers as well as private sellers include

Autoweb.com,

Cars.com and

StoneAge.com.

Private auto sales are a great way for consumers to buy or sell a used car, truck or sports utility vehicle. It’s good for the buyer because the price tends to be

lower than what a dealer would charge for the car. It’s good for a seller because the price tends to be

higher than what a dealer would pay for the car.

Rapid results

Online sites help buyers and sellers find each other in a hurry.

“We’ve had messages back from people who sold their cars in one day,” Perry says.

One used car seller listed his car on AutoTrader.com and in a local newspaper. The car was sold with the help of the AutoTrader.com ad

before the newspaper ad had a chance to run.

It’s no wonder that consumer experts urge folks who are selling or shopping for a used car to check out online classified sites.

“I think it’s the way to go,” says J.C. Pierce, director of the Consumer Task Force for Automotive Issues. “If you want a red Camaro, you can narrow the search down to a red Camaro and there you go. You can look at hundreds of listings that you won’t see in a newspaper … I can’t think of any cons.”

Four major classified ad sites



AutoTrader.com



Ads run for one month. A basic listing, which includes make, model, year, price, description and personal information, is free. Adding an online photo to the ad costs $15. An e-mail link costs $8. Adding a logo to the ad costs $10. Ad runs on AutoTrader.com site, which has listings for 1.5 million used vehicles with about 250,000 vehicles from private sellers.



Autoweb.com



Ads cost $19.95 and run for 30 days. If you do not receive any leads during the 30-day period, you can get a refund or let the ad run for an additional 30 days for free. Ad appears in Autoweb.com listings as well as Yahoo! and Lycos classifieds.



Cars.com





Ads cost $20 and run for 14 days. Customers may add their own photo to the ad or choose a photo from the site’s photo library. Changes and extensions to the ad are free. Ad appears in Cars.com listings. Cars.com has relationships with 134 newspapers from across the country, which means ads that appear on the Cars.com site also will appear in the online editions of those newspapers.



StoneAge.com



Ads cost $19.95 and run until the car is sold. Photo uploads are free. You can update or change the ad at any time. StoneAge.com ads are listed in Yahoo! Classifieds, Ameritech YellowPages.net, CarTrackers, Classfind Network and UsedCars.com.

Most online sites charge about $20 for a classified ad that includes a photo of the car. This chart from Bankrate.com breaks down the pricing of four major sites.

At StoneAge.com an ad will run until a car is sold. Ads on Autoweb.com run for 30 days. Ads on Cars.com run for 14 days. Changes and extensions are free. At AutoTrader.com all ads run for one month. A basic listing is free, and a listing with a photo is $15.

Even if you don’t find the car you want from an online listing, surfing around a few auto sites will give you a good sense of what kinds of vehicles are available in your area and at what price.

“It gives you the sense of the range of prices in the local market,” Perry says. “It’s very important to have multiple alternatives when you’re negotiating for anything.”

It’s not surprising that more than one-third of all used car shoppers hop on to the Internet, according to study by J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing information firm based in Agoura Hills, Calif. Quite a few car shoppers find the used vehicle they want online.

“Currently, 4 percent of all late-model used-vehicle buyers find their vehicle through the Internet,” says Chris Denove, a partner at J.D. Power. “While this number may seem small, the percentage is growing fast and is likely to surpass newspaper classifieds within four years.”

Details can sell your car

What should you put in an online auto ad? As many details as possible.

“If you’ve got 50 words to use, try to use it up,” Pierce advises. “You have the opportunity to make it pop out and you should.”

If you bought the car new and have taken good care of it, say so. Using phrases such as “original owner,” “kept in garage” and “service records available” will help your ad stand out. It’s also a good idea to include a photo of the actual car whenever possible. Let potential buyers see the real deal.

Another important phrase to include in an online ad is “no dealers.”

“A lot of dealers are surfing the Web, trying to buy a car cheap so they can turn around and sell it,” Pierce says.

The last thing most private sellers want is to end up haggling with a professional salesman over price. Lots of people dread the whole negotiating aspect of private auto sales. Using an online auto ad can help because much of the back and forth between buyer and seller can be done via e-mail.

“It takes the pressure off,” Pierce says. “It’s easier to negotiate without having to look the other guy in the eye. It’s easier to say ‘no’ online.”

Of course, you’ll need to seal the deal in person. When it comes to face-to-face negotiations, information is power. Buyers should come armed with questions. Sellers should come armed with maintenance and service records.

“I can tell you I just put in new brakes six months ago, but if I have the records I can show you,” Pierce says. “So it’s definitely important.”

It’s also important to take the vehicle for a test drive to see how it runs. Many consumer experts also recommend taking the car to an independent mechanic.

“Take it to a good mechanic for an exhaustive check on the car,” says Jack Gillis, author of

The Car Book. “That investment of $60 to $70 is really a warranty.”

Online auctions are another way to find or sell used cars over the Internet.

Yahoo!,

eBay and

Autobytel.com are among the sites that auction autos.

Consumer experts advise caution when buying or selling anything online. It’s no surprise that they have severe reservations about buying a car through an online auction.

Buying a car without driving it is a big no-no, let alone buying a car without actually seeing it.

Chris Donlay, a spokesman for eBay, says it may be possible for a potential buyer to test drive a car before making a bid.

“It’s completely up to the buyer and seller,” Donlay says.

There’s also the option of escrow. With escrow, a third party holds the money until the buyer has taken a look at the car and deems that everything is OK and matches the description from the seller. Through an arrangement with

escrow.com, eBay customers pay a maximum fee of $100.

Listings on auction sites are much more detailed than typical classified ads. An eBay listing for a 1996 Honda Accord had 16 photos, including a shot of the odometer and a close-up of a slight stain on the trunk of the car. Some sellers include photos of a vehicle’s engine as well as service and inspection records.

“It’s a $25 flat fee for a listing. You can put up as much as you want,” Donlay says.

Many auction sites have links to sites such as

CarFax that let buyers check out a car’s history by its vehicle identification number. You can find out if the odometer has been rolled back and if a car has been junked or salvaged.

Lots of people prefer to bid on cars in their local area since the burden of delivering the car often falls on the buyer. Rather than pay for cross-country shipping costs, some long-distance buyers fly out and pick up the car themselves.

“For some people, they’ll always want to kick the tires and they’ll never buy a car online,” Donlay says. “But frankly, we’re finding a lot of people who want to.

“If physically visiting the car is not important to you, you can do it all online.”

— Posted: Nov. 15, 2000

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