What It’s Like to Buy a Car Online

computer keyboard with buy car button

It’s been more than a quarter of a century since a certain bookstore first appeared on the World Wide Web. We now know that site as online superstore, Amazon, and it now sells virtually everything. Except cars. Due in part to antiquated dealer franchise laws and, to some degree, recalcitrant dealers, online car buying is still something of a rarity, even today.

But that’s been changing. A new crop of used car sellers has appeared online in recent years, among them Vroom, Carvana, and Shift. Their aim is to make car buying as easy as clicking on the latest Stephen King thriller and getting it delivered to your door.

The advent of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has spurred this change — not only because many shoppers no longer want to venture out onto a crowded sales floor, but also because pandemic-related inventory shortages have driven consumers to buy cars wherever they can find them.

But does online car buying actually work? We sat down with a recent car shopper to find out.

Tell us a little about yourself

My name is Stewart McCullough. I live in Seattle, and I run a web development company that I started many years ago. 

Tell us about your car search. What were you looking for and why?

I gave my old Subaru Impreza to my daughter, who left for college recently. Before that, I had a 2004 Volkswagen Jetta, and drove that for many years. TDI engine. I really liked that car. But in 2019, I decided to replace it with a Subaru. Philosophically, I like the fact that Subaru has designed everything to be easily accessible. I also liked the safety features.

But pretty soon after purchasing the Impreza, I drove a Golf. It was a few years older, but I liked it more than my Subaru. And so then after giving my daughter the Subaru for college, I needed a new car, and I knew that I wanted a Golf. And I knew going into it that I wanted either the GTI or the Golf R because I wanted something sporty.

How did you go about searching for the car?

I very quickly found that the most efficient way to search was Autotrader. I tried Craigslist just to see what was out there, and maybe for other types of cars, it works better. But for me, I could not figure out a good way to search for newer Golfs on Craigslist. I also searched the local Volkswagen dealerships, and even they didn’t have much available. 

So I used Autotrader as my morning therapy session. I would search for GTIs. And I would search for Golf Rs. And truth be told, I flip-flopped many times between the GTI and the R. Eventually, it escalated to test driving. I found a GTI in Kirkland that I could test drive. And I had to go out to Issaquah to test drive a Golf R. But that one smelled weird, and I was like I’m not buying this car.

Did you run into any problems during the search?

There were times when I wondered about the accuracy on Autotrader. There were certain features I knew I absolutely wanted, such as active cruise control, emergency brake assist, lane detection, blind-spot detection — essentially all the safety features. So I knew all the features I wanted, and I’m like okay, Autotrader says that these features are on the car. But how do I really know?

The other thing about was that I was not finding many Golf Rs nearby. I had zeroed in on the Golf R, and I was looking at one in Boise, Idaho, but that was too far away. Then one popped up in Issaquah, so I went and test drove it, but I didn’t like the smell. Then there was another Golf R in Portland. And that’s the car I bought.

2019 Volkswagen Golf R exterior rear

Had you ever bought a car online before?

This is the first time I bought a car this way. Two of the last three cars I purchased were brand new from a dealership, and the third was a used car from a dealership.

I had never heard of Shift. I’d never heard of Vroom. I’d heard of Carvana, but I didn’t really know what it was. The car that I ended up buying was from Shift. They put a URL in the Autotrader listing, so I bumped over to their website and read about it there.

Normally I probably would have preferred buying a local car at a local dealership. But with the lack of Golfs available for sale in the area, plus the fact that my daughter had already driven off with my old car, it was worth a try.

What convinced you to buy it?

The Shift car was down in Portland, my week was busy, and my daughter had just left for college. I had 20 other things going on, and so I was just having trouble figuring out how I’m going to get this car. I’m like, I can’t really drive down to Portland right now right.

Then at some point things escalated to me being on the phone with Shift, and they pointed out, “Oh, we can bring the car to you.” And I didn’t realize that at first. They say “free delivery,” but in my mind I was like, yeah, if I give them $40,000, I’m sure it’s easy for them to get the car to me. But I still wanted to physically see the car before I gave them that much money.

So what ended up happening was I gave a non-refundable $250 deposit — because at this point I’d done so much research, and I had looked at the car and looked at the specs and looked at the pictures so many times that I was highly confident this was the car I wanted. So I was willing to risk $250 for them to bring it to me. 

I talked to somebody on a Tuesday, and they said we can get the car up to you by next week. But then, first thing the next morning, they told me it was on its way to Seattle. Again, I thought I was gonna have logistical issues going down to their local hub to see it. I was trying to figure out whether to get an Uber or have a friend drive me. But when they called to say, “The car is here,” they offered to bring it to my house for free.

So somebody from Shift brought it here, and we took it for a test drive. And everything was exactly what I had hoped for.

What was the purchase process like?

After the test drive, I sat down at my dining room table with the Shift guy, and we did everything via an iPad.

The only awkward moment was when I actually went into my bank account and did the money transfer. That was a little nerve racking. They emailed me a link, which took me to a website — and generally, as a web developer, I’m super careful and savvy about these things, but still, with that much money, I’m like, where is there a possible scam? But obviously Shift isn’t a scam. It’s an established business. Their website is legit. And once everything was in motion, the process was incredibly efficient.

At some point, the salesperson got someone on the phone, handed me the iPad, and they tried to sell me an extended warranty. I was like, “Sorry, not interested.” But the woman on the phone said, “Actually, you have to listen to my spiel.” So I was like okay, sure, don’t get fired. I’m respectful of any person just doing their job. And it wasn’t a hard sell. But at the end, I said, “No thanks,” because I’m trusting that the standard VW warranty is sufficient.

Are you happy with the Golf R?

Even if I could afford it, I would never drive a Porsche or another fancy sports car, even if they’d be super fun to drive. Number one, I don’t drive crazy fast anyway. Number two, I don’t want to drive around looking like a rich jerk. The Golf R is a sleeper. It is stealthy, and only car geeks know that a Golf R is actually a totally awesome car. So it’s perfect for me.

2019 Volkswagen Golf R with owner

About the Car

  • 2019 Volkswagen Golf R (Mk7)
  • 9000 miles
  • 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine
  • 288 hp @ 5400 rpm
  • 280 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
  • 7-speed automated manual transmission
  • all-wheel drive
  • Lapiz Blue Metallic exterior
  • Titan Black leather interior
  • Original MSRP: $42,625 (incl. destination)
  • Purchase price: $39,995

About the Owner

Stewart McCullough is the founder and CEO of Montana Banana, a web design and development company in Seattle. In his free time, he enjoys being a dad, playing board games, hosting ping pong tournaments, working on stop-motion animation and LEGO projects, as well as swimming, yoga, running, and reading Carl Jung.


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