And the Worst Car Seller Is ...

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro

I buy a lot of cars, which means I often find myself thinking about car sellers and buyers. These are two interesting groups of human beings. In many cases, they’re openly trying to screw you. In other cases, they have no idea they’re screwing you, and you don’t discover they have until four days later when you go to put your briefcase in the trunk and it’s full of rain water.

This got me thinking: What is the least trustworthy group of automotive sellers in existence?

I’ve bought cars from all of them. New car dealers. Used car dealers. Family members, friends, auctions, and strangers on the Internet, from Craigslist to to Autotrader to web forums. Every transaction is a little different. And every time, I’m wonder to myself: Is this person going to screw me?

That’s why I’m soliciting your opinion on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart (and wallet). Which car seller can you count on to be the very worst?

It isn’t the new car dealers, I’ll tell you that.

Oh, sure, the occasional new car dealer gets caught up in some stupid fraud, and some of the ratty dealers that should’ve been closed long ago still apply absurd sales tactics that are laughable and idiotic. But the vast majority of new car dealers realize they have a reputation to uphold — and they do just that. I recently bought a car from a new car dealer and they were tremendously professional the entire time, bending over backwards to make sure I received everything outlined as we were making the sale. Okay, so it took a little leg work on my part, but car dealers never promised they’d make it easy.

That experience is a lot better than used car dealers, I’ll tell you that. Used car dealers seem to be a little more on the iffy side; the “say whatever it takes” salespeople you see on television who make big promises only to take them away on a whim. Then again, we can’t say this of all used car dealers. Our own Steve Lang is clearly a pretty trustworthy guy. Some used car dealers make an effort to ensure their inventory is top quality, or at least they stand buy their product if it fails soon after a sale.

Which is why I’ve never quite understood the bad rap that car dealerships get. I, personally, have always felt that the worst person to buy a car from is a private seller. Private sellers are intimately acquainted with the vehicle they’re selling. They know the ins and outs of how a vehicle runs, how it drives, and how to use its features — and yet they always seem to know how to disguise its laundry list of issues.

I think private sellers don’t get a bad rap because dealing with private sellers is sort of a general issue of dealing with human beings, and we all know that dealing with human beings can be a horrible experience. So people just sort of assume you know what you’re getting into with private sellers. They may be great, or they may stab you.

I admit, some private sellers are indeed pretty great; the guy who keeps all his service records, and detailed log books, and fixes the car every time something breaks. And, by God, he doesn’t start revving the engine until the needle moves off the “C” and into the middle of the temperature gauge. This is the guy who tells you the trunk leaks rainwater before you toss your briefcase inside.

But how often do you find this guy? The answer: never. You’re much more likely to find the guy who says he “can’t find” his oil change receipts when he knows he hasn’t actually changed the oil since his kids had PlayStation 2 games on their Christmas lists.

This is especially true if you find your car seller on Craigslist. I’ve found that Autotrader and people are generally slightly better sellers, largely because they’re paying for the ad. But Craigslist people? They are so cheap they couldn’t even be bothered to pay money to offer their car for sale. You think this person is going to have service records from his 2004 tire rotation at Jiffy Lube?

But maybe nothing is as bad as a car auction, which is where the real crazies come out. Not only are the cars that go through a public auto auction usually pretty rough, but when you win a car at auction, you’re by definition the biggest loser. You’re the guy who was willing to pay more than anyone else for that particular vehicle. It doesn’t help that you usually only get a few minutes to look over each car before deciding to make a purchase.

So what say you? Are private sellers as bad as I say? Would you rather buy from a private seller than from a dealership? Has anyone ever actually bought a decent car from a car auction? With issues like these, you start to understand why people buy new cars. Almost. You almost understand.

Doug DeMuro
Doug DeMuro

More by Doug DeMuro

Join the conversation
3 of 119 comments
  • Pwrwrench Pwrwrench on Jan 09, 2016

    When I was in the repair biz I was constantly puzzled by people that bought cars, usually PP sales, without getting them inspected. Apparently they thought if the car started up and ran without making loud noises all was fine mechanically. They mostly looked for body dents, interior/seats falling apart, and does the sound system work. Maybe a glance at the tires. There is usually a reason that a car is for sale with no obvious visual faults for a low price. THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH IT. Or something is about to fail i.e. the 1980s BMW 4 speed auto trans that would become all neutral gears at some point. Even if it is regular maintenance items, brakes, tires, wheel bearings, belts and so on, that could amount to $ thousands to make the car roadworthy. I go with what others have stated. Figure a price to pay for a used car, e.g. $10,000. Buy a car for $8,000, AFTER HAVING IT INSPECTED AND FINDING NO BIG PROBLEMS UNLESS THE PRICE IS LOWERED TO REFLECT THAT. Save the $2,000 for things that will break and wear out over the next few years.

    • Matador Matador on Jan 09, 2016

      I don't know why people will say "I have xxxx", and assume that's what you should pay on a car. Factor in some for maintenance right out of the gate. If it doesn't need it, you have money for the future when it will.

  • CecilSaxon CecilSaxon on Jan 11, 2016

    I live in a large military town and can say without a doubt all local car dealers are about as scammy as all heck here. New car dealers are bad, used are worse. Customer turnover is near guaranteed after 2-3 years and there is a fresh supply of customers as new military folks either move in or return from deployment. It is shameful really. Best luck I have had is with friends and family or connections through church when buying used, or the traveling at least an hour away to an alternate dealer. I wont even go into buying a motorcycle locally.

  • Kcflyer I'll start some popcorn
  • Jkross22 The contrived, forced, overproduced jokes and antics were fun 15 years ago, but it's been the same thing over and over since. The last few years of Top Gear were heading this direction and the 3 were phoning it in. They should have either done something completely different and tried something new. Instead they played it safe.
  • SCE to AUX "...identified during our rigorous validation process"Not so rigorous, if they ended up on dealer lots. 🙄
  • Ras815 Their naming scheme is almost as idiotic as having a totally separate Polestar brand for EVs that look exactly Volvos. But you can tell it came from the same idiocy.