We Tried Them All — Carvana, Vroom, TrueCar, CarMax and Wholesale Auctions To Buy a Used Car

We Tried Them All To Buy A Used Car

Surprisingly, CarMax had the car we wanted at the best price.

This wasn’t our first CarMax experience, and I like their process: No haggle pricing, a 90-day 1,500-mile warranty and cars are inspected and fixed before they are sold. Even things like tires and brakes will be replaced or repaired if needed before a car is sold (though, they are not great with cleaning their cars, but more on that later).

And, you can shop the brand’s full nationwide network of dealerships to find the car you want. They will ship it to the location closest to you for a reasonable sum (and at no charge for locations in your region) if necessary. 

Heads-up though, there’s a CarMax tax: Typically, CarMax charges about 5%-10% more than the market average for its cars. With this you get peace of mind about the condition of the car, a CarFax history, a fairly quick purchase process and a nice staff of people in the business office who are happy to answer your questions. But, since I last bought a car at CarMax, several competitors have entered the market promising home delivery, easier process and great prices. I was excited to try out the experience to see if it actually was better, and if we could get the car we wanted at a better price. 


True Car Company Logo

Shopping For a Used Car— And Casting a Wide Net

In our search, we considered a number of different used cars, searching sites like Carvana, Vroom, Shift, TrueCar, Capital One Auto Navigator, and Manheim Auctions through Steve Lang, owner of 48 Hours and a Used Car, who buys cars at auction for mostly for buyers of fleet vehicles. We also searched local through AutoTrader and Cars.com. 

The current, unprecedented car market, with its shortages, low inventories and historic markups forced me to increase my budget a bit; I had hoped to spend about $20,000-$22,000 for our daughter’s new car, but once we narrowed down our choices, I hoped to keep it under $25,000.

After test driving models on our wish list (Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, Volkswagen Tiguan, Mazda CX5, Subaru Crosstrek and Jeep Compass) at local dealers and finding that those cars were sold within hours of our test drive, we began to widen our search. We looked all over the Southern US, from Florida and the Carolinas to California. We figured we could get on a plane for $200 and drive it home if that’s what we needed to do, or have it shipped for a few hundred dollars rather than paying thousands extra just to buy locally.

Looking at inventory around the country through Carvana, Shift, CarMax and Manheim Auctions, we liked that we could see their nationwide database and learn a lot about each car’s details, including ownership and repair history. Having test driven each model, we had a good idea of what to expect. And, Carvana, Shift and CarMax allow you to return the car if you’re unhappy. With auction cars we would have the opportunity to walk away if a car we bid on didn’t measure up at inspection.  

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Vroom Home Page Vroom Had the Car We Wanted, But Would They Sell it To Us?

We found a VW Tiguan SE on Vroom’s site and put down a $500 deposit. And from there it all fell apart. 

We immediately talked to a customer service person who filled us in on the details: We would be sent an email with documents to sign via Docusign; from there we would get payment and delivery instructions. Sounded simple, right? But when we had a question we called the customer service line and were told something different: Docusign isn’t sufficient, we would have to sign physical documents and send them back via overnight delivery. So, we waited and no paperwork showed dup. We called again and once again got  different information.

We got different answers every time we called, it seemed. Also, no one could tell us where the car was or when it would be delivered. Sometime within 7 days of receipt of payment. But maybe longer. Maybe not. No one could really say.

For a few days we worried that we might plunk down $24,000 and not get a car. My instincts told me that maybe they didn’t actually have the car, or at least it seemed that way. So I called and asked to cancel my contract and get my $500 back. The agent was very nice and refunded my money, which based on the experience so far, was a nice surprise.

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Carvana Company Logo

Carvana for the Win?

We then turned to Carvana. I found another Volkswagen Tiguan SE on the site and filled out the form to start the purchase process. Within minutes I received a text to get started. After a few exchanges it was clear that the car on the site didn’t exist, or had already been sold; the agent tried to talk me into buying something else. So we cancelled that request. 

Maybe Buying From an Auction Is the Way to Go?

Throughout the shopping process we continued to comb the auto auctions for a car that would fit our wish list. Auctions are updated regularly, and there’s a cycle to it, as leased and fleet cars are returned to dealerships and listed on the auction sites. The auction sites offer a lot of information about each car and include a CarFax or AutoCheck history report. 

Steve explained his process to me: he created a user name I could use to see the vehicles available— hundreds of each model at auctions sites around the country. If we found one we liked we would send him a 10% deposit and he would bid on it for us. Our final price would include the price of the car, a shipping charge (about $1 a mile, though we could pick up the car) and Steve’s fee — $500 for his service which includes a 250 mile warranty for any repairs over $600 in that time. 

Then, we had to try to figure out what the actual sale price would be; the auction publishes an estimate for what each car will sell for based on the market. Once we found a car we wanted to bid on, we would set an opening bid and a cap. If we got the winning bid, the car would be inspected at the auction site and a report issued; if all looked good and we agreed to the purchase, Steve would invoice us and arrange for shipping.

Search, Search, Search

As we negotiated with Shift and Carvana, we continued to search True Car, Cars.com, the auction and our local dealers. We also continued to search CarMax. Pretty soon it felt like we knew every VW Tiguan in the country at the time—by color, trim and mileage. Estimated pricing on the auction site wasn’t lower than what we were seeing in some of our searches, and adding in Steve’s fee and shipping, plus the risk of turning down a purchase if it didn’t measure up after inspection, the auction process that I’d hoped would offer an insider deal didn’t pan out. In a not so heated market, though, it probably would.

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Narrowing Down the CarMax Options 

We’d had our eyes on a few Tiguans for sale at different CarMax locations—none anywhere near us, and time was running short. We had about three weeks before we needed keys in hand to get our daughter to college in Colorado. One Tiguan was in Salisbury, MD; one was in Nashville; another was in Atlanta. We initially started the purchase process for the one in Salisbury; it was the right color combination and had low mileage. Unfortunately, CarMax couldn’t tell us when it could be shipped or when we might get it. We had a trip planned to the East Coast and were happy to have it delivered to Florida or Georgia, but that didn’t matter; they couldn’t promise it would be there in our 10 day window and wouldn’t take our money for the transfer unless they could give us a delivery date.

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One Happy Girl In Her New Car

One happy girl in her new car. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Nashville, We Have a Winner

We shifted our focus to a Tiguan in Nashville, an easier location for shipping and actually, a better car. We settled on a $24,000 Tiguan SE in red, with 4Motion all-wheel drive, a panoramic sun roof and all weather floor mats, a bonus for Colorado winters. It had a fresh oil change, new tires and up to date maintenance. We paid the deposit and the car was soon on its way to Jacksonville, FL, where we would pick it up a week later during our family vacation.

We arranged a bank transfer and asked to pick up the car on Monday. The CarMax business office called once they received the transfer and our paperwork was ready to go. 

We arrived and the desk attendant had the car pulled off the lot and cleaned; we headed to the business office where I signed the paperwork and was given my copies; we were in and out in less than an hour. We walked out to the lot where they were cleaning the car; in our experience, CarMax’s cars are never very well cleaned before sale, and they get a decent but not thorough cleaning at the time of sale. When I pointed out things they’d missed, like an icky layer at the bottom of the cupholders, the cleaners took care of it.  

The car still didn’t feel detailed, so we knew we needed to change the cabin filter and invest in Febreze air fresheners. 

The manager came out to chat with us; he asked us to come over to the delivery bay where the temporary tag would be attached and we’d get the key. The fellow cleaning the car finished up and drove it into the bay. With a huge yellow bow attached to the roof. Because of course, every new car is an event, and we needed photos. 

Not long after, CarMax sent us an overnight package with final paperwork for the DMV— sales certificate, title and our registration application. All were filled out so I only had to wait for an appointment to get the car registered. 

Carmax Dealership Image

CarMax rose to the challenge!

Biggest Surprise? A Fair Price and a Great Car

When we started the process, CarMax was last on my list of possible places to buy the car. I figured the CarMax ‘tax,’ plus the tight market would  put any of their inventory out of reach. I thoroughly expected to end up with a Carvana or Shift purchase. But when it came down to price, features for the price, mileage and availability, CarMax won. In fact, the price we paid, $24,000, represents about a 25% depreciation in 3 years, which is typical. And for that I’m happy; that means that even though we paid the higher CarMax price, we didn’t actually pay more, even in a tight market with record high prices. 


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Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss