I bought a used car off the internet and to my surprise, it was easy and fun

Key Points
  • Carvana has some quirks, like cars that show up and quickly disappear from availability, but the overall experience was surprisingly easy.
Saying goodbye to an old friend.
Kate Fazzini

I first realized that I needed a new car on February 12, 2019.

I was driving my 2001 Chevy Impala, a retrofitted cop car with almost 90,000 miles, on the BQE in intense snow, sleet and hail, with my two kids in the backseat.

Three things happened at once that day. The "check engine" light came on with an alarming bong, the radio went out and, most spectacularly, one windshield wiper blade on the driver's side jettisoned off the shaft onto the busy Brooklyn highway.

These problems were likely not related to each other, but were all related to one central fact: It was time to get a new car. And, much to my own surprise, I would eventually just buy one off my phone.

An app-based life

I've written before about how I never joined Facebook and I spend very little time on social media. Having worked in cybersecurity, I've also developed a natural suspicion of many new technologies -- I've not adopted smartwatches or fitness monitors or at-home voice-activated assistants because I think they have major security and privacy implications that I'm not yet comfortable with.

But there is one area of my life where I have ignored these instincts entirely, to my betterment: apps for home services. I'm a single mom, and to simplify what can be major time-consuming activities, I religiously use Delivery for weekly laundry pick-up and drop-off, Instacart and Amazon Fresh for grocery and pharmacy deliveries, and Handy and Taskrabbit for home repairs and lawn service. Doing this has given me back several hours a week, which I can devote back to more important things.

To my time-stressed mind, going to a car dealership seemed like a hellish nightmare. Haggling over prices and financing, worse than that.

So it wasn't a stretch to try Carvana, a car-buying app that promised to keep me out of the dealership.

Something under $10,000

Carvana was founded in 2012 in Arizona. The company says the used cars it sells have never been in an accident, have no frame damage and must pass a 150-point inspection before being shipped to customers from various "hubs" throughout the country.

I spent a great deal of time just browsing the app initially, with the goal of getting the cheapest car possible in case it didn't work out and the return process was difficult. The user interface of the app was very fresh, easy to navigate and offered the ability to search by a lot of different, even minor parameters (heated seats, sound system, etc.) which made the process more fun than I expected.

Carvana's user interface was fun to navigate.

Clearly, the less expensive cars were in higher demand, and because they make it very easy to "reserve" a car while you consider buying it, other users were doing the same thing I was doing: reserving a lower-priced car in order to check it out for awhile, then returning it to the online fold later.

This led to a bit of a scrum when a decent lower-priced car showed up for sale. I'd try to grab it, then like one of those awful carnival giant claw machines, it would slip out of my grasp when another user grabbed it first.

I had some special needs as well. I have an older home in Queens with a very narrow driveway -- at points, it's only 75 inches wide -- and had been very difficult for me to get the 73-inch-wide Impala into. I was looking forward to a narrower car that would be able to zip into parallel parking spaces easier in New York City, but not one so diminutive that it posed a safety hazard on New York highways. I wanted a five-star safety rating.

I also asked my kids what they wanted. My daughter wanted "a really big, giant one," a request which I unfortunately had to reject. My son wanted "a red car" which seemed like an easier goal, and the two of them came to a consensus on this.

Few red cars that fit my parameters came up in the constantly revolving selection of lower-priced cars, but then one hit. A kicky red 2013 Dodge Dart with a five-star safety rating, 60,000 miles, 72 inches wide, right around $10,000. I managed to win the giant claw game this time.

But now I had to pay for it

On the tail end of a divorce, let's just say I didn't have a ton of money lying around. So I needed a loan, and I also wanted to test out the lending process on the Carvana app.

I secured a loan with Carvana using the Impala as a very modest down payment. The interest rate was a bit higher than I would have liked. But, like my use of other service apps, which often involve delivery fees and extra tips for drivers and service professionals, I anticipated a bit of a trade-off for the convenience of being able to take care of these issues without haggling or multiple stops at multiple locations.

Scheduling the delivery was a bit of a challenge -- Carvana seemed to have a bug that showed different available delivery times depending on which device I was viewing them on: the app, the website on mobile and the website on desktop. I wanted a Saturday or Sunday, but my hopeful dates and times kept disappearing.

When asked about this, the company said "scheduling happens in real time, so if you were viewing on your mobile device and desktop at separate times, there is the chance a particular delivery time was claimed in the time between viewing on each device."

I had to place my first phone call to a live person. The assistant at the hub, Jamie, was very helpful and it was just much easier to accomplish without going online. Jamie even called later in the week to see if I would like an earlier time, but I stuck to the weekend.

Delivery day

My kids love waiting at the window when they know a package is coming. I had forgotten that joy. But there I was, looking down the street anxiously for the delivery driver.

Tyler, the driver, was 10 minutes early. I showed him my updated insurance proving coverage for the Dart.

Then he let me take the Dart for a spin around the block. After that, Tyler took the Impala out for a drive to make sure it was serviceable. Both were fine.

My single gripe was that the car came with only one key. I would have gladly paid a few hundred extra for one or two additional electronic keys, which can be quite expensive at the dealer (the place I was trying to avoid).

Contacted later, Carvana said they would refund the cost of a second key, but that because the cars are used "there are times when a vehicle only has one key, which is disclosed on the vehicle description page." This was true, and I had missed it.

And saying hello to a new friend.
Kate Fazzini

I was pleasantly surprised, however, that Carvana would take care of the title and plates with the New York DMV, and have them sent directly to my house, a major time savings that I wasn't expecting. They also removed my old plates and gave them back to me.

The car came with a seven-day "money back guarantee" should I grow instantly sick of it. I did not.The warranty provided by Carvana (the Dart's warranty had expired) was 100 days and a strangely specific 4,189 miles. I purchased additional warranty coverage as well.

It's a wonderful, cute, fast and fun car that has, interestingly, pared about five to 10 minutes off of my commute time. My kids like it. I'm happy. The only thing that could change this is if I happen to lose my single key before I'm able to finally make it to the dealer to get a copy.

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