Carvana Review: My Experience Buying a Used Car Online (And From a Vending Machine)
Would you ever buy a car online without even getting so much as a test drive? To some, such a proposition sounds crazy — but that’s exactly what my wife and I did a couple of weeks ago. After exploring options, securing financing, and arranging a trade in via Carvana’s website, we drove up to Kansas City to pick up our new (to us) car from a “vending machine.” If you think that’s insane, let me tell you this: we couldn’t be much happier with our decision.
Let’s back up and take a closer look at Carvana, how it works, and what my personal experience car shopping on the site was like.
What is Carvana and How Does it Work?
Caravana is an online marketplace for buying used cars. Instead of visiting a dealership to test drive and choose your car, all purchases are made ahead of time and then vehicles are either delivered to your address or picked up at one of Carvana’s “vending machine” locations. From there, buyers have seven days to return the car under the site’s Money Back Guarantee, allowing you to not only test drive the car, but also get it inspected by a trusted mechanic if you so choose.
Speaking of mechanics, Carvana states that every vehicle they sell undergoes a 150-point inspection by an ASE certified mechanic. Additionally, they report that they only end up selling 1 out of every 20 cars they evaluate, selecting only the best for the site. This includes limiting the age of the cars they offer and banning any cars that have been in a reported accident.
According to Automotive News, the Tempe-based (Go Sun Devils!) company sold 94,108 vehicles in 2018. That landed them the number eight spot on the publication’s “list of the top 100 retailers based in the U.S. ranked by used-vehicle retail sales.” Carvana is also publically traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol $CVNA.
As mentioned, if you’re outside of Carvana delivery markets, they do currently offer “vending machines” in Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Frisco, Raleigh, Jacksonville, Tampa, Birmingham, Orlando, Gaithersburg, Tempe, Warrensville Heights, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Bridgeville, Oak Brook, and Kansas City. Moreover, if you wish to visit one of these locations from out of town, Carvana advertises that they’ll subsidize $200 of your one-way airfare so that you can retrieve your vehicle and drive it home.
Why we chose Carvana
My road to Carvana began as my wife and I were first looking for used Priuses (or “Prii,” according to Toyota) before discovering the existence of the Lexus CT200h — which was actually discontinued in 2017. Impressed by the idea of having a hybrid that would also be super comfortable for our long road trips and more conventionally attractive than a Prius, we quickly became enamored with finding this particular vehicle. Sadly, it seemed there were not very many available anywhere near us.
After checking a few sites like Car Gurus that showed some good deals in far off lands like Florida and dealer sites like Carmax that charged extra to transfer the vehicle to Missouri, I came upon Carvana’s comparatively large selection of CT200hs. As an introvert, not only did the lack of dealing with a salesperson interest me but I also liked that the entire slate of vehicles could be mine without having to worry about the car’s current location. Plus, the no-haggle pricing made it easy to calculate payments and make a decision ahead of time.
With that, here’s an overview of how the car-buying process works with Carvana:
Buying a Vehicle from Carvana
Searching for cars
Browsing cars on Carvana is really an experience unto itself. The site makes it easy to search for specific vehicles or select other features/functions to sort results. In each case, listings include multiple photos of certain features as well as 360-degree exterior and interior views you can navigate. The site will also list out notable features as well as a few imperfections the car may have. In addition to viewing the look of the car, Carvana also provides a link to the CarFax report as well as the 150-point inspection they perform.
Even before you enter your information in Carvana, you can get an idea of what your monthly payments will look like by using the tool at the bottom of the listing. Of course this function utilizes a generic interest rate. Thus, in order to get a clearer picture of your payments, you’ll likely want to apply for a financing quote.
The good news is that Carvana only performs a “soft pull” on your credit at this point, meaning that inquiring about your interest rate won’t impact your credit. However, they will need to obtain your credit report, which in our case meant unfreezing it. Thankfully, when we applied, they told us which bureau they needed to access (Experian) so we were able to thaw the report in a matter of minutes and obtain our quote.
Something to note is that, while our financing quote showed a 4.3% interest rate for up to 72 months, the actual interest rate fluctuated as we explored different options. In the end, we ended up choosing a 48-month financing option (with a down payment) and managed a 4% APR. Notably, this was lower than some of the other finance lenders we looked at, including my wife’s bank of choice, PNC. By the way, Carvana utilizes Bridgecrest as their loan servicer, so don’t be surprised if you hear from them about your financing.
Reserving your car
If there’s any aspect of Carvana that’s frustrating it’s that the car you have your eye on might get snapped up by someone else. To prevent this, you can lay claim to a car and buy yourself more time by going further into the process. For example, setting up an account and selecting a vehicle might allow you to reserve it for a few minutes, while providing your driver’s license and banking information might extend your hold to a few hours.
On the other side of things, if you see that a car you wanted is pending, Carvana does allow you to enter your e-mail address so that they can alert you if that sale falls through. Similarly, youcan sign-up to get updates on incoming listings to be among the first to see photos of the vehicle when they’re ready.
Despite Carvana’s apparently high standards in regards to the cars they sell, it seems the criteria for the cars they’ll buy is a bit lower. I say this only because they took our 2010 Ford Focus without any hassle. The process of trading in the car also began online, with us answering a few questions about the vehicle’s features and condition and providing the VIN. After this, we were provided an offer that was valid for seven days (or 1,000 additional miles).
In terms of pricing, we were happy with what Carvana offered and it fell in in line what Kelley Blue Book said we could fetch. Funny enough, when we went to trade in the car, all the associate did was check the mileage and ensure the car started. I assume that, had there been a problem with the car’s condition versus what we said it was, they’d be sure to let us know.
Pick-up or delivery
Continuing with the “painless car buying” theme, Carvana offers free delivery in select markets. Unfortunately, Springfield, Missouri is outside of Carvana’s normal delivery area. While they do offer the option to still receive home delivery, this would have tacked on a few hundred dollars to the purchase price.
Instead, we opted to pick up the car at one of Carvana’s “vending machine” locations in Kansas City. Now, you might assume we actually just did this to witness the spectacle of this unique innovation and tell people we bought a car from a vending machine but I swear it was just to avoid the delivery fee!
Every Carvana-sold car not only includes their 7-Day Money Back Guarantee but also includes a 100-Day Limited Warranty (valid for 100 days or 4,189 miles). Beyond that, shoppers can add CarvanaCare to their purchase as well as gap coverage. Obviously the cost of these additional warranty options can vary and only cover select things. For the record, we declined this extra coverage.
Our Carvana “Vending Machine” Experience
Retrieving your vehicle
Since we had a three-hour drive to Kansas City, we ended up arriving a bit early for our 5:00 p.m. pick-up appointment at Carvana’s vending machine facility. We stepped inside and were greeted by the Carvana team member who asked our name and confirmed our identities. Once that was done, it was time for the fun to begin.
We were given a large coin that we then dropped into a slot located just in front of the vending machine part of the building. Seconds after inserting the coin, the platform at the center of the machine began to rise. Incidentally, the team member told us that they tend to put the cars with later pick-up times up higher, so the elevator kept climbing.
Soon enough, the elevator came back down with our car now on the platform. After reaching the ground, the platform did a 360, allowing us to see our vehicle from every angle. Honestly, it really did feel like the online gallery function had come to life.
Following the 360-degree display, the platform then moved to the loading bay. As we stepped outside, the team member entered the bay and drove the car out of the automated doors and onto the driveway. Then it was our turn to get behind the wheel.
Before bothering with the paperwork and sealing the deal on the purchase, we had the opportunity to give the car a proper test drive. To our slight surprise, instead of the team member hopping in with us, he simply told us to take it out for 10 to 15 minutes and come back. I suppose that, since they already had all of our information and a confirmed bank account, they weren’t terribly concerned about us just driving off.
Listing vs. reality
I do have to say that, climbing into the car for the first time, I felt like I was already familiar with it given how many times I viewed the listing. At the same time, there were a couple of minor superficial things I noticed in the real-life vehicle that I didn’t in digital form (not to say they weren’t there, I just didn’t happen to see them). When you’re viewing cars on the Carvana site, it does make note of a couple of imperfections that can be found on the vehicle. With it being a used car, I completely understand that these things are par for the course — especially given the deal I feel we got — but I do wonder how Carvana decides what’s worth listing and what’s not. Luckily, if the issues you encounter are a dealbreaker, you do have that seven-day return window. Overall, my advice would be to take a close look at each listing beyond the explicitly listed imperfections just in case.
Since you sign a digital contract before arriving to pick-up your vehicle, the paperwork required in person is fairly minimal. In fact, the entire process took us less than 15 minutes. Most of the signing we needed to do involved our trade in, although there were a few things to cover regarding our new vehicle, including Carvana providing us with a printed copy of the CarFax report.
This part of the process was also when we learned that we wouldn’t need to head to the DMV to register our car. Instead, Carvana handles registration on your behalf and will mail you your plates. Apparently this can take up to 40 days after you purchase the car, so we’re still waiting to be finished. However, the Carvana app does keep us updated on the status so I’m not really concerned.
Follow-up and service
While we’re on the topic of the Carvana app, I will say that it’s been a helpful companion through the process. From the looks of it, this will also be how we make our payments. Meanwhile, although the Carvana site includes a couple of countdowns until our warranty is up and when our registration should be complete, it doesn’t have all of the functionality that the app does. This isn’t a huge deal, but it is a bit strange to me that the two mediums don’t mirror each other’s features.
In any case, I have to say that we’ve been impressed with Carvana’s post-sale service. On day six after our purchase, we received a call from one of their representative just reminding us that we still had a day to return the vehicle and ensuring that everything was going well with the car so far. Even as someone who doesn’t care much for talking on the phone (or answering calls from 800 numbers), this was a nice touch.
There was one issue we ran into after picking up our car. As we were about to drive home, we realized we had only been given one key fob despite us both swearing we saw two on display in the listing. We asked the team member at the location about the missing item and he advised us to contact their support staff.
Instead of calling, we decided to try our the chat function on their website. While this is usually a mistake given the robotic and often unhelpful nature of these features, to our surprise, there was a real person at the other end of the chat. After explaining the issue, they confirmed that we were indeed entitled to a second fob and said that we could obtain one from our local dealership, with Silver Rock (the warranty company Carvana works with) footing the bill. Sure, having to drive to a dealership to get this done isn’t the most convenient situation, but I still appreciate how Carvana took responsibility and found a way to make it right. Besides, had I pushed back on such a plan, I feel like they would have offered additional compensation — but I’m not one to take advantage of such things.
Just for fun, I thought I’d mention some of the “swag” we received as part of our purchase. Inside of our vehicle when we picked it up was a venti-sized acrylic cup with the Carvana logo on it. This was accompanied by a car-shaped stress ball of sorts and a Carvana pen. A week or two after our purchase, the site also sent us an e-mail about their Carvana gear shop and gave us a $20 credit. We ended up using this gift card to purchase a “new car kit” consisting of a vent clip phone holder, USB charging adapter, and windshield shades.
Lastly, another extra item we received with our purchase was a Carvana Referral Kit. This included a stack of business cards we could pass out to friend or family, offering them $500 off the purchase of a Carvana vehicle. For each of these offers redeemed, the referrer (AKA you) also gets $100. Unfortunately, this discount is not valid in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, or Washington D.C.
My Final Thoughts on Carvana
As someone who really has no desire to visit multiple dealerships, negotiate pricing, and threaten to walk out if my demands aren’t meant, buying on Carvana was absolutely worth it for me. While I was a little concerned about buying a car without actually driving it for myself, knowing that I could return the car within seven days helped relieve some of the anxiety around such a decision. Plus, since there weren’t any local dealerships advertising the model I wanted, taking the Carvana route made even more sense in my particular situation.
Despite my personal appreciation for the process, I can see how Carvana might not make sense for every car shopper. For one, the speed in which some of these cars get reserved might lead you to speed up your buying decision. Admittedly, I’d have to say that, if it weren’t for Caravana, we likely would have taken a bit more time in replacing our old car.
The other things to consider is Carvana’s no-haggle pricing. For more common models, I could see how it might be worth it to explore local dealership options to try to find a better price. In the same vein, while I was pleased with the price we paid for the car and the amount we got for our trade-in, I could see how a seasoned car buyer fluent in negotiation might prefer a traditional dealership experience.
Overall, even if Carvana isn’t right for everyone, I definitely appreciated this “new way to buy a car.” Between the great selection, easy financing, unique pick-up experience, and DMV-less registration process, I really can’t imagine a less stressful car-buying experience. So, if the idea of taking a chance and buying a car online doesn’t freak you out, perhaps you’ll want to check out Carvana the next time you’re in the market for a used vehicle.