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Automotive resource sites

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#1 Orpheus


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Posted 07 May 2012 - 07:35 AM

I've been buying a lot of used cars for others lately, and accumulating a lot of new resource sites. A lot of my old sites have mysteriously vanished (or changed owners and focus), so I figured an update is in order.

Stay tuned for my trip reports on automotive auctions -- those dark mysteries that offer few if any guarantees, but sell cars for half of private-sale Blue-Book values -- or less! They may not be the best place for a naive newbie to get a used car, but you can bet your dealer buys/sells there, grabbing up cherries and selling them on the lot at three times the price (dealer-sale blue book prices are $1000s higher than private sale) after a little detailing and advertising.

NADA: The National Auto Dealer Assn is not my personal favorite of the Big Three Blue Books, but they may be the most official of the lot. Many state registries use them to establish taxes on private sales (otherwise buyers/sellers could claim to sell cars for a buck to save mutual taxes). Alas, they don't seem to have a free website like the other two (at least not for non-members, and membership is priced toward professionals in the business, not shoppers). While they do have several consumer websites, those just funnel you to other car services. If you want to use the actual NADA Blue Book, you'll have to buy a monthly hardcopy edition or use one at your local library.

Edmund's is probably my favorite free site by a hair: rich with articles, reviews, and a forum, along with a used car pricing and an juicy app for your tablet or cellphone. Don't visit a dealer without it! They are also affiliated with Autotrader, which is a decent search engine for dealer and private sales, but be careful to stick to their fact-based offerings unless you are *looking* for a car search engine, because it's easy to slip unintentionally into the commerce-based Autotrader site. MUST READ: "Confessions of a Car Salesman" (2001) and the 2009 update -- and perhaps the entire "Confessions" series

The Kelly Blue Book, another free site, rounds out the Big Three. I imagine it must list slightly higher prices than the other two, because it always seems to be the one that dealers cite when they mention a blue book value at all. It has a nice set of ancillary resources and a useful cell/tablet app -- not quite as nice as Edmund's offerings, but its Blue Book prices are equally authoritative. Though I say I favor Edmunds' slightly, the fact is: I wouldn't shop for a car without using BOTH.

VIN Sites
The VIN (Vehicle identification Number) is a unique serial number stamped onto a tag on two parts of the frame of every car. It is the official means of tracking vehicles. Chop shops often buy junkers or burned out frames, just for the VIN numbers, to 'legitimately' sell stolen cars. Nonetheless, if there's a gold standard for car identification, this is it. Always try to check the VIN history of any car you are considering, to make sure it hasn't been totaled under a prior owner, been caught in a flood, been salvaged, reclaimed, rebuilt or had its title "washed" or reconstructed through one of a handful of abuse-friendly states. A VIN history is also probably the only realistic way of spotting odometer rollbacks. VINs are also useful at the parts store to determine exactly what engine/transmission/option package your car has (or was built with). If you have a Holmesian bent, they can often help you deduce the answer to that $64K question: "why is the seller selling?" Maybe they decided to keeps some/all of the insurance settlement after a fender bender, as a downpayment on a lower mileage car; maybe it's coming up for re-inspection, and it struggled to pass the last two; maybe the car just hasn't been driven since Uncle Fred died, and it's coming up for re-registration; maybe it was in a flood. If nothing else, it will tell you which cars to scrutinize more carefully

Carfax is the most heavily advertised and most detailed of the VIN history sites. I've heard that they may not always be the most careful, though, favoring volume over accuracy. Many a seller has claimed that they list potentially negative information that simply did not apply to the car in question -- but if you're a buyer, that may help you in your bargaining. They are also the priciest, at 1 report for $35 and 5 reports for $45. Yup there's an app for that.

Autocheck, run by the Experian credit bureau is almost as detailed/extensive as Carfax, and offers a much better pricing schema for many styles of auto shopping. It's the one I use, because in addition to the option of $30 for a single report, you can get a month's  unlimited searching for $45. They, too, have a nice app, but  while their website automatically emails you a copy of every report you look up, their applet doesn't (you must save them manually).

VINcheck is a FREE database run by the Nat'l Insurance Crime Bureau (a not-for-profit arm of the Insurance industry) and should list things like theft, flooded vehicles, insurance write-offs, chopshop rebuilds, etc.. They aren't as comprehensive or detailed as Carfax or AutoCheck, but at $0, the price is certainly right. They have an app, too, but I haven't tried it.

CompNine.com, is a value-added paid VIN service that goes beyond just the basics for dealerships, salvage yards, insurance companies, and businesses that need detailed, precise information about a specific vehicle. It seems to have the factory specs of every individual car actually built within its coverage ranges, and suggests the valid auto-completes as you're halfway through typing your VIN. That's handy when part-shopping. They offered us a free account, which I will review in depth. Though I wouldn't want to abuse their service (or my scant free time) with bulk VIN checking, I'd be happy to run occasional VIN checks for established EIers whose personal queries would not justify paying for an account.

AUTOTRADE.com is basically an online classified ad. Though they do heavily lean toward dealer ads (big repeat customers), they have an ample supply of private sellers, too, and a setting to let you choose which you see. I have found this site useful and reliable.

CARS.com is a pretty good review site. You do have to be a little careful what you click, lest they slide you into their shopping affiliate, Autotrade (a single car sale is a windfall in the low-margin web advertising world) but other than that, they are a good source.

FuelEconomy.GOV is the official Federal one-stop shop for fuel economy ratings from the Department of Energy, EPA, and others. Simple and to the point, but with a number of useful links (like lists of private mileage reports) that you may have to dig a little for, so make a point of exploring. There's more here than meets the eye. I've found it very reliable (actually a little conservative, for my style of driving, but I'm sure you'd rather be pleasantly surprised than disappointed)

APPS (not counting site apps with no added benefit)
Breakdown Lane is from the 30+ year radio show "Car Talk", whose website I trust . It is new, and v1.0 only has two features of the Cartalk.com website: the "mechanX Files" database of 30K customer reviewed mechanics, and a few hardcoded (i.e. usable even when you are out of cell range) short instructionals on e.g. how to change a tire or jumpstart a battery. Though apps are often a subset of a website (which, to be fair, often uses more cell bandwidth), it's a bit disappointing for a PAID app, even for just $2. Also disappointing: it's Apple-only. However, if you break down away from home, it can use your phone's GPS to find you LOCAL mechanics (and reviews), even if you aren't quite sure where you are or what towns are nearby. I suggest keeping it in mind, but waiting until you break down to buy it. If you can't reach your app store during a breakdown, the app wouldn't help you much anyway.

RECOMMENDED RepairPal is a FREE simplified version of RepairPal.com, a longtime favorite of mine (though its features keep changing between my infrequent accesses). It gives access to (its own) database of customer reviews, which I can vouch for, having used it to find reliable local mechanics after receiving a panicky phone call from a colleague or friend on an out of state road trip, but ALSO gives you estimates of the fair price for most common repairs (The website listed more options when I last used it than the app did today, but I haven't compared them directly), reducing the risk of being ripped off when far from home. The App also has GPS-based searches and several other features that I haven't checked out. It basically does everything The CarTalk app does and more, but is FREE and supports Android + Apple. I recommend you download it now. Use the CarTalk app for a second opinion, if you're on an Apple.

FUEL.IT is an Apple-only paid app ($1) that helps you find the cheapest gas as you travel.

GAS BUDDY is a free Android/Apple app that also helps you find the cheapest gas as you travel. It is an interface to the more comprehensive GasBuddy.com website (free reg req'd for many features) which offers many perks, including changes to win free gas certificates. I've used it often on trips AND to locate little-known bargain gas stations in areas I frequent. Be aware, however, that a few station owners seem to "game the system", either posting false prices, or dropping their prices for the Thursday night drive hoe, and raising it for the weekend. It's pretty reliable, but don't drive far out of your way for an apparent "outlier" that is much cheaper than other nearby stations -- many are legit (that's how I found my favorite locals), but not worth the risk for a one-time drive-by. Cheaters hope you'll arrive and fuel up anyway out of desperation. Don't reward them.

Autotrade and Cars.Com are just app forms of their respective sites, and I debated whether they deserved mention, but when I think back, they have often been VERY useful during actual car shopping. Specifically, they help keep you from getting tunnel visioned in the drive to/from a private seller or dealer. Several times, a friend or family member almost bought a car (and I felt it was a reasonable choice) until these apps restored our perspective

(work in progress)

#2 Elara


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Posted 02 June 2012 - 04:59 PM

Thank you for this, Orph. My 2002 Grand Am just died (timing chain), and it appears that any thought of fixing it is insane, so we are now looking at buying a new, used car.
This will help me with my decisions. Though it is still a daunting task, attempting to make sure I am choosing the correct car. Not that I won't have plenty of help, my son, my brother, but it will be me weighing their opinions with cost, etc...
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#3 Nonny


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Posted 03 June 2012 - 06:53 AM

I love edmunds.com.  A while back I got to meet some of the Edmunds team at the LA Festival of Books.  I had just completed my first solo car purchase, and was thrilled to tell them how much they had helped me.    :happy:
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#4 Orpheus


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Posted 24 June 2012 - 02:37 AM

One tip: I now ignore ALL JD Power survey ratings. I've read a lot of accounts (here's one) recently that said JDP conducts their interviews (and constructs new categories) specifically to get the results they want -- results that one suspects have been negotiated under the table with the manufacturers. One example: check their new ">$40K luxury resale value retention" ratings. Strange, isn't it, that they same makers don't win from year to year? IIRC, this year's top 3 winners share neither either make nor model.with last years. What happened to change resale values across the board so fast? Nothing -- but it's good business to allow each of the top luxury makers to have a recent win to brag about

In Oct 2007, Consumer Reports admitted they *automatically* gave each years Camry top marks as a Best Buy based solely on historical reputation [which made no sense, since the actual cars being sold in the US as "Camry" varied dramatically from year to year -- i.e. Toyota would pick some models or trim packages to rebadge as "American Camrys", but those cars would still be different models overseas) but when Toyota's facade fell, CR publicly announced that they would NEVER recommend a Toyota again until that actual car --not model name-- had been tested and sold for enough years  in the US to have a real track record. Check the last five years of CR's Toyota Camry ratings to see how that worked out for Toyota.

Remember how Isuzu Trouper and Rodeo got such horrible press from Consumer Reports in the 90s, while the Honda Passport got top marks? Well, EVERY Honda Passport was a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo. Honda never manufactured any SUV of any kind until AFTER the Passport.

Similarly I've pretty much disregarded "Car and Driver", "Motorweek" etc ratings all my life. Read their articles carefully, and you'll see they are all about drool, not real driver/owner issues. Read their comments about the same model in different settings (e.g. what do they sat about Mustangs in Mustang articles vs Trans Am or BMW articles; what do they say from year to year?) and you'll see that there's darn little objective there, even by their rather peculiar and impractical "wannabe racer" philosophy. Is a car quick off the mark? Aver age teh views, and you get "Good Enough". Is the transmission crisp? Ditto. They make enough good and bad remarks to cover all the bases and sound fair, but then slant the rhetoric: People who read Mustang articles probably want to hear more good things about Mustangs than trans Ams, and vice versa. Did they ever fool real drivers. For car magazines, they sure obsessed on cupholders and glove compartments --traditionally "nondriver" priorities.

Yet in spite of that, I hear those mags quoted by knowlegdgeable car guys. Why? I imagine it's the same reason that sportswriters always manage to satisfy local fans about the local sports team. You never hear of a succesful Sportswriter changing cities/papers because they decided that, in all honesty, the Giants today aren't the same team they were 10 years ago, and probably wouldn't be for another 5-10 years, no matter how hard they try. No, they are writers first; the sports part comes second. ditto for car mags

So what do I do? I use various reports and reviews (alas, some of my favorite sites have been bought and closed in recent years) to identify the concerns and trouble spots of each model. This helps me screen the candidates, so *my* car isn't one of the lemons. Because, let's face it, true lemons are rarely even 10% of the total model production, and more than half of the production run is usually "okay, if you walk in knowing what to expect"

#5 Elara


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Posted 24 June 2012 - 01:14 PM

Yep, far too many surveys are "fixed". I take surveys for a little extra cash, and one of the common themes are questions/answers that are geared to get the results that they want instead of honest results. I pretty much ignore any survey results.

We looked at several cars and decided on a 2007 Impala. In a strange, but lucky twist, my son found the contract (for the original owners), in the glove compartment. I sent it back to them and asked if they had any issues with the car, plus what repairs they may have made. She replied with my answers, plus told me it was a wonderful car and that their new car is also an Impala. :)
~ blue crystal glows, the dark side unseen, sparkles in scant light, from sun to planet, to me in between ~

I want a job in HRC's "shadow" cabinet. Good pay, really easy hours, lots of time off. Can't go wrong.

"You have a fair and valid point here. I've pointed out, numerous times, that the Left's or Democrats always cry "Racist" whenever someone disagrees with them. I failed to realize that the Right or Republicans do the same thing with "Liberal"." ~ LotS

#6 Orpheus


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Posted 25 August 2012 - 01:40 PM

Just a heads-up: I've updated the resource list up top --with more to come.

I'm sure y'all know some good car sites/resources, too. Post them here!

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