I'd been toying with the idea of buying a car from the popular online auction site for more than a year and had bid unsuccessfully on another Volvo in Texas. My thinking was that I could buy a rust-free southern car and get a good deal because most people in the auto market would be too skittish to bid on a car without taking a test-drive.
Myra Liggan giving Jim and Judy Kneiszel's 1995 Volvo 960 one last cleaning before sending the car off.
I'm apparently not the only risk taker out there. The eBay Motors site is on pace to reach $3 billion in sales this year, continuing a dramatic rise from $750 million in auto-related sales for eBay in 1998 before it spun those items into the auto-specific area. The eBay Motors area launched in April 2000, and current sales activity ranks the site among the largest U.S. marketplaces.
Meg Whitman, eBay chief executive officer, earlier this year told the business press that a sports-utility vehicle sells on the site every 21 minutes. Auto sales started on eBay with collectible cars selling side by side with Matchbox cars and other auto-related memorabilia. Autos and accessories--the majority of them daily drivers such as the Volvo I sought--now represent 20 percent of eBay gross merchandise sales. I'm like 70 percent of eBay Motors auto buyers who cross state lines to buy. According to eBay stats, the most popular cars sold on the site are the Ford Taurus, the BMW 3 Series, and the Honda Civic.
The San Jose, California, company hosts a total of 7 million items in 18,000 categories listed at any time, and total projected sales of $30 billion to $40 billion in 2005 would equal those of retail giant Sears. Bidding competition should have been no surprise to me, as 6 million people log onto eBay Motors monthly, making eBay the top online automotive site based on the percentage of minutes users are surfing auto listings. Simon Rothman, eBay Motors vice president and general manager, said the average user spends 40 minutes per month at eBay Motors, a conservative figure, considering my hours staring at the tube for cars and parts. Rothman contends 60 percent of eBay Motors users don't visit other auto sites.
Many eBay car sellers offer buyers no way to back out when they see the car in person.
Focus on a car
Settling on a Volvo wagon made it easier to wade through ads posted on eBay. My requirements narrowed the search to a few dozen possibilities each week. I limited the search to the southern United States to find a car that hadn't been exposed to harsh winters. I also decided to search out a seller who would allow me to decline the car once I arrived for an inspection. It's difficult to imagine, but many eBay car sellers offer buyers no way to back out when they see the car in person. Photos and lengthy descriptions found on the auction postings are nice, but I wasn't comfortable accepting a car without driving it first.
When I found the Alabama car, it was the sixth day of a seven-day auction. I called Liggan, and he had no problem letting me out of the deal after I looked at the car. In fact, he offered to give me $150 to defray the cost of the trip home if I backed out. The auction listing included several photos of the car, and Liggan said he'd e-mail me 20 to 30 more images showing spots where the leather seats were worn and minor parking-lot dings. He also provided a clean Carfax vehicle history report, which turned up no prior crash damage, odometer rollbacks, or other problems.
The prospect looked even better when I delved into eBay's Buyer Feedback column on Liggan and his wife, Myra. Unlike Dan Culver, who bought from Liggan when no feedback existed, about 100 buyers had since praised the couple effusively in the column linked directly from the auction posting. Biscuits for breakfast
After I won the auction, Charlie called and offered to pick me up at the Birmingham airport and drive me 45 miles back to his place. I agreed to send him a cashier's check for the $8,100 purchase price. My wife, Judy, and I flew out of Milwaukee with a backpack and a camera.
Charlie and his buddy Jerry met us at the airport in the evening and drove us to a motel, where Charlie had already paid for the room.
"When can we expect you for breakfast?" he asked, leaving us with our new car. The next morning we followed country roads to the couple's house and were greeted with a southern spread of eggs, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and grits.
eBay car-buying tips
Don't get an itchy finger:
Watch the auctions for a while before bidding. Hit the Watch This Item feature to track sales, and search completed items to track final sale prices.
See more car-buying tips
"These biscuits, I don't know what it is with them. They stick with you," Charlie said. He talked about others who came from across the country to sit down for a meal and leave with a car. The majority of the eBayers are "Yankees" looking for rust-free cars, the couple commented. They're all ages and from all tax brackets. A hippie from California picked up a van. A businessman in Ireland shipped a camper across the Atlantic. A preacher and his daughter came from Texas to buy her first car. The couple keeps a map of the United States with stickpins placed where each of their cars have gone. The map is being covered quickly, and there are clusters of pins around several major northern cities.