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I Tried to Buy a Car from Carvana and It Was Worse Than Going to a Dealer

A streel-grey Honda CR-V Hybrid
Josh Hendrickson / Review Geek

By some stroke of bad luck, both of my cars died simultaneously. One will never run again. The other needed thousands of dollars in repairs. Carvana sounded like the perfect answer to buy a new vehicle while I didn’t have a car. But what started as a good experience turned into a complete nightmare.

I skirt at the older end of the millennial generation. By now, I’m used to ordering most of the things I buy online, from electronics to groceries. I don’t even go into banks anymore, so why not order a car online?

After all, like most people, I hate haggling down a car price. So, Carvana’s “no-haggle we deliver” promise seemed perfect for my needs. Especially because I didn’t have a car to go to a dealership anyway. And while it’s nice to test-drive a vehicle before you buy it, Carvana has a 7-day return policy. When you think about it, that’s better than a quick test drive closely monitored by a pushy sales rep.

But what started as a mostly great experience ultimately turned into an awful headache. And in the end? I bought a car from a dealership where I got a better deal and better treatment. Here’s how it went down.

Ordering a Car Online Is Mostly Easy

the Carvana website, featuring a CR-V Hybrid with several yellow symbols
The yellow symbols denote minor scratches.

Credit where credit’s due, Carvana makes ordering a car online a mostly stress-free and easy process. I say mostly because you do feel like you have to rush. It’s probably a sales tactic to drive urgency to buy now, but you have 30 minutes to finish ordering it once you pick a car, or you lose it back to the general pool. Right now, used cars are in short supply and overpriced, so that’s a scary prospect.

You start by reserving the car (in my case, a Honda CR-V Hybrid), which begins the 30-minute countdown. The stress level rose a little at that point, because I realized I needed to unlock my credit. That shouldn’t take long, but for some reason, every time I go about the process, at least one of the big three has an issue, and I have to call for help.

But it turned out my fears were for nothing, thanks to another issue I ran into while ordering the car. You see, Carvana makes a big deal about how you can trade in your car, and they’ll even tow it away.  Half the commercials show an old car on a Carvana-branded tow truck. My old car is dead dead dead, so I thought that’d be a convenient way to get rid of it. It didn’t matter what Carvana offered, I wanted it gone. I went through the trade-in old vehicle process, and when I chose the option that stated the car doesn’t run, the entire site locked up with an error.

Carvana’s site eventually recovered and stated it couldn’t determine the trade-in value of my car, and I’d have to call a support number to complete the purchase. At that point, I was apprehensive about the time limit countdown. But within five minutes, I was on the line with someone, and the support person immediately added 24 hours to my timer. That by itself was a big stress relief. I no longer had to rush to buy the car.

And what was the problem that forced me to call tech support? Apparently, Carvana won’t accept trade-ins for vehicles that don’t run. Which … fine, fair enough. But why does that require a tech support call? If that’s the policy, it should show up clearly at the start. And when I selected the “this car won’t start option,” it should have popped up an explanation and offered to remove the car from the process.

Instead, tech support had to remove my trade-in selections and unlock my application. Thankfully everything after that went amazingly smoothly. I made it through all the options in about ten minutes. And honestly, it felt nice not having a person pressuring me to buy extra things I didn’t need. I easily said no to extended warranties and other optional features then selected a delivery date. That last bit is important.

With Carvana, you can have your car taken to a local pickup station, but I didn’t have a working car. Instead, I paid an extra $500 to have my new car delivered directly to my home. And the date I picked meant I’d have it in time to go pick up my other car from the shop! Sure it wasn’t brand new, but the car I ordered only has 3,500 miles or so and just a few scratches. New enough for my purposes, at least. Besides, new cars always cost more and drop in value immediately, right? (Yes, this is foreshadowing…)

We’re Sorry, We Don’t Even Know Where Your Car Is

An email confirming an on-time delivery.

Before the morning the car was supposed to arrive, we made sure to get everything ready. That included adding the new car to the insurance policy because Carvana wouldn’t deliver without proof of insurance. The day before delivery, Carvana sent us an email assuring us that the car was on the way. “Great News! Your Honda CR-V Hybrid is on schedule for delivery and will be making its way into your loving arms lickity split!” And right on time, the car shop finished fixing our other car. As soon as Carvana dropped off, we could go pick up our second car, and we’d be whole again.

And that’s where everything went downhill. About an hour before the expected delivery time came a text: “Hi, your Honda CR-V Hybrid appointment experienced a transportation delay.” After that came another, “We apologize for the delay and appreciate your patience. Please be on the lookout for a text with your new appointment date, and feel free to text us with questions.”

You bet we had questions, starting with, “where’s my friggin’ car??” We needed it, after all, to pick up our other car from the shop. A few more politely worded texts later, and we got the most useless call from a support agent. All they could say is, the car wouldn’t arrive today, and they didn’t know why. Nor did they know when it would arrive. But they’d call us back with more information.

An email stating your order has been updated.

All we got was a text later. “Your delivery has been rescheduled.” The new delivery day was over a week later. Shortly after, another email confirmed the new date with the helpful note, “a change has been made in your order.” I made yet another phone call and finally got an explanation. When Carvana went to load up the car for transportation wherever it was, the hauling truck was full. So, they didn’t send it. I can understand a brief delay from that, but not a week. Look around the internet, and you’ll find plenty of similar stories. That’s especially confusing, considering the email from just one day before confirming the car was on the way.

Soon after, Carvana “helpfully” sent another text suggesting we take the car we weren’t getting any time soon off our insurance. We’d already taken care of that, thank you. After all, it doesn’t make sense to pay for coverage on a car we don’t have. Then it followed that with another text about another delay; now it would be two weeks. And of course, Carvana did not explain the reason for the latest delay.

To make matters worse, Carvana offered little more than a weak apology. We paid $500 extra to get the car delivered, and all anyone could say was, “this is unfortunate.” Eventually, after threatening to cancel, someone promised to call us back in four hours with a better solution. That call never happened. Instead, we got a form email the next day explaining that someone managed to get approval to send us a $200 check “for our inconvenience.”

To rub salt in the wound, we later got this text:

We are actively working on getting your Honda CRV-Hybrid to you as soon as possible. We don’t anticpate any other delays, but we’ll reach out if any unforseen delays arrive. Most likely, an earlier delivery is not possible, but if the stars align and it becomes possible, we will absolutely get in touch with you. As always, please shoot us as text with any questions.

That false hope of an early delivery really felt like Carvana was gaslighting us at this point. Remember, just a day before the first delivery date, Carvana sent an email assuring us the car was on the way and would be delivered as scheduled. We managed to get help from a relative to pick up our repaired car, which opened a world of opportunities.

You Mean I Can Get a New Car For Less?

The same steel-grey Honda CR-V Hybrid from before, at another angle
Josh Hendrickson / Review Geek

When we checked online, our local dealership within spitting distance had a brand new Honda CRV-Hybrid available for $1,500 less than the equivalent used model Carvana almost sold us. I feel like that warrants repeating: the dealership’s new car price was less than Carvana’s used car price. You better believe we dropped everything and rushed to the dealership.

Sadly we arrived just as someone finished buying it. And that was the very last one the dealership had. Cars are in short supply right now, both new and used. And the car we want is popular. But unlike Carvana, the dealership was willing to go above and beyond. We put down a $500 deposit, and it went to work.

First, the dealership tried to trade one of its cars with another dealership in another city that had the car we wanted. Unfortunately, that dealership had just finished selling its last Honda CR-V Hybrid, too. But the dealership I was working with didn’t give up and arranged to sell us one direct from the factory.

Along the way, we got daily communications from the person we were working with to keep us updated on progress. To be safe, we waited to cancel our Carvana order just in case everything fell through (more on that in a bit). But in the end, the dealership secured a fresh factory brand-new car. We drove away with it on the same delayed date Carvana finally settled on. I didn’t feel the need to haggle because the car already cost less than a used model, and the dealership had no incentive to budge on price; they’d sell to the next person who walked in the door. And the dealership also didn’t push extended warranties and other optional yet unnecessary features heavily. One no is all it took.

Even better, the local dealership will pick up my car, drive it to the service center, do any maintenance like oil changes, then bring it back to me—at no additional charge. Carvana can’t hope to offer a service like that. What it did do was jerk me around a little more.

Let’s Cancel That Cancel Button

A website with a cancel button.

I didn’t cancel the Carvana order right away, because I was afraid the dealership would fall through. But one benefit to the entire delay is that failing to deliver on time automatically voided the contract I signed with Carvana. Naturally, the company had another set of contracts to sign immediately, but I didn’t.

But it did make me feel better that a cancel button appeared after the Carvana delivery delay. That seemed to be an automated process. Every day we logged in to check the status of the delivery for any changes. Every day the cancel button was there—until one morning, it wasn’t.

About two days before the new delivery date, when we still hadn’t signed the new contracts, Carvana removed the cancel button. It was just gone. By this point, we wanted to cancel as the dealership has secured a car from the factory, and it was on the way. You can imagine my panic when suddenly I couldn’t cancel the order.

The same page, with no cancel button.

Thankfully, I still had a tab open on another device to take screenshots for this article. That tab hadn’t reloaded, and the cancel button still showed.  So, I canceled it. Now you would think someone from Carvana would reach out to change our minds, especially if it spent money transporting the car. You’d think Carvana would send a confirmation email that the order is canceled. But none of that happened. The only reason I can be certain that my order really canceled is that the car never came, and it’s back up for sale on the site.

In the meantime, my dealership already reached to make sure everything is going well with the new car we purchased.

As I near the age of 40, I can look back at things and see that the world has changed vastly since I was a kid. I’m a journalist, yet I work from home, and you won’t find my writing printed on dead trees. I’ve never met my esteemed co-workers in person, and I order my groceries and many of my other purchases online. I can count the years between physical bank visits, and I even file my taxes online.

Yet, for all the advancements the internet brought about in the past few decades, I find myself faced with the fact that some things will seemingly always be better handled in person. I thought that ordering a car online seemed like a convenient answer to a problem. I thought I was better off never stepping foot into a dealership. I thought it would save me money by avoiding “extra fees” and save me time by avoiding the haggle hassle.

In the end, I would have saved myself a ton of anger, confusion, and inconvenience if I had just done things the old-fashioned way. The dealership went out of its way to take care of me and to find a car. And the final price out the door after fees came out to $1,500 less than Carvana planned to charge us. I consider this a lesson learned. Sometimes, new isn’t always better. Like a new system designed to “change the way people buy cars.” And sometimes new is better, like a brand-new car that cost less than a used one. Going forward, I’ll try to keep my eye on the difference.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson is the Editor in Chief of Review Geek and is responsible for the site's content direction. He has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smart home enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »