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How I finally bought my dream car on eBay

Buying a car is never an enjoyable experience. But eBay Motors is trying to change that.

Patrick Holland/CNET

It's 10:30 p.m. on a humid April night in Cincinnati. I'm standing in an empty Target parking lot as a double-decker car transporter pulls up with a rumble. On the back is the car I bought off eBay sight unseen weeks earlier: a 1992 Land Rover Range Rover.

Minutes later, my shiny red Rover is on the ground and the keys are in my hand. I hop in, start the engine and lap the parking lot a few times. I'm riding high, both from the Rover's tall ride and the unusual path I took to buy the car. I keep thinking, "Who knew buying a car could be so easy and fun?!" But on eBay that's just how it was.

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A man's two best friends: a 1992 Range Rover Classic and Casey the dog.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Bye, public transit

Living in Cincinnati without a car was annoying. My apartment was an 11-minute drive from work, but the No. 4 Metro bus took 40 minutes to get there. The solution: Buy a car. Specifically, I wanted a used luxury car because despite its age it would be full of modern amenities. Also, maybe I watch too much "Top Gear"?

In 2015, I was ready to start shopping, but buying a car, especially a used one, is a well-known pain in the ass. For the longest time, there were two main options: You went to a dealership or bought privately. 

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A dealership has services like financing, warranties, maintenance programs and inspections. But dealer cars are more expensive than private purchases and you have to tolerate a dealer's hard sell. If you buy a car privately you can save money, but you have no idea how the owners maintained the car while they had it. There's plenty of room for shadiness. 

But then, another option appeared. I should explain that after considering an old BMW 5 series and even older Jaguar XJ, I decided I wanted a Range Rover Classic. It has a V-8 engine, a leather interior, a sunroof, cruise control, ABS brakes and all-wheel drive. It's also a boxy beauty.

While searching the internet for prices on Range Rover parts (you know, just in case), I discovered the eBay Motors section. Could I really bid for a car like you bid for a prized collectible? To test the waters, I typed "Range Rover" in the search field and saw a couple of dozen old Rovers for sale around the US. The whole time I did this, I remember thinking, "I didn't know eBay sold cars." 

But it did. I set up an eBay alert for Land Rover Range Rovers from 1970 to 1996. I kept my eye on other sites like Autotrader and Cars.com, but they had far fewer listings for what I wanted. And then I waited.

The final seven minutes

After weeks of watching Rovers come and go on eBay, I found "the one" — it was a 1992 short-wheelbase (SWB) Range Rover — the SWB Rovers look more badass. It was Portofino Red and had 174,419 miles, not too shabby for a 24-year-old car.

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Land Rover sold US models of the Range Rover from 1987-96.

Patrick Holland/CNET

According to the posting, the Rover was in good running shape and didn't have any rust on the body. It could easily sell for $6,500 or more. But I wanted it for less. I entered a bid of $3,500 and used eBay's automatic bid option to raise my bid anytime others raised theirs. After a day or two of bid stagnation, the action picked up during the last seven minutes of the auction. The bids started rising: $3,600, $3,700, $3,800. It was intense and exciting.

With three excruciating minutes to spare, my bid of $4,200 remained on top. I won the auction and the Rover was mine. I put $500 down and settled $3,966 (including taxes) with the seller later.

My new-to-me Range Rover was in Florida, 900 miles away, but shipping it was a breeze. There is a "shipping and payments" tab in every eBay Motors posting that lists quotes from uShip. I was able to view multiple quotes and contact the shipper straight from eBay.

It arrived!

Have you ever taken a vintage Range Rover on a late-night joyride in an empty Target parking lot? I did and it was pure happiness. But the "responsible Patrick" in me had a mechanic inspect the car the next day. The engine, transmission and brakes were all in good shape. However, I opted to replace the transfer case and smaller things like the aluminum door handles.

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My 1992 Range Rover Classic being unloaded off a car carrier in a Target parking lot.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Over a few weeks, the mechanic got everything on the 24-year-old Rover into a daily-driver state. From then on, my Rover Classic was a joy to drive and own. I drove it every day to work and to run errands and I did a road trip to Wisconsin to visit friends. I even drove it across the country to move to San Francisco for my job with CNET.

People loved seeing this old Rover out and about. During the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Cincinnati, people took pictures in front of it and called it the Big Red Machine after the 1970s Reds. Most importantly, I loved it, and that's what mattered.

When I arrived in San Francisco I realized I didn't need the Rover anymore. San Francisco is all about walking, biking, public transit and ride hailing. I donated the Big Red Machine to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I was sad to see it go, but knew it was going toward a good cause. There are times I miss the old Rover. As big purchases go, this was one of my favorites.

Another story

Though my experience with eBay Motors was great, I recommend taking the same precautions that you would when buying a car any other way. I talked to Joe Boland of La Grange, Illinois, who bought a '60s Mini Cooper on eBay years ago from a dealer 500 miles away. Rather than paying to ship his car, he decided to make an adventure of bringing it home from Nashville, Tennessee.

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Over the years, eBay Motors has added safeguards to make buying a car as positive an experience as it can be.

Josh Miller/CNET

"My wife and I bought tickets to fly to Nashville to pay for the car and drive it home," he says. But that's where the fun ended. Upon arrival in Nashville, Boland realized most of the car's wiring had been disconnected. After a quick visit to a mechanic, the Mini was running, barely.

"The car ran rough," says Boland. "It wouldn't get above 45 miles per hour." A few miles later, Boland saw gas leaking from the carburetor. He was livid. Weeks later after hounding the dealer, he finally got a refund.

Despite the experience, Boland says that he would shop for a car online again, but only for a new one that offered an incentive greater than he'd get from a local dealer. "What you see isn't always what you get," he says. "The dealership took advantage of me."

A safe bet: eBay services

eBay Motors launched in 2000. "At the time, the idea of buying a car via the web was foreign to most people," says Jay Hanson, eBay's vice president of North America Merchandising, Hard Goods. The site also has dealership-like services, but without the talking-to-a-dealer part. That kind of support made me feel comfortable shopping for a car more than 1,000 miles away.

  • $100,000 Vehicle Purchase Protection: covers vehicle cost against fraud and defects.
  • AutoCheck vehicle history report: checks the accident and title history.
  • WeGoLook: sends a "Looker" to inspect the car you're interested in. Starts at $99.
  • Financing: lets you apply for financing and quickly get an answer.
  • Shipping carrier quotes: provides free quotes for shipping costs via uShip.
  • Tire purchase and installation: allows customers to buy tires online and have them installed at a local shop.

This story appears in the fall 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.