The joys and pitfalls of car trading on the web

Bidding for a car on the internet sounds like fun. But cyberspace holds traps that the novice can easily fall into, warns James Ruppert
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Every four minutes eBay sells a car - proof that buying a used car has never been easier or more fun; and in some cases that can be the problem. For those who have not heard of eBay, at its simplest, www.ebay.com is a worldwide car boot sale, although the difference is that online you can actually bid for and buy a car boot that is attached to a real car.

Every four minutes eBay sells a car - proof that buying a used car has never been easier or more fun; and in some cases that can be the problem. For those who have not heard of eBay, at its simplest, www.ebay.com is a worldwide car boot sale, although the difference is that online you can actually bid for and buy a car boot that is attached to a real car.

eBay has 50 million registered users - more than a million of them in the UK. All you need is an e-mail address and you can register to buy or sell. Sellers put their vehicles on the site for £6, and if they sell, are liable for a fee of up to £30. It's that simple.

I went to the Land Rover section and found 250 items - which is more than you might find in the classified section of a specialist Land Rover publication. There were sundry oily parts that only appeal to Landie lovers like me, but also curiosities such as Frank Bruno's Land Rover 110. However, the classic Series 1 Land Rover for £20 was more my kind of buy - but there was the small matter of there being nine days to go on auction. That's what makes eBay addictive: you keep going back to find out if your bid has been accepted or if there is more quirky stuff that you did not realise you needed.

Craig Harffey was already an eBay user when he decided to buy something a little different. "I had a Lotus Elise, which I absolutely loved, but I wanted a classic that I could enjoy. I went through all the usual channels including car magazines and dealers but I thought that I didn't have much to lose by searching on eBay."

Craig soon came across his dream car and one with an interesting history. "It was a Porsche 911 with at least one careful, well I hoped anyway, Top Gear presenter." Richard Hammond, the smaller one from the TV series, was selling his Guards Red pride and joy. "I reckoned that he would have looked after it otherwise I would never have considered buying such an expensive item. However I love it and nothing has gone wrong so far." Craig's winning bid was £8,100.

Of course, eBay is not the only auction website out there. I went to www.QXL.com, which had three cars on its site, while www.bidoutlet.co.uk had 12. I like www.autotrader.co.uk, which is less chaotic and has an awful lot of cars on offer. It is not an auction but you still have the option of paying what you think it is worth. You never know - they might say yes.

In effect, what eBay and other sites have done is to shrink the used-car market by putting vehicles from all around the world seemingly within reach. But this also causes problems. The vehicle inspection company www.usedcarchecks.com has found that people bid for and agree to buy often expensive cars without looking at them. UK bidders are finding that they are not always as described. This is an old problem, but now the distances are considerable and misunderstandings greater.

Buyers who have had their bids accepted are also encountering sellers who are reluctant to negotiate further if the vehicle, when finally viewed, needs some work. The response of some sellers is that they would rather put the car back on the website and get fresh bids. Getting an independent vehicle inspection is only part of the answer, but this can still leave buyers out of pocket. eBay realises that the system is not perfect and gives good guidance. It involves asking questions and making sure that the seller has the registration document. Experienced buyers agree that eBay is a great place to find rare and unusual cars, but for more mainstream models, you are better off tracking down cars that are nearby.

If buying is easy, so is selling. A lot of people in the trade list stock on eBay because they know that however odd and less-than-perfect it is, someone somewhere will want it. That too causes problems. Fraudsters are targeting UK car sellers with a fresh internet spin on some very old-fashioned scams. Car sellers now need to be on guard against criminals using the anonymity of the internet, which has taken over from unsolicited faxes and letters as the fastest way to separate innocent victims from their cash.

I spoke to sellers who have put cars for sale on various sites and then have been e-mailed by enthusiastic buyers. One anonymous vendor said: "You get an e-mail and this is followed by the promise of a banker's draft. When that draft arrives it is for more than you are asking for the car but the buyer insists that is for shipping, or a mistake. You are then expected to send them, or a third party the difference out of your own bank account. At that point I smelt a rat." Buyers and sellers beware.

GUIDELINES FOR BUYING ONLINE

* Bid on a car you can test-drive

* Look for detailed descriptions and lots of photographs

* Avoid short adverts with few details, or with fuzzy pictures

* Don't get carried away. Check prices in other adverts

* In the UK, if the vehicle does not match the description, then the seller has misrepresented it and you do not have to buy. If the ad is accurate, you are obliged to complete the transaction

* Pay after seeing the car

* Check the seller's feedback on the advert. If they have sold a lot of cars, be cautious. They could be a dealer

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