Car Shopping Has Become Very Complicated

Americans have come to think of themselves as professional consumers, but I’ve seen this week how clumsy it gets when we’re on our own. I’ve been car shopping. It’s been painful how awkwardly we navigate the retail terrain when there are no professionals involved.

I stumbled for several days because I didn’t really know what I wanted. I wasted a few people’s time, and my own. When it comes to cars, our society has thousands of choices for “what,” but really only two choices for “why.”

You choose a car based on pure practicality. Or you choose a style and budget that “fits” you — whatever that means. There’s no middle ground. You can have your cake and eat it too, but cars are not cake. You express yourself by your car choice, or you take the best deal and accept the consequences. You will be judged by what you drive. Not caring does not exempt you from this iron rule. I’ve learned this the hard way.

A real estate professional can’t drive too nice a car, because it signals they care more about money than clients. An architect friend favors Porsches. His car draws comments from clients in Eugene, but not when he’s working anywhere else.

Another friend sold her Suburu, then worried what her gay girlfriends would think of her. Then there are those who think that driving is just the wrong way to get around.

Once I figured out what exactly I was looking for, the complexity of the mission only increased. It almost didn’t matter that I didn’t know what I was looking for, because I didn’t know where to look.

For those of us who fear encountering a professional, walking onto a used car lot is not our first option. The classified section of the newspaper used to be the only choice — so much so, that competitors launched free newspapers that had classified ads and nothing else.

Some people — including me — still try to use every section of the newspaper, the way frontiersmen used every part of a slaughtered cow. Classified sections are slimmer now. It’s no longer where most private parties advertise their used cars.

A decade ago, craigslist had become the new, near-unanimous choice. But that’s no longer true. Sellers have moved on to other marketplaces.

Facebook Marketplace attracts sellers who no longer use craigslist and have probably never looked inside a newspaper. Auto Trader used to be one of those free newspapers. It has transformed into a website filled with free listings.

Those who grew up with smart phones are gravitating to apps that are designed exclusively for buying and selling, like Letgo and Offerup. I’m sure there are other options that I haven’t encountered or considered.

And that’s exactly the problem. There are so many places to look, no one is seeing everything any more. We were all on the same page — back when we had pages and not screens. Inquiries now come from calls, texts, emails, and in-app messages. It’s a lot to monitor. Those who are determined to post their offering everywhere had better quit their day job or hire an agent.

Most advertising outlets charge nothing or nearly nothing. That sounds like a benefit, but it’s more complicated than that. It produces a disabling lack of urgency and concision. When classified ads cost the seller real money, there was reason to be as specific as you could afford to be, but also to cancel the ad as soon as a buyer was found.

Neither of those are true anymore. Selling stuff online has become for some people a lifestyle. They are always buying and selling, or — more likely — they always have stuff they are looking for, which they can afford only after they sell something. It feeds the consumer mentality while also relieving loneliness.

This alters the exchange between buyer and seller. Both have become more skeptical. Who is a serious buyer? Who’s a serious seller? We’re constantly trying to gauge one another’s motivations. It’s befuddling.

Happily, I’m done looking — at least for a few years. I found what I wanted in this newspaper’s classified section.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.