February 29, 2020

Buying From CarMax

14 MIN READ

guides , outback

I never thought the day would come where I’d find myself sitting across the desk from a salesman at CarMax. Unfortunately, after one too many headaches with my wife’s 2012 Ford Focus, we decided enough was enough and ended up not only selling her car, but also purchasing our new (to us) Subaru Outback from CarMax! So why did we decide to sell and buy from CarMax? Would we do it again?

Before I get into the CarMax story, I want to start with a small rant about Ford Focuses…

Focus Focus Focus

Shortly after she graduated college back in 2015, my wife’s old but up-to-that-point-mostly-reliable Mercury Sable decided all on it’s own to up and die. It was pretty much a full-on electrical exorcism. As a result, we found ourselves unexpectedly short one vehicle, and with my stick shift econobox Fiesta ST not looking like the ideal family hauler, we were on the hunt for a new set of wheels! Without any practical need for anything as large as an SUV yet, and because I had been loving my ST, we started looking at smaller hatchbacks. The Ford Focus seemed to check all the boxes, and as luck would have it, a family friend had just taken delivery of a newer one that had been in a slight fender bender. After fixing the car up (involved replacing the airbags and passenger door/fender), she was back behind the wheel - this time in a white 2012 Focus SE hatchback!

The 2012 Ford Focus in all its glory

Initially, the car was great! The interior was a bit cramped, but the car was sporty, practical, and the hatchback filled itself regularly on our weekly expeditions to Costco. Then one day, my wife mentioned that the car had started randomly “shuddering”. A quick Google search revealed that, while we knew about the fancy new dual clutch transmission in the Focus, we had somehow completely overlooked a bevy of owner’s complaints online.

After a talk with a Ford service advisor, it was decided they’d install an updated version of the transmission’s firmware. This did little to fix our issue, and we were quickly back in the dealership looking for more answers. Fortunately, around the time of our issues, Ford decided to issue a recall and the clutch pack of the transmission was replaced under extended warranty. This seemed to resolve the problem, and things were smooth sailing. For a bit at least…

The Problems Really Begin

Fast forward a few years and we had been back to various dealers (due to a few moves over the years) numerous times for the same issue. While all the dealers acknowledged the issue, we were always stuck back at square one, firmware updates followed by the inevitable clutch pack replacement. Then earlier last year, the automotive headlines exploded with rumors that Ford had known about the transmission issues prior to the vehicles going on sale, and lawsuits were springing up left and right. Because we had purchased the vehicle secondhand and it had been in an accident, we decided to forgo legal action and just rid ourselves of the car entirely.

Ford's infamous DSG transmission

With winter fast approaching, we explored our options and perused a variety of local dealerships. In the end, we just weren’t that excited about the prospect of playing the “dealership games”, not to mention the idea of selling her car private party was off the table - no way we were opening ourselves up to passing that lemon on someone else. We began to wonder if there was a simpler way. Then we remembered CarMax!

Our CarMax Quote

Lots of folks are familiar with CarMax for their clever advertising, massive inventories, or even Doug Demuro’s famous exploits with their “bumper to bumper warranty”. However, neither my wife or I had stepped foot in a CarMax before so we had no idea what to expect.

Our local CarMax

Initially, we had planned to simply get a quote for what her car was worth and be on our way. After setting up an appointment online, we arrived at the dealership around dinner time one weeknight. We were immediately greeted by an employee who mentioned that the person we had planned to meet with was just wrapping up a sale and might be running a bit behind. Unfortunately, the sale took a lot longer than expected, and we ended up standing around for about 10-15 minutes. After apologizing profusely for the delay, we were introduced to another salesperson who took us back to his “office” to talk over the details.

Going over the CarMax paperwork

He explained the ins and outs of their appraisal process, and informed us it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to so. He then asked us a few questions about the vehicle, including its history and if there were any known issues with it. We mentioned that we believed it had been in an accident at some point, but that there were no major issues that we were aware of. Rather than disclose the transmission issues as a “fault” of the car, we decided ahead of time that because the vehicle was technically “functional”, they would be able to easily make their own determination on a test drive. After walking around the car with him, he walked us back to our desk and offered us beverages/chatted about what we might be looking for in a replacement vehicle. As I mentioned before, we hadn’t intended on ever purchasing from CarMax, so we just entertained him and talked about our plans/what we might be looking for. Without any pressure or obligation, he mentioned he’d be happy to let us test drive any vehicle in their inventory, and that if the vehicle we were looking for was at a dealership nearby they would be able to transfer it for free!

CarMax's website

After some more discussion and casual conversation, the appraiser came back with the report on her Focus. Unsurprisingly, he had noted the transmission was shuddering and that the front passenger door appeared to have been replaced at some point (I.e. it had been repainted white off a red Focus). In spite of these issues and the high mileage of her vehicle (nearly 100k miles), we were very pleasantly surprised to hear their written offer was much higher than we expected! The salesman explained that the offer was good for seven days, at which point we’d have to get the vehicle re-appraised (he assured us a reappraisal would almost certainly come back with the same number unless we put a significant number of miles on the car).

We left the store extremely relieved and surprised at how easy the whole experience had been. We could rest easy knowing that we had a firm, written offer on a car that we felt was otherwise unsellable!

The Hunt for an Outback

Later that night, we did some comparing of the options from CarMax’s inventory to what local Subaru dealerships had in stock. While the “as listed” prices of the dealership’s vehicles were certainly lower than the equivalent CarMax options, we started to weigh the additional intangible costs of haggling, running through the financing gamut, and just the general “stress” of buying a car from a dealership. In addition, almost immediately we found an Outback that ticked all the boxes: Low miles, one owner, cloth seats, Eyesight package, heated mirrors and seats, dual zone climate control, etc.

The Outback we wanted

We submitted a request to have the Outback transferred to our local store right from the website. Later that day a salesperson reached out to me via phone to confirm the transfer and give us a bit more info. Because the vehicle was located relatively close, it was available for us to test drive the next day! The sales folks were super communicative throughout the whole process, and we set up some time after work to head over and check the car out.

The test drive process was, as expected, pretty uneventful! Because it was already dark out when we arrived, they pulled the Outback into their inspection bay for us to walk around and take a closer look. Checking over the exterior there were a few visible imperfections, and there was some old oil residue around the filter in the engine bay. The interior was in great shape (CarMax details every one of their cars thoroughly before putting them out on the lot), and everything appeared functional/in good order. Next, we jumped behind the wheel and both my wife and I had the opportunity to take the car for a ~10 minute test drive, guided by our salesperson from the back seat. Having him ride along was actually kind of nice, because it allowed us to focus on feeling out the feel of the car as it drove, without having to worry about navigating ourselves.

Test driving the Outback

As we pulled back into the CarMax lot, we felt pretty confident about wanting to pull the trigger on this particular car. We talked over the price with our sales guy, who explained that the price we saw was the price we’d pay - CarMax touts a “no-haggle” price. As I mentioned earlier, the prices we saw online seemed to suggest that CarMax adds a bit of “convenience tax” to their prices. We could most likely have gotten a lower-mileage, similarly-specc’ed car from another dealership for less (in fact we’d done the research to prove this), but for how easy and low-pressure the entire process had been, we were feeling pretty confident and comfortable paying a little extra for that convenience. He also discussed the variety of extended warranty plans offered through CarMax. While some of this conversation felt a bit familiar to the sales pitch from a normal dealership, our own research suggested their warranties were actually quite competitively priced! Not only did you have the opportunity to select the length of coverage, but you were able to have the work completed at non-CarMax shops and still be covered! In the end, we decided against any sort of warranty.

NOTE: On the subject of prices/financing - while we had planned to finance a portion of the vehicle through our local credit union, our salesperson explained that we had the option to take the vehicle home with us the very night we had test driven it. While initially confusing, the arrangement went something like this: We would “finance” the car through CarMax temporarily. Because the paperwork for the financing wasn’t processed for several business days, we’d still have the opportunity to secure financing through our bank the next day(s). Once we had done so, they’d simply shred our original financing paperwork and process the new stuff. While this plan was appealing in a number of aspects, it was also somewhat strange and hard for us to understand. Since we weren’t entirely comfortable with the aforementioned arrangement, we decided to just wait and do it the “normal” way.

While waiting for the financing to be worked out, I decided to run the vehicle’s Carfax report (a $40 one-time fee) and compare the reported history to that of CarMax’s own system. Interestingly enough, the Carfax noted that the vehicle had “reported damage” while the CarMax report did not. It didn’t seem like anything major (no corresponding accident was reported), but I was curious why one report would list it while the other would not. Some quick Googling suggested that it depended on how the reporting service gathered their records - it could be that CarMax’s reporting just didn’t pull from the same sources, and therefore didn’t have a record of that incident. Regardless, after looking more closely at the affected area of the car, we decided it wasn’t a deal-breaker. It was an important learning experience, however - you can never trust one source!

With a check in-hand, we headed back to CarMax a few days later and closed the deal. Because we had already drafted a purchase agreement after the test drive (necessary for our bank’s paperwork), the process was pretty cut and dry! All-in-all, we were waving goodbye to her Ford Focus from our new Outback in under an hour.

Post-Purchase Impressions

Throughout the process, everyone we interacted with was extremely professional and pleasant to talk to. They took the time to explain to us everything we were signing, and answered all of our questions. The only negative part of our experience was discovering that there had been some struggle to get the rear dealer plate off the car, and (in spite of their best efforts to be careful) a noticeable scratch had been left on the trunk. Thankfully it was mostly covered by our license plate, but they were honest and upfront about their mistake and they said they’d happily have their body repair guys touch up the scratch.

In order to make doubly sure the car we were buying was in good mechanical condition, we set up an appointment with our Subaru dealership to have the car run through their PPI (Pre-Purchase Inspection) process. While the fee for this inspection was somewhat steep (just over $100), it was worth the peace of mind to us. Thankfully, the inspection came back with no red flags! The technician noted what he felt was an excess of motor oil around the drain plug area, but after ruling out a leaking plug with a UV additive in the oil, we chalked it up to a messy oil change from CarMax.

Giving the Outback its first wash

The only negative aspect of our experience was when I got the car home and went to wash it. I noticed that there were a few areas where the paint had been chipped (most likely from normal use, rocks, etc.). Unfortunately, the paint that had been used to mask the chips wasn’t a 100% match to the OEM Subaru gray. As a result, the touch-up areas were painfully obvious up-close. While this isn’t likely to bother anyone other than myself and a handful of other detail-oriented folks, it was a bit of a bummer to see. Because I can’t prove that the touch-ups were done by CarMax, I can’t really “deduct points” from the experience. If doing it again, I would however take more time and look over the paint of the vehicle more closely.

Conclusion

So would we buy another car from CarMax? Yes. Overall, the experience buying a used car from CarMax was significantly lower pressure than that of a traditional dealership. There was less back-and-forth, no haggling, we were given plenty of time to look the car over, and all of this is without mentioning their return “guarantee” (you’re allowed to bring the car back within seven days for any reason).

If you’re looking for the absolute best deal on a given vehicle, I’d suggest you steer clear of CarMax. As I mentioned before, they have a unique, competitive advantage with their willingness to buy nearly any vehicle from you. In addition, their massive inventory and network of stores means you’re fairly guaranteed to find the right car for you!

The WRX posing in front of CarMax

So far we absolutely love our new Outback, and can’t wait to share more about our ownership experience on here! Stay tuned for a short-term review!

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