I sold a mediocre car to Carvana for a lot of money, and I don’t feel bad about it

Courtesy Brandis Family

My grandfather-in-law, Jimmy, is a hero.

Like, an actual hero.

He fought as a Marine in World War II and was wounded in the Battle of Guam. He received a Purple Heart and returned home to North Carolina, where he worked his way up to become fire chief for one of the largest cities in the state. He saved lives and protected homes, and in 1967, he personally hired the city’s first Black firefighter.

Like so many from his generation, Jimmy grew up with very little. As an adult, he treasured his cars and kept them in top shape. Ford was his go-to brand, and his most opulent buy was an early 1990s Lincoln Town Car, painted white. He drove this car into his nineties, until family pressure to downsize to something safer and more economical led him to a 2016 Ford Fusion.

Accolades came gushing in: Jimmy, his relatives said, this is a great car! It’s so modern. I know you’re saving some gas. He beamed.

Comfortable power seats, an FM radio, good visibility, power steering that didn’t take too much strength to use. The infotainment system required virtually zero interaction if you only ever listened to one FM station, and the climate control always stayed at the same setting. It started, it stopped, it was a perfectly mediocre car.

2016 Ford Fusion SE front
Jimmy’s perfectly mediocre 2016 Ford Fusion SE. Darwin Brandis

He drove the Ford diligently for a few years. Family gatherings, quick trips to the store or barber shop, things like that. He was proud of it. It was his link to the outside world, his independence.

“I’m gonna run out to the store, I’ll be back later,” he’d say.

His wife of 70 years, Peggy, would quickly make an excuse for him to stay. “Jimmy,” she’d say, confidently, “we went to the store yesterday. We’ve got everything we need.”

Jimmy would return to his chair to watch black-and-white movies. “I remember when this film came out in theaters, just a few years ago.”

“Me too, Jimmy.”

Courtesy Brandis Family

Some days, this daily scenario did not play out so favorably. Some days it was an argument. On the good days, though, a weight seemed to have been lifted for them both. He wouldn’t be worried about groceries, wouldn’t dwell on his sense of independence; she would avoid, one more time, the difficult conversation about why Jimmy should no longer drive.

In the pandemic, the Fusion languished for two years. The battery died and the tires began to show signs of rot. Jimmy’s urge to drive turned into random inquiries about the car, concern for its condition. The Ford became a burden. Unnecessary confusion and stress for him.

It was time.

A family member took the car to Jimmy’s favorite dealership for routine service. This was in January of 2022, when used-car prices were at a historic high. They hadn’t even pulled the Ford into the service bay when an offer came in.

CPI used cars and trucks graph FRED Federal Reserve stats
The Consumer Price Index for used cars and trucks in U.S. cities, mid-2016 to early 2022. Federal Reserve Economic Data

Every family has their designated car person. The one you call when you can’t choose between two seemingly identical yet different models. When you hear a tapping sound on left turns. When you think you’re being overcharged for a sensor that might not even be real. A car decider.

“Hey, they want to give us $13,500 for the Fusion. Like, right now. I think Jimmy only paid like $22,000 for it.”

“Wow. Um, sure. Let’s get this off our plate. And they could use the money.”

I felt good about that number. A private sale would almost definitely bring more, but this way, we could avoid what we feared there: potential buyers coming to Jimmy and Peggy’s place, pointing out every visible flaw in order to get out of paying a veteran as much as they should. And Peggy having to explain to Jimmy why random people were in his house.

Courtesy Brandis Family

Then, automotive serendipity. An immaculately timed Carvana commercial.

Wait,” I said.

As I excitedly explained to a family member how this weird and gimmicky company that sells cars from giant vending machines just gave us an instant offer of $19,633 for a Ford that most people wouldn’t give a second look, it felt like overpromising. Not only did it sound as if I was trying to sell them on some kind of multilevel marketing scheme, I had unwittingly taken over the entire endeavor simply because I had seen a TV ad promising “a new way to buy a car.”

Carvana wouldn’t move past the offer phase until they saw a new state title with my name on it. A few weeks, one power of attorney, and lots of overnight mail later, I owned a really boring Ford that I planned to sell immediately. The Fusion was car number six in my driveway, and according to Carvana’s “techno-wizardry,” it was more valuable than a couple of well-kept “you don’t see those every day” BMWs and a supercharged English SUV. A 2016 Ford Fusion—one step up from base trim, not even heated seats—was now my flagship.

Carvana 2016 Silver Ford Fusion listing
A silver 2016 Ford Fusion SE currently for sale at Carvana: $17,990. Carvana

The online process that came next made me feel as if I were trading cryptocurrency or unloading a monkey NFT. It seemed like I had to get this done quickly, before someone found out. Send us a handful of mediocre pics from your phone, the website said, click a few boxes marked “I Agree,” and Jimmy and Peggy will get their money. Save one phone call to schedule the pickup time, I had no live interactions with a human until the day came to hand over the keys.

The truck came from Myrtle Beach, over an hour south, carrying one driver and one trainee. Both were neatly dressed and cordial. They stumbled through an awkward introduction and ID verification, and off we went.

The driver/salesman/inspector/trainer began with a walkaround, a once-over.

“Kind of a deep scuff there . . . ” he said. The trainee gave a little nod. My eyebrows rose. I had worried about that scuff. It was visible in the photos submitted, but had anyone even looked at those? Was all this just based off mileage and VIN?

The driver carried on: “ . . . but we can overlook it.”

He started the car, checked the odometer, and that was it. Done deal. The hood and trunk were never opened. No look at the driveway to check for fresh leaks. The trunk could have held . . . anything. After a few taps on a tablet and a payment confirmation in my inbox, I had to ask:

“How is this Ford Fusion worth twice as much as the stately English SUV over there?”

“Aw, man, that’s a good-looking truck, but it’s all trends and algorithms. The company has a formula.”

Right. Trust the formula. Keep the vending machine stocked.

I helped take off Jimmy’s North Carolina Purple Heart rear plate and U.S. Marines front one. Then I watched the truck haul the Ford away. I have always felt sad, getting rid of a car, and this was no different.

A few weeks later, Jimmy lifted up from his chair decisively, aiming for the garage. “I’m gonna head to the store, I’ll be back in a bit.”

“Jimmy, we sold the car a while ago, remember? We got that check for $19,000?”

“Oh, right,” he said. “We really got a great price.”

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    I sold cars to Shift (similar to Carvana) and a private party recently. In both scenarios I felt the math did not add up but I was not going to stick around long enough to admit that. I’ll need that extra cash to navigate the craziness for a new car.
    I too maintain a list of vehicles owned and hope someone digs it up far down the road.

    Interesting story, and with some overtones of the aging parent/grandparent scenarios that many of us face. As a former Marine and son of one who fought on another Pacific island (Wake), I salute Jimmy for his obvious dedication to duty and country. ⚔
    The Carvana story is one which confuses me (and many others). The fact that it didn’t pan out kind of shows that it confused them too!

    Reply to DUB6: I love your posting, and Thank-You and your Dad for your service.
    My Dad was a Marine in the early 1950’s, a Staff Sergeant. I was born at the USMC Airbase at Cherry Point, NC.

    Mr. Brandis — thanks for a great story.

    As to Carvana, and all things financial really; timing is everything.

    audiobycarmine –
    Thanks, man. Never been to Cherry Point, and never made sergeant, so both you and your dad are AT LEAST one up on me. 😄

    Dear Audiobycarmine, Nice to read your note. My wife was born 1951 in Cherry Pt to two Marines. She was BAM baby, having a Broad A## Marine as a Mom. Pride runs deep in these Marines. She married a career Naval Aviator so she has had Thebes of all worlds. Cheers!

    I’m one of a select few who has been to Wake Island. Your father fought quite a brave battle few know about. Spending all but the first few weeks of the war as a POW on the Japanese mainland is tough. He is a true hero and their resistance to overwhelming odds for so long was heroic.

    There is a reason Carvana has lost 98% of its stock value and is in or headed for bankruptcy/liquidation. It’s a terrible way to buy a car, the scheme could only work in the crazy overpriced market the last few years fueled by “free money” from the government. Now they are caught holding the bag as the bottom drops out of the car market.

    I too was out to Wake in 1988. I even snorkeled in the lagoon and brought up an encrusted Coke bottle with a date code “pre-1950s” that COULD have been there since the war. Dad first was imprisoned in China – later moved to Japan.
    I watched a news report about the rise and fall of Carvana. Your points about its failure were mentioned as important, but the biggest fault (the report claimed) was the huge debt load they took on. When sales and prices fell, they began having problems servicing the debt. Too many fast-growth companies do that, not wanting to admit that they might experience some tough times to struggle through, and thus borrowing more than they are saving so they can fuel the growth.

    Darwin, we had a similar experience, selling our luxury SUV: the MB dealership said we can give you X amount ONLY after you fix A, B and C. None were safety issues, but I’ll admit some fell into the “gonna have to do that sooner or later” category… but the dealership would “only” knock off $2500 from the offer of “X”.

    And then we did the Carvana online offer thingy, which seemed- or rather, IS- kinda shady in that “raises-one-eyebrow” way, and was offered slightly more than “X” — with NO requirement to address A,B or C. Huh.

    So we accepted the offer, a well-dressed recent college grad drove up in a small cab-over flatbed, walked around the SUV, made sure it ran and didn’t sound horrible, loaded it up and we instantly got “X”. Seemed too good to be true… but it was.

    And we as the seller have no complaints!

    The PROBLEM is probably going to be with the Buyer… but after reading a story in Forbes (“How An Ex-Con Became A Billionaire From Used Cars”) and learning they have about 1,000 repo men, it all made sense. Our desirable German SUV was likely sold for $4K down and a 15-18% APR 84 month loan… and has probably been repossessed and resold at the same price at least once since then. The scam worked for a while -its stock peaked last year at $360/share- but now the gig is up – and it’s at $6/share today.

    Don’t feel bad for making a great sale… but don’t even think about buying from them!

    Aha. I had never considered the sale-finance-repo-resell aspect. That brings a lot of my confusion into some focus. Thanks, WeisPanzer! 👍

    Pretty common for in-house financing used car lots. Knew a guy in our town who did that constantly. Buy a car, refresh it for a couple hundred, sell it, repo it and start all over again. I think his record for “re-selling” the same car was around a dozen times. Quite the racket…

    I checked into this out of curiosity.

    My dealer offer was about $2000 less than Carvana that offered me what had paid 5 years ago.

    Now if you are dumping a car this is a good deal but if you are buying a new car taxes will be saved if you trade at the dealer in most cases as Carvana is not going to offer enough to cover them so the dealer plays on that with their offer.

    The idea of this sounds great but their are many pit falls like virus shut downs that can’t be predicted. These are the added shipping cost due to high fuel cost to ship these vehicles where they are getting top dollar.

    Now you have dealers being more competitive and then the problem with car sales that may slip in the next couple years due to interest rates.

    I expect all this to go the way of video stores.

    The question is as more sales go to the web what changes will we see.

    Three years ago the local dealer offered $10,000 for my F-150. Carvana offered $15,200 so guess who I sold it to. That same local dealer then sold me a Beetle for $9,000, I drove it for three years and just traded in in last week and got $8,500 for it.

    I sold my dad’s car to CarMax in late 2020. It was a bit of a cluster—- due to my father having passed away prior to the sale, which prevented me from doing the whole thing via powers of attorney for him and mom. The CarMax people could not have been more personable, helpful, and, to my mind, generous. Even then a totally humdrum Honda CRV was worth nearly what they paid for it new.

    Dad’s mind never let him down and he drove right up until the end. He was a safe driver, knew where he should and shouldn’t be driving at his age and skill level. My wife kept talking about taking his keys but I rode with him and thought he did just fine. I can only hope to be so lucky when I reach that stage of life.

    Love you, pop. Love you, mom.

    sweet story. I am an old car guy, and when it came time for me to replace my beautiful “once in a lifetime ” car ( some idiot ran a stop sign and totaled it) I was encouraged by my young nephews to try looking online. Seriously? Well fast forward 3 months and now have a great replacement I got from , through all places , CarMax.
    Cant say enough about the transaction, perfect, friendly , and amazingly up front and honest. I know not all have had that experience , but I did and thankful for it . Plus 30 day return and 1500 mile bumper to bumper , not bad for a 2015.
    Did I pay a little more , yup, about a grand but Im Ok with that.

    I sold a 2013 Mercedes SLK to Carvana. They gave me, what I thought, was a little too much money for it but that was okay. Had to deliver it to their lot but not a problem as they provided an Uber ride to public transport for the trip home. Money transfer was instantaneous; they were great to deal with.

    Last year Carvana offered to buy my truck for $500 less than I paid for it new 11 years before. They upped the offer two times from the original offer.

    There’s a reason Carvana had one of the highest volume of used car sales to fuel its growth. The low overhead (no sales team, fairly low infrastructure costs) allows them to beat others on buying cars yet price them in line with other sellers. However, they have failed to make a profit due to making too many exceptions and not adjusting algorithms to changing operational costs (i.e. cost of fuel for pickups and delivery). Instead of posting a profit, they are posting losses with record number of transactions. Carvana will be out of business soon. They missed the boat while interest rates were low and supply was low due to chip shortages.

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