I have only ever bought cars from private sellers, cash on the hood, so to speak. But this time around, we weren't really sure what we were looking for, or how we wanted to buy, so we went a different route.
First of all, I did some researching online. I knew I preferred an SUV to a minivan, but I really like the sliding doors of a van (I can't tell you how many times someone has parked too close to me in a parking lot and I've had to do all sorts of weird contortions to maneuver a kid through a six-inch-wide gap.) I narrowed it down to a long list of SUVs and a very short list of minivans, and the car that I thought would be a perfect mix - the Mazda5.
Then I started looking for one to test drive, with some strict criteria. We were looking for recent model years, low mileage, and a good deal, and preferably not a high-pressure sales environment. There were no such vehicles with clean titles in our area on Craigslist, and we couldn't find any at any close car dealers either, so we started looking at rental car fleet purchases.
I found out about this from the keychain on our last rental car - most large rental companies let you buy specific vehicles out of their fleet. It gets inventory off their hands with little effort, and the cars are priced a lot better than dealers, since the rental car company doesn't have to deal with a third party inflating the price. And as luck would have it, Hertz had several Mazda5s to choose from in our area.
Now, the way the program works is that you are selecting a specific vehicle from the fleet (whereas when you rent a car, you rent from a category). So you have to wait for your specific car to be returned if it's out on rental, then to be cleaned and inspected, then to be delivered to the rent to buy location. So we knew it wasn't going to be a fast process.
The first car was supposed to be ready for us to pick up on a Saturday, but we never received the confirmation call to go get it. We kept checking with the office and finally got the news - the car had been wrecked while it was rented out and was totaled. So....bummer. They had a second vehicle with similar mileage and price in a different color, so we signed up for that one. We were supposed to pick it up two weeks later.
This time we got the news the day before we were supposed to pick it up - the vehicle had been returned in such "disgusting" condition that it could no longer be sold. I have spent far longer than I'd like to admit wondering what someone could do to a car that would make it so gross, and what they do with such a vehicle since they can no longer sell it. What's wrong with people?!
So, third time's the charm - we reserved yet another car, at slightly higher mileage and with a slightly lower price. We picked it up two weeks later.
Now, one of the things that I really liked about the Hertz buying program is that you get a three-day test drive. If you like the car, you keep it and do the paperwork online. If you don't like it and return it within two hours, there's no charge. If you return it later than two hours but within the three-day period, you pay a decent rental fee and there are no further obligations. I like this because it gives you a chance to test drive the car in different situations (day, night, city, highway), see how it will fit in the garage, see how it works with your car seats and all your strollers and groceries, and everything else.
Now, keep in mind that we started this three-day test drive blind - we hadn't driven any other cars and all my research had been done online. And it turns out that we hadn't even started the car up before Peanut and I privately each had serious doubts about this being the car for us. (Before we drove it, we checked it out extensively inside and out - after all, you are committing to this particular car so you want to make sure that everything works like it's supposed to and all the features are there.) After driving it, we were even more sure that it wasn't what we'd hoped for. So we returned it the next day and started from scratch.
All those weeks of waiting and being faked out...just to realize that we should have spent an afternoon at a Mazda dealer checking cars out before deciding that this was the model we wanted. Lesson learned! Decide on a kind of car in person, then see if it's available at Hertz.
(I still think the program is great, and if they'd had the kind of car I ended up liking, I would totally have used them. It was weird that the first two cars didn't end up being available for us, but I think that was a fluke, and I appreciated that they were honest with us that the condition of both of those cars wasn't worthy of being sold. This isn't a sponsored or affiliated post in any way; I just think it's a neat option that not many people are aware of when it comes to car buying.)