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Why Do Car Listing Websites Let Dealers Post Deceptive Prices?

Illustration for article titled Why Do Car Listing Websites Let Dealers Post Deceptive Prices?
Photo: AP

As Jalopnik’s resident car buying expert and professional car shopper, I get emails. Lots of emails. I’ve decided to pick a few questions and try to help out. This week we’re talking about deceptive online pricing, finding a cheap car for a young driver, and also: What happens when you buy a car but it was sold to someone else?


First up, why do the major listing sites allow dealers to advertise prices that aren’t legit?

“I’ve come across a new thing in shady dealer prices for used cars. They advertise one price on the listing but then in the description it says “*The Internet Price is reflective after $1,995 down.” So the price is actual two grand higher than advertised.

I wonder if they do that just so that the KBB sticker displays “Great Price” and thus lures shoppers. Is this commonplace amongst dealers advertising online? How is this legal?”


As I’ve discussed before, used car pricing is sometimes trickier than new car pricing because it is more about finding the best value over the biggest discount. And by that, I mean analyzing which car within a certain parameter set is on the lower end of the pricing spectrum.

Because online listings compete against each other for leads, and some of these third-party websites like KBB and CarGurus have started using comparative data to label ads as a “good deal” or “above market,”some dealers are now trying to game the system by throwing out prices that will ping positive markers and hide behind fine print.

(Update: a representative from CarGurus reached out to Jalopnik to explain that they have an explicit policy that prohibits dealers from using this approach on their platform)

The question of legality basically comes down to whether or not the pricing stipulation is disclosed. If they put it in writing that “the internet price is reflective after $1,995 down,” the dealer is in the clear. It’s certainly a shady practice, and for me, that would be a red flag to take my business elsewhere.


But as for why the listing sites allow this, the answer is simple—the dealers are their customers. That is where the money comes from, and therefore the third party sites have no motivation to call their customers out on some “stealership” stuff when the subscription fees keep rolling in. Of course what this means is that even though the internet has changed the game, car shoppers still need to be vigilant and always pay attention to the details.

Next: What’s the best inexpensive car for a new driver that doesn’t have a ton of miles on it?

“I have now found myself in a strange predicament. My fiancé’s little sister’s car AND my fiancé’s car were struck on the side of the road where they were parked when we were gone on Mother’s Day. They were both taken out in one fell swoop by the same driver. My fiancé’s car was just barely not totaled, but her little sister’s car, Brad (named after the car insurance commercial), was deemed a total loss.

The insurance gave us $4,500 to cover her little sister’s next car, and I have no idea where to begin. I live in the Portland area, so I see everything from cars that have been modified into trucks, to 20-year-old Subaru Foresters that have 250,000 miles being referred to as “low miles for the year” in this price range. Portland is a great place, but the craigslist ads throw me for a loop.

I need help with finding a new car. The only stipulation is it needs to be easy for a young timid driver to drive to college for the next few years.”


Sorry to hear about Brad (the car) and this can be an overwhelming task because shopping for cheap cars is not easy. It’s really more about finding a car in the right condition, than focusing on a specific brand or model. While Subarus are great cars for the Pacific Northwest, as you have found ones in this price range have a lot of wear on them and despite their reputation for safety, a kid doesn’t really need an AWD crossover.

I would suggest focusing on a sedan or hatchback. You don’t want something too small, but you also don’t want something too big either. Honda, Toyota, Mazda all have good cars, but again these will likely be high mile examples, which may still be okay.


However, if you want something with more reasonable miles, check out some mid-size domestic sedans like a Ford Fusion or Chevy Malibu, as these are fairly durable, affordable and easy to fix. You can also likely find examples with lower miles on the clock.

And finally, what if you buy a car only to find out it was sold to someone else?

I bought a 2015 Volkswagen Polo Maxx. Signed a contract and paid a deposit. The car salesman said it will take three days for me to take ownership. Two days later he says the car was sold. Apparently, he was unaware that somebody else had bought the car already. What are my rights?


Since the Polo Maxx was never sold here in the U.S., I’m going to assume your purchase was somewhere in Europe. While dealership and contract laws may be different on the other side of the Atlantic, it seems that the dealership made a mistake and sold you a car not realizing that someone else had already closed that deal. These things happen.

The dealer is not going to repossess the car from the other buyer and sell it to you. Therefore, you have a right to get your money back and move on, but that’s it.


Got a car buying conundrum that you need some assistance with? Email me at!

Tom is a contributing writer for Jalopnik and runs He saves people money and takes the hassle out of buying or leasing a car. (

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Tom, you should do one of these on how dealerships abuse the filters by marking their slushbox cars as “manual” to show up in the searches that enthusiasts have carefully filtered. Deep into the narrative description you’ll see an “automatic transmission with manual override!” thrown in somewhere after the obligatory “easy highway miles” whatever that means.

They know that the vast majority of users don’t filter out by transmission type, but enthusiasts clearly do. So they don’t lose the hits on the bulk of buyers, but come up on the perfectly curated email alerts of enthusiasts.

Also... any way I can get my account approved so I’m not always a Pending comment?