How to Catch a Unicorn Part I- The rarer the unicorn, the faster they go!
One of my favorites was a 2008 Mercedes CL63 AMG with 50,000 miles, priced around $28,000. The CL63 was a $140,000, 500+ hp brawler when new. It lasted all of 20 minutes on the CarMax website and never surfaced again. Saw it on my phone and intended to save it to my favorites when I got home, but it was gone. Maybe I imagined it? How about a Porsche Cayenne GTS, also at 500hp? Gone in hours.
A 2008 Mustang Bullitt with only 4,000 miles in Phoenix? Gone the same day. Sometimes these cars pop back up a few days later in another town after a transfer and the buyer declines, like the 2010 Audi S6 with only 29,000 miles priced at $29,000. But there are few second chances for the real unicorns. When a car is inexplicably low in miles, low in price, and was limited in production or $100,000 or more when new, you need to be prepared to pounce when they pop their heads up.
Similarly, I have now tracked three cars that inexplicably increased in price overnight. A 2012 Mercedes CLS550 with less than 50,000 miles opened in Miami for $31,998 and caught my eye. Mercedes went to a twin turbo V8 to power the 2012 E, S, and CLS cars and bumped up horsepower from 380 to 400. The 2012 CLS was also the first revision to the platform since first produced. The next morning I logged on to find the price had increased to $33,998. Hmmm. The next day it was $35,998 and the day after that $37,998. What the hell? A week later it dropped back to $36,998 and later disappeared. During my search for Guether II a 2010 Mercedes E63 AMG with 49,000 miles opened at $33,998 – the same price as the 2007 Porsche 911 I put on hold the night before and giving me pause. But by morning it was $36,998, out of my range, where it remains as of this writing. Disappointed. I have been puzzled to see more than a few unicorns on my radar increase in price within 24 hours of posting, but only the 2012 CLS went up multiple times. I still don’t know why the cars sometimes open at one price only to increase quickly but I have some hunches. Would welcome the real story from CarMax someday. I wonder if cars are priced centrally, formulaically, based on the car, the mileage, the condition, and posted, and local dealers have the option of boosting the price based on their knowledge of the local market? Or, are they simply priced incorrectly with incomplete information with a correction made as soon as caught (see mislabeled cars and data cards elsewhere).
Either way, while I once only worried about unicorns getting bagged by others like me, albeit with quicker trigger fingers, I now had to worry about price increases that either frustrated me or worse, put the car out of reach. What to do? Did I mention I used to work for CIA? Head over to the transfers and holds and other dirty tricks page for a strategy.
How to Catch a Unicorn Part II – Saves, Alerts, Holds, Transfers, and Other Creative Logistics
The rare unicorns will vanish in hours, or maybe a day or two at best. Not much time to make up your mind and take action, especially for cars that are not local. Let’s talk about a few strategies to bag your car.
ALERTS: Not everyone has the time, patience, the obsessive compulsive gene, or the interest to pursue this hobby the way I do and scan the CarMax website multiple times a day looking for the rare or underpriced hot deal. CarMax allows you to create an online account, conduct a search, and save those search parameters and receive an email alert if a car that fits your bill comes on the market nationwide. Unfortunately the alert feature does not accommodate all of your search parameters, such as a price ceiling, so there are some false alarms for cars that otherwise fit the bill but are way over your price ranger. You can have CarMax email you as soon as a car pops, or gather them for a day or week and email you a summary. You want an immediate alert for a unicorn. And be aware, there may still be a lag between a car surfacing on the web and CarMax alerting you. I found the 2007 Porsche 911 and the 2010 Mercedes E63 AMG hours before I got the alert. But other cars came to my attention via the CarMax alerts in between my deep dives into their inventory. I have a half-dozen alerts set up at this time.
SAVED CARS: The second feature that bolsters my ability to stalk CarMax unicorns is the “Saved Cars” service. When viewing cars in the inventory, you can click on a heart on the photo and save that car to your favorites. I have 75 cars saved to my profile at this time. If the car is no longer available I get an email from CarMax that it’s gone, and the car is shaded out but remains on my Saved Car page. Be aware, when the car fades as no longer available the price is deleted from the listing. It’s important to either print out or save as a PDF the original listing, with price and location, or really go nuts and create a spreadsheet with the details. The reason to keep this information, and one of the best aspects of the Saved Car feature, is although the email says the car is no longer available, perhaps someone else (like you or me) put the car on Hold or requested a transfer! If the car is not purchased it will come back online as available, and no longer shaded out on your Saved Car page. I was able to see that the fully loaded (it had night vision!) 2011 BMW 550XI priced at $30,998 when I had it transferred for free (more on that below) to my dealer, which I declined to buy, showed up in three other dealerships as far away as Ohio, and was reduced in price to $28,998 before it sold. I also bought my 2010 Mercedes E63 after if inexplicably vanished in January and resurfaced in March – with 2,000 more miles on it. The lesson is to not lose hope when a unicorn vanishes from the CarMax website. Some find their way home, but the rare ones that disappear in hours almost never do. That’s why you need to act fast!
HOLDS: CarMax will allow you to put a hold on a car with the click of a button. Instantly. It doesn’t get any easier than that. I’ve put cars on hold at different times in Portland, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta, and Hartford (so far) while trying to figure out what comes next. If you have a great local sales rep like I do, he or she can put cars on hold for you and would prefer to do that in order to facilitate the transfer in. That said, I usually haven’t thought that far ahead on whether I want the car transferred or if I will go see it – I’m just playing defense and hoping it won’t get away. You will be asked to book an appointment to come look at the car, and CarMax gives you seven days to pick a time and date to come in. And with that, the car comes off the website and won’t move until you go see the car or call the dealership to remove the hold. Yes, a sales rep from the dealership with the car will email you within a day of placing the hold to ask how they can best serve you, and some have noted that I am not local. I have told them I just happened to be heading their way in a week on a business trip and was just lucky the car surfaced (it was true once), or that I understand the car is rare and I will fly to see it. I have planned to do that, too. Once the car is off the market you can catch your breath and figure out what comes next. (Multiple holds? Try it)
TRANSFERS: Another way to capture unicorn is to have a car transferred from another CarMax dealership to the one nearest you. You are under no obligation to buy. Some transfers are free, and others cost anywhere from $99 to $999 depending on the distance and routes. There are 20 CarMax dealers with over 5,000 cars in their inventory that are within free shipping distance from me in Northern Virginia. My dealership, Dulles, Virginia, is the largest with over 500 cars, and Charlottesville, Virginia is the smallest with only 127 cars. Transfers can take days are weeks, and the car is locked up for you once a sale rep initiates the transfer.
I have had cars transferred in for free and also paid for cars in from Miami, Raleigh, Hartford, and Atlanta (see The Hunt for Guenther II for details). When you pay to transfer, the money is not refunded if you choose not to buy, nor is it deducted from the price when you buy. The shipping charge is all yours, unless it is a free transfer. My CarMax dealer was quite fair, and refunded the shipping charges I paid when our unicorns fell through. Again, see the hunt for Guenther II for more. Please note that it is critical to have a sales rep walk out to a car before you commit to a transfer and determine whether the car is a smoker’s car or not, if that matters to you. CarMax has cars in the fleet that come from smokers, and for a non-smoker, the odor is powerful and will never go away.
I never liked the idea of paying to transfer in a car that I might not buy, and once considered a painstaking series of free transfers to try to move a car from Florida to Virginia. My thinking was that I could request a free transfer from Florida to Georgia, let the hold lapse, request a free transfer to South Carolina, let the hold lapse, and keep doing these short, free hops through North Carolina and into Virginia. I joked about it with my sales rep and he said, “You know we’d be on to you after the first one?” I said, “You know I wouldn’t do any of them in my own name until the last to Dulles, Virginia?” He thinks I am a peculiar buyer. He is right.
CREATIVE LOGISTICS: You can only have one free transfer underway at a time. You can only have one car on hold at a time. You can pay to relocate as many cars as you want. When I was pursuing the successor to Guenther I tried to orchestrate having three unlike cars on the same lot at the same time, drive them all, and make a decision. It almost worked.
CarMax tracks you by your phone number and email and links your searches, saves, holds, and transfers. When you test drive a car they capture your address. That said, it is possible to maintain an email linked to your cell phone, and an email linked to….a friend’s cell phone, and place multiple holds at the same time. It’s also possible to have others place cars on hold for you. Remember, a hold is only good for seven days. If you do nothing the car returns to the available fleet for all to see. When I waffled on the 2010 Jaguar XKR I paid to transfer in, another car (2011 BMW 550XI) became available within the free transfer range and I had it shipped in. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to release the Jaguar – I really wanted to drive both cars on the same day and make a choice. So a friend of mine went on-line, out the now available Jaguar on hold with an appointment a week away and bought me some time. The second car arrived, but I became paralyzed when an even better car surfaced in Raleigh, a 2010 Mercedes E63 AMG! But that would cost me $199 to ship in, and I could not time it for all three to be in place – I had to give something up. I decided I was forcing it and let them all go!
Unicorn Catch and Release. Conceivably, you could buy time to make a decision or compare with other cars and tie a car up indefinitely by putting it on hold for a week, releasing it, and having someone else put it on hold again for you (but in their name). Of course, you could also have friends request transfers for you – free or paid – to give you an opportunity to check out several cars at a time. But at some point you have to look your sales rep in the eye and come clean, and buy a car. It is not lost on me that my sales rep has hung in there with me for nine months so far (we could have had a baby in the time it’s taking me to find a unicorn) and invested a lot of time holding and transferring cars, and looking up warranty costs. I gave him a restaurant gift card at Christmas and intend to match his commission (a few hundred dollars) when I finally buy a car. He is my partner in my search, probably not unaware of my shenanigans, but not complicit either. I can feel his disappointment of the phone when I tell him I found a unicorn in some distant dealership late in the night and put it on hold, and need his help getting it free for transfer!
I should also note, depending on how special the car is, how deep your pockets might be, and how much time you have on your hands, consider placing a hold on a car and going to see it if cheaper than a transfer. My wife suggested I do that as she hated the idea of me buying cars sight unseen. I loved the idea of flying out to look at a car and if I liked it, buying it and making a road trip home. I explored that with a dealership in Portland, Oregon, and another in Phoenix, Arizona, but chickened out because I wasn’t convinced even if the cars were great they were what I wanted. Also be aware if you eat up the five-day full refund period driving back you’re out of luck. But for rare cars, at a deep discount, fly and drive may be a viable option. I just did this to snag Etta, my second unicorn, chronicled here.