How to buy a car online

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In a Nutshell

You can avoid spending time in an auto dealership by buying your next car online. This step-by-step guide for navigating the process covers everything from scheduling test drives and trading in your vehicle to handling financing and negotiations.

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Buying a car used to require a trip to the dealership. Haggling was a hallmark of the experience, and you could count on going back and forth with a salesperson about things like pricing and interest rates.

Then along came the internet. Today it’s possible to handle most, or all, of the tasks associated with purchasing a new or used car from the comfort of your living room.

You’ll generally have two options during the online car-buying experience: purchasing the vehicle from your local dealership’s internet sales department or buying your car from an online platform.

Regardless of how you choose to buy your car online, the steps listed below can help make the process smoother.



Step 1: Do your research

Compile a short list of potential cars and thoroughly research each one that makes the cut. Keep in mind that the models on your list should be reflective of your needs as a car owner.

For example, if you’re a parent with three kids, your vehicle choices might be more influenced by priorities like cargo space and cabin roominess.

You can use manufacturer websites to get a sense of what each model has to offer. These websites often provide you with photos and a list of each model’s standard and optional features. They may even let you take a virtual tour of each car’s exterior and interior.

You can also get a rough estimate of each car’s price from this research. That’ll be helpful, because before you get too deep into the process, it’s a good idea to figure out how much car you can afford.

Finally, turn to third-party automotive websites like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book to see reviews that may describe strengths and weaknesses of a vehicle you’re considering.

Step 2: Decide whether to schedule a test drive

Even though you can learn about many aspects of a vehicle online, there are benefits to spending face time with the car you’re considering.

If you’re particular about things like comfortable seats or smooth handling, a test drive can help you decide if a particular car fits the bill.

If you’re buying from a dealer’s internet sales department, you may be able to schedule a test drive at the dealership. Confirm ahead of time that the dealership has the vehicle you want to test drive in stock.

Take note: Online platforms have varying policies regarding test drives. For example, Nowcar, a company that sells new vehicles online, doesn’t provide test drives at all. But Shift, an online seller of used vehicles, offers delivery that allows you to take a test drive at home or at work.

You can also consider test driving a vehicle at a local car dealership and then make the purchase from an online platform.

Another option is to rent the model you’re interested in for a couple of days, if you can handle the rental fee. Going this route will allow you to spend lots of time in the car and drive it on streets that are part of your daily commute.

If the vehicle doesn’t live up to your expectations after purchase, certain online platforms may provide a short window during which you can return it. If this is an option you want, make sure to check the terms before buying.

Step 3: Decide if you want to apply for preapproval

When buying a car, you can choose to finance the car or pay for some or all of the vehicle price outright.

If you’re financing the vehicle, you can wait to negotiate directly with the seller or apply for preapproval for a loan beforehand from a third-party lender like a bank or credit union. But remember, preapproval is conditional and doesn’t guarantee loan approval.

Contact several lenders to shop around and compare terms, like interest rates, financing terms and maximum loan amount. This can help you save money in the long run.

If you’re buying a car online directly from a dealership, you may consider giving the dealership a chance to beat the rate that you saw from another lender. (Some lenders may allow you to apply for an auto loan online.)

Searching and applying for an auto loan: How to get it right

Step 4: Negotiate pricing and choose a car

Now that you’ve made an informed decision about your ideal car, it’s time to nail down a fair price.

If you’re buying from a traditional dealership’s internet sales department, consider sending an email letting it know the year, make, model and trim of the vehicle you’re looking for, along with any optional features you’d like to add.

Some dealer websites may include an option to quickly inquire about particular vehicles.

Ask the dealer to provide a price quote that shows all relevant fees and the total payment required, including if any additional fees would apply in the case that the vehicle is financed through the dealership. It can also help you negotiate with multiple dealers to see if anyone will lower their price.

Third-party websites like Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book offer pricing tools that allow you to see what shoppers in your area are paying for a particular model. This information can serve as a guide as you evaluate prices from different sellers.

Things can be simpler if you’re buying from an online platform since a lot of the information is right in front of you. And if you prefer the certainty of knowing the purchase price of the vehicle upfront without the haggling experience, you might look for an online car company that sells at a fixed price.

Step 5: Trade in your existing vehicle

If you’re making your purchase from a dealer’s online sales department and want to trade in your existing vehicle, you may still need to make a trip to the dealership. During this visit, your car will be assessed and appraised, and the dealer may make an offer on the vehicle.

You can get an idea beforehand how much a dealer may give you for your trade-in, in the case that the dealership offers an online tool to estimate the value of your current vehicle.

Things are different with online platforms. First of all, not all online platforms handle vehicle trade-ins. But for ones that do, the process may be able to be handled online depending on the company.

Step 6: Collect your car

Now comes the fun part — getting your newly purchased car.

If you’re purchasing from a dealer’s online sales department, you can get in touch with the dealer to determine next steps. For example, the dealer may ask you to schedule a time to sign the papers in person and then pick up your vehicle.

If you’d rather not visit the sales office, some dealers will drop your car off at your home or workplace. You may be able to sign paperwork during this visit. Not all dealers provide this service, so ask beforehand to find out if this option is available.

If you’re buying from online platforms, the vehicle will typically be delivered to your home or office.

Whether you pick up your car at the dealership or have it delivered directly to you, inspect your new purchase carefully to make sure it has no damage and is equipped with the options you selected. You can then sign on the dotted line and enjoy driving away in your new ride.


Bottom line

You can save time by buying your next vehicle online. Buying your car online also may help you avoid a sales pitch from the dealer and potentially stressful face-to-face negotiations. Just make sure you do your homework: figure out how much car you can afford, shop around for the best car and financing deal for you, and make sure you’re getting what you’ve paid for.