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Shopping for a car in person can be a hassle, so it’s no surprise that more and more vehicles are being purchased online.
Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person shopping even more difficult, many people are looking to make their first online car purchase. Here are some tips to help you navigate the process — how to find the right retailer, how to find the right car, and how to decide if buying a car online is really right for you.
How to Buy a Car Online
Buying a car online is fairly similar to buying one in person. Here’s the process you should follow:
1. Research the Kind of Car You Want
Buying a car online starts with the same first step as if you were buying a used car in-person: research what kind of car you want.
Decide on the type. Is a compact sedan enough, or do you need a vehicle with more storage space? If you have multiple kids, a minivan, CUV, or SUV may be a better fit.
Think about what features you want in the car. Do you need a car with good fuel economy? If so, consider buying a hybrid. Do you like going skiing or canoeing? Then buy a car with a roof rack.
You can look up safety ratings through the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration. Sites like Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, Consumer Reports, and J.D. Power provide rankings of the best cars every year.
Look up the car on RepairPal.com and CarComplaints.com to see the most common types of repairs. A car that has transmission problems may not be a wise choice. You can also read reviews from Consumer Reports, but you may need to pay for a membership to access that information.
2. Organize Financing
Once you’ve picked out the car, decide how you’re going to pay for it. If you don’t have cash, you’ll have to take out a car loan.
When you’re buying from a third-party company or dealer, they may offer their own in-house financing options to save you time. But you should always get quotes from other lenders to ensure you have the lowest rate or best terms. Contact at least two other lenders, like your local credit union or bank.
If you’re deciding between cars and haven’t picked one yet, you can still get preapproved for an auto loan. Just know how much you plan on spending and what kind of monthly payment you can afford.
3. Choose an Online Car Retailer
Now that you’ve picked the vehicle you want and arranged financing, it’s time to start looking at where to buy.
Where to Buy a Car Online
When buying a car online, you can choose from a large company or private seller. Here are the most popular sites to browse when you start shopping.
eBay is one of the most popular ways to buy a car online, and features vehicles from both car dealerships and private sellers. Users can read reviews and only browse inventory from trusted sellers.
There are three ways to buy a car on eBay:
- Auction-style: Bid on a car until the auction is over.
- Make an offer: Some sellers let you negotiate the price.
- Buy it now: The seller sets a firm price with no negotiating or bidding.
Because eBay is such a popular market for sellers, the selection on eBay may be greater than on other car-buying sites.
You can filter the listings for local pick-up only, or nationwide if you don’t mind having the car shipped. Usually the buyer pays for all shipping costs, but sometimes dealers will offer free shipping within a certain distance.
With more than 200 locations, CarMax is one of the most popular places to buy a used vehicle. Their nationwide inventory make its easy to find a car. If you live near a CarMax location, you can even have a vehicle shipped to the local branch. Some cars can be shipped for free, but others will have a delivery fee. That fee can range from $99 to $1,999, depending on the car and the total shipping distance.
If you want to buy a car online, you have the option between home delivery and curbside pick-up. You can also ship the car and test drive it without buying — one of the few sites with this option. That means you don’t have to commit to a car without physically seeing it in person, though their 7-day return policy gives you the option to return a vehicle for a full refund if you’re not satisfied with your purchase. All CarMax vehicles also come with a 90-day/4,000-mile limited warranty.
Carvana is an online car-buying service meant to be a one-stop shop. Customers can pick out their vehicle online, arrange financing, wait for it to be delivered, or pick it up from one of the Carvana vending machines. The entire experience is done online.
Carvana also has a program where you can pick the car up in person from one of their 24 vending machines — and they’ll even provide a $200 flight voucher.
The site has a robust inventory, including popular makes like Toyota and Honda, as well as luxury brands like Tesla, Maserati and Porsche. Unlike other dealers, Carvana doesn’t sell brand new cars. However, it is possible to find cars with just a few thousand miles.
Before You Buy, Look at the CARFAX Report
Once you’ve chosen the car, do your own research by purchasing a copy of its CARFAX report. This shows the accident history, title status, lien information, how many owners it’s had and if the vehicle was used for commercial purposes.
To check the CARFAX, you’ll need the car’s VIN which should be provided by the site you’re shopping on. Some sites will even show you the CARFAX report for free. If that’s not the case, you’ll have to pay for it yourself. An individual CARFAX report costs $39.99, but you’ll pay less if you buy a three-pack or six-pack of reports.
Don’t skimp on buying a CARFAX report. A car is one of the biggest purchases you can make, so spending a little extra for peace of mind is worth the cost. If you buy a lemon, you’ll spend hundreds or even thousands more on repairs.
Pros of Buying a Car Online
Here are the benefits of buying a car online:
Online car retailers may have more generous return policies than traditional dealerships. Many in-person dealerships don’t allow returns, unless there are some major mechanical issues discovered immediately after purchase.
Sites like Carvana and CarMax have a seven-day return policy, even if your reason is something superficial like the paint color. You may have to pay a restocking or delivery fee, but it’s still better than being on the hook for a car you don’t like.
If you want to return the vehicle because of a defect, most sites will cover any restocking or shipping fees.
Like a dealership, many online vendors accept trade-ins — perfect for customers who hate selling their car to a private seller. They’ll often pick it up when they drop off your new vehicle. If you decide to return the car you bought, you can also request that they return your trade-in to you.
No Haggling Allowed
Some online car sites have fixed prices with no wiggle room. Consumers who hate negotiating will appreciate the no-haggle process.
Cons of Buying a Car Online
Here are the drawbacks to buying a car online:
When you buy a car online, you may have to wait for it to be delivered. Depending on the site, the car’s original location and your location, this can take between five days to two weeks. In some cases, you may end up waiting a month. You may get lucky and discover that the seller is near you, but don’t count on it.
If you don’t have a car in the meantime, you’ll have to rely on rideshare services, take public transportation, rent a car, or carpool with other people.
Short Return Period
Even though you can return a car you bought online, there’s often a strict seven-day return policy. This only gives you a week to have the car inspected by a mechanic and report any problems.
There may also be restocking and delivery fees when you return the car. For example, Carvana charges a $599 restocking fee.
Harder to Negotiate
As mentioned in the pros above, many online car sites don’t allow negotiating. However, this also means the listed price of the car is what you’ll pay. If you’ve always been able to save thousands with your smooth-talking skills, then you may pay more when shopping online. This also means you can’t negotiate more money for your trade-in.
Used car inventory is limited to what has been traded in. And right now, you can only buy new cars at dealerships. Some dealers may be offering mostly online experiences because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can I Buy a New Car Online?
In most states, you can only buy a brand-new car from a dealership. Online car vendors are only allowed to sell used cars.
If you prefer buying a brand-new car, then you can still shop online through a dealership and reach out to their internet sales department when you’re ready to purchase.
So far, Tesla is the only exception. You can buy a Tesla car at its own stores or online. This may signal new changes in the industry. Startups Rivian Automotive and Lucid Motors are pursuing a direct-sales model too.
Should I Buy My Next Car Online?
Buying a car online is becoming more popular — and necessary — because of the current climate, but you should still do your due diligence before buying a car. Make sure you read through reviews and complaints, and always get a CARFAX report.
You should also try to get financing through an independent lender because you’re likely to find a lower interest rate that way. Don’t assume that the first offer you get is the best one. Try to negotiate when possible.