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How to buy a car online

7 steps to purchase a vehicle on the web

Profile picture of Kathryn Parkman
by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team
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Shopping for a car online is quickly becoming the new normal. Online car buying sites make it easy to browse, purchase and order new and used cars from all over the country. However, instead of a physical test drive, you sometimes need to ask more questions and thoroughly review your options before deciding to buy your next car online.

How to buy a car online

First of all, you need to figure out how much you can afford. Once you decide what features are most important to you, compare the available options in your budget. Some, though not all, online car buying websites offer some kind of trial period — you can return the car for any reason during this time.

1. Set a budget

If you are planning to finance the vehicle, think about how much money you can put down upfront and how much you can reasonably afford to pay for each monthly payment. Knowing your budget before you start comparing models is helpful because it makes it easier to resist pressure from sales reps. As you set your budget, don’t forget to factor in costs for fuel, insurance and repairs.

If possible, look at the trade-in value of your existing car or consider selling it to use as part of the down payment.

2. Get preapproved for a car loan

While many dealerships and online car buying sites have financing options available, these are not your only options. Getting preapproved for a car loan at your bank or credit union helps you understand what you can reasonably afford and places you in a competitive buying position.

Depending on your credit score, you might be able to qualify for a financing program through your dealership’s lending partners. You can also compare your options from your bank, local credit union or another third-party provider. For more information, read our car loan guide.

3. Compare makes, models and features

There are several factors to consider when choosing a car to fit your lifestyle and needs. For instance, consider how many passengers you’re typically responsible for. If you have kids, you probably also want to consider cargo capacity — look for a car with four doors rather than a two-door coupe.

If you know that you will likely be driving around a lot, buying a car with good fuel economy could save you money in the long run. Depending on your budget, you may have the choice between a newer model with standard features or an older model with more premium features, such as blind-spot monitoring and adjustable lumbar support on the driver’s seat.

Finding the right car make and model is a critical step in the online car buying process. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can compare the different options in your budget by reading reviews, watching walk-through videos and learning more about each model’s features.

4. Shop around for car deals

Once you know which car you’d like to purchase, compare a few quotes from different sites. It’s important to understand all the fees associated with each site, such as buyer’s fees and shipping rates. Also, review the policies and buying processes of each site to determine which best suits your needs and preferences.

Keep track of the prices you find for different makes and models. You can sometimes use this information as a bargaining chip later as you negotiate a lower price with another dealer. If you’re shopping on a site you’ve been bought from before, ask about incentives for customer loyalty programs. Alternatively, you might be able to save some money through a customer referral program.

Thanks to the high demand for pre-owned vehicles and a shortage of new ones, used car prices may have peaked earlier this year. To get the best deal, it’s smart to consider options from at least three different car sites. You could start by comparing Carvana, Vroom and CarMax.

5. Ask the right questions

Don’t take a car listing at face value! Always ask the buyer questions about the driving and service history, previous owners, past repairs and other relevant questions. Having this information upfront can prevent mishaps and unexpected expenditures after the fact.

Usually, you will have an opportunity to chat with an online sales rep. Start with the questions below. For more information about questions to ask when buying a new or used car, check out our guide to online car buying sites.

  • What is the car’s ownership history?
  • Can I see the service records?
  • Has the car been in an accident?
  • Would anything prevent me from taking this vehicle on a long road trip?

6. Test drive new or used cars (or not)

You would probably want to test drive at least three or four vehicles if you were buying in person. However, sometimes it’s not possible to test drive a vehicle before you complete the purchase online. In this case, we suggest going through a seller that offers some kind of trial period, return policy or exchange program.

Traditionally, the test drive is a critical step in determining whether a vehicle is right for you. If possible and nearby, you can still request a test drive of the new or used car you’ve found online. During your test drive, also review the interior condition of the vehicle and the dashboard features.

7. Complete purchase

If the car is within your budget and you’re satisfied with the price and test drive, then go for it! However, you should trust your gut if something feels wrong. Be on the lookout for red flags, such as inflated prices and missing vehicle history reports. 

Many online car sites provide auto shipping with no-contact delivery services. For more information, read about how COVID-19 has changed the way people buy cars. Keep in mind that you may encounter additional fees tacked onto the end price for sales taxes, registration fees and vehicle shipping.

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Online car buying FAQ

What exactly is an online car buying website?
An online car buying website lets users from all over the world buy, trade and sell vehicles through the internet. Most often, these websites are monitored to ensure that only accurate information is listed about the vehicles.
How is buying a car online different from a traditional dealership?
Instead of having a dealership sales representative show you the available inventory on the lot, you’ll have to do the research and search for the cars you want on your own. Additionally, shopping for a car online opens up a buyer’s vehicle options instead of limiting them to the inventory a dealer has. The main difference between buying a car online instead of from a dealership is the majority of the steps are conducted through a website rather than in-person.

If you were buying a car in person, you would ask a salesperson questions. In the case of an online car buying site, the site’s search engine should do some of that work for you. If you don’t have any luck finding a car that meets your specifications, don’t give up. Instead, try a few other sites to see if you can find another one that works for you. If you have trouble finding matching cars on several sites, either wait a bit and try again or loosen the restrictions you’re using, starting with the least important feature.

Unlike a traditional dealership, you sometimes don’t get to test drive the car before purchase. Most of the better sites provide a generous return window, usually between seven and 30 days, during which you can return or exchange the vehicle for any reason. However, if you buy the car from an individual and something goes wrong, you will likely be at the mercy of your state’s lemon laws.

Can you buy a car online and have it delivered?
Yes. Cars can be bought online and delivered to your home. While some websites may offer shipping services for an additional or included fee, others require the buyer to organize shipping services once the vehicle has been purchased.
Do online cars come with a warranty?
A new car, whether you buy it online or in person, typically comes with an original manufacturer's (OEM) warranty. Used cars sometimes come with extended car warranties or are part of a certified pre-owned program, which is similar to an extended warranty.

However, if buying from an individual or an online auction, the chances of a warranty being included are slim. Again, ask about warranties in advance and do your research on the vehicle and car buying site before making a purchase.

Can you negotiate a used car price?
Don’t take a car listing at face value, even when buying online! Sometimes, you can negotiate a used car price, especially if sold through an individual rather than a specific dealership. Dealerships often allow car buyers to haggle used car prices as well.

On the other hand, some online car buying sites, such as CarMax, consider haggle-free, non-negotiable pricing a selling point. Before attempting to negotiate, learn everything you can about the vehicle, the vehicle’s history and the site you are buying from.

Bottom line: Is it safe to buy a car online?

Generally, yes, it is safe to buy a car online. However, even with the added convenience of buying online, it’s always vital to research vehicles in advance and thoroughly understand the car buying process offered from each website. When you buy a car off the web, make sure the person or dealership you’re buying from is legitimate. Consumer reviews are always a good place to start to see what other people think of a particular online car dealer.

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Profile picture of Kathryn Parkman
by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Kathryn Parkman believes everyone deserves easy access to accurate and comprehensive information on products and businesses before they make a purchase, which is why she spends hours researching companies and industries for ConsumerAffairs. She believes conscious consumption is everyone's responsibility and that all content deserves integrity.