How to buy a car online

7 steps to virtual car shopping

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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.

    Key insights

    • Once you know how much you can afford to spend on a car and sort out your financing plan, take some time online to research makes, models and features you like.
    • When you buy a car online, you don’t get the perk of being able to ask a rep questions in person, but you can filter for exactly what you want.
    • Even though it’s not as common to haggle for car prices online, it’s worth a shot if the car buying site doesn’t specifically prohibit it (or if you’re buying from an individual).

    7 steps to buying 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’re planning to finance the vehicle, think about how much money you can put down upfront and how much you can reasonably afford 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 plans available, these aren’t 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 a bank, credit union or another lender.

    » COMPARE: Best car loan companies

    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’ll be driving around a lot, 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.

    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

    Compare a few quotes from different sites. It’s important to understand all the fees associated with each, 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.

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

    » COMPARE: Carvana vs. Vroom vs. CarMax

    5. Ask the right questions

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

    Usually you’ll have an opportunity to chat with an online sales rep. Start with these questions:

    • 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?

    » COMPARE: Best online car buying sites

    6. Test drive new or used cars — or not

    You’d probably want to test drive at least three or four vehicles if you were buying in person, but 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 (if the car happens to be nearby), you can still request a test drive of the new or used car you’ve found online. If you’re able to get to the car to test it out, 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 — but trust your gut if something feels wrong. Be on the lookout for red flags, such as inflated pricing and missing vehicle history reports.

    » ARRANGE TRANSPORT: How much does it cost to ship a car?

    Many online car sites provide auto shipping with no-contact delivery services. 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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      How is buying a car online different from buying at 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 find the cars you want on your own.

      Shopping for a car online opens up your vehicle options rather than limiting them to the inventory a dealer has. The main difference between buying a car online instead of from a dealership: When buying in person, you would ask a salesperson questions; when buying online, 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 one. 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 with a traditional dealership, online car buying means 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’ll 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 offer shipping services for an additional or included fee, others require you to organize shipping services once you purchase the vehicle.

      Do cars come with a warranty if you buy online?

      A new car, whether you buy it online or in person, 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 you’re buying from an individual or an online auction, the chances of a warranty being included are slim. Ask about warranties in advance and do your research on the vehicle and car buying site before making a purchase.

      » MORE: How an extended auto warranty works

      Can you negotiate a used car price when you buy online?

      Sometimes you can negotiate a used car price, especially if it’s sold through an individual rather than a specific dealership (though some dealerships allow haggling).

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

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