How to Buy a Car Online

Published: June 9, 2017 - 9:00am EDT

Car steering wheel

The idea of buying a car causes a lot of people stress, especially since a car is a major purchase for most people. Once you make your payment and drive your car off the lot, what happens if you don't end up liking the car you chose? Or what if you see a better deal on a similar car elsewhere? There’s not much you can do about that once you make your payment and drive it off the lot.

In today’s world, more and more things are happening online, including the buying and selling of cars. Most major car dealerships have departments dedicated to online sales, because so much of the research of buying a car is done online. Some people are also very intimidated by the idea of visiting a car dealership, because there’s a lot of pressure to buy on the spot, especially if a salesperson dedicates time to giving you information.

If you are the kind of person who would prefer to do most of your car-buying online, know that it's entirely possible. The only steps you’ll need to do in person are the test drive and the finalizing of your purchase. Our guide to buying a car online will help you learn:

  • what you need to have prepared
  • the 10 easy steps for buying a car online
  • great tips for online price haggling
  • the safety tips you need to know to protect yourself

Let’s start with the basics: what kinds of websites can you use to buy a car online safely?

The 3 best ways to buy a car online

Dealerships

Car dealership website

Similar to the traditional way of buying a car, dealerships will help you get through almost the entire process of buying a car online. This is one of the most reliable methods, as certified dealers are very accountable to the public for what they sell. In addition, they have brick and mortar facilities you can visit if you ever have an issue with your vehicle.

Simply visit the general website of a dealership to start browsing cars for sale. When you’ve chosen one that you like, you can find the contact information of your local dealer on the website and get in touch with them. Here are some of the most popular online dealership websites that can get you started with the process:

Honda                   Ford                      Chevrolet                Toyota
Hyundai                GMC                      Kia                          Mazda
Jeep                     Dodge                    Nissan                    Volkswagen

Auction sites

eBay car auction

Auction websites are a great way to get a car, often at a bargain. Find the car you’re looking for (or something similar if you need one quickly), place a bid, and continue bidding to try to win the auction. Some websites will even represent you at an auction in real life, bidding for you up to your maximum. Here are some of the most popular online auto auction websites:

1. eBay

eBay.com is one of the most popular ecommerce websites, and it gained its popularity mainly through its auction-style sales. These sometimes allow users to get items for much cheaper than retail prices by bidding on them. If you’re interested in buying from an eBay auto auction, then check out eBay Motors here.

2. AutoAuctionMall

Many real-life auto auctions will only sell to licensed dealers. AutoAuctionMall helps you get around that by representing dealers at auctions, but bidding on YOUR behalf. If you end up winning an auction, the dealer buys the car for you and then sells it to you at the auction price. Simply visit AutoAuctionMall.com, register and create an account, search for the car you want, and then authorize a bid.

3. Ally SmartAuction

Ally, one of the fastest-growing banks in the U.S., has a SmartAuction feature for car auctions. You can search through an inventory of thousands of vehicles, make offers on cars you’re interested in, and hope you win the auctions. Ally also offers a virtual showroom (so you know exactly what you’re bidding on), as well as fixed-price evening and weekend sales!

4. SalvageBid

SalvageBid.com is a great website that, like AutoAuctionMall, represents you at auctions. A car is opened up for “preliminary bidding” before the auction, and each user places a bid for the maximum amount they would be willing to pay. Those users are then represented by SalvageBid at the auction, where they will bid up to each person's maximum bid.

Classifieds

Craigslist used car advertisements

Often the cheapest way to buy a car, another great option is to use an online classified advertising website. You'll more frequently find used cars on classifieds sites, but still might sometimes find brand-new ones. Classifieds are a great way to buy a car directly from a seller, with no strings attached. You can get a great deal, and even drive the car before you use it! However, you have to take a car as it is, and you don’t really have any guarantee about its longevity.

Make sure you check out our article on how to stay safe when shopping with online classifieds so you don’t run into any problems!

What you need to know before buying a car

Car keys

What kind of car would suit your needs?

This is one of the first things you should think about when you’re considering buying a car. Understanding the reasons why you want to – or need to – buy a car will help you make good decisions as you work through the process. Ask questions like:

  • What kind of car do I need for my daily life?
  • Am I buying this car because I need it, or because I want it?
  • How many seats do I need?
  • Is the car for me, or for me and my family?
  • Do I need a car that’s efficient with gas?
  • Are safety features a top priority for me?

Once you have answers to these general questions, you can start making more specific decisions about your soon-to-be car.

Are you buying a new or used car?

This will greatly affect the way you go about buying your car and, most likely, what your budget and timeline will be – and vice-versa! Buying either type of car comes with its own difficulties and strategies, but it’s important to pick one or the other right away, and stick to your decision.

Some great websites to use for buying a new car include eBay.com, AutoTrader.com, and Unhaggle.com.

Some of the best spots to find a great used car online are Craigslist.org, Kijiji.ca, and LetGo.com.

What is your budget?

When you start looking at cars online, you’re probably going to be overwhelmed by the options available to you. For example, many car companies have variations of their popular models that have additional features or are "luxury models,” or models with more features, and as you look and continue to do research, you’re only going to find more and more options available to you. That’s why it’s important to know your budget right away, and try not to be flexible with it. Otherwise, you may end up spending a lot more money than you originally set out to.

Will you be buying the car outright, or will you need financing?

Once you establish a budget, you need to make sure you actually have the funds to pay for the car. Financing a car is very common, and allows you to make small monthly payments over time. However, many people also save up so they can buy the car outright; it's much more of a financial commitment upfront, but saves you money in the long run.

What does your timeline look like?

How much of a rush are you in to get your new car? Are you upgrading from your current car and have some time to wait and find the perfect vehicle, or do you need a replacement for your broken-down car right away? Think about how much time you have to make your decisions: is it days, weeks, or months? Then, be sure to plan out how long you need to complete every step in the purchase process.

No matter how short your timeline is, though, be sure to never skimp on your research. Making an uninformed decision will likely cost you far more than waiting until you have all the information you need to make the best choice for you.

10 easy steps for buying a car online

Front-right of a car

1. Do your research.

This should always be your first step, as well as the one that you commit the most effort to. Car makes, models, features, safety, gas efficiency, and consumer reception are all very important factors to research. You need to know what's out there, and you need to see how well it lines up with what you want and what is best for you. Most people who are satisfied with the cars that they buy spend months doing research before they make any further decisions.

Here are some factors you need to consider when you’re looking at cars – before you really start looking:

  • Safety ratings
    (check out this great informational article from AutoTrader on understanding car safety ratings)
     
  • Gas efficiency
     
  • Best-in-class ratings
    (EURO NCAP publishes a list each year that highlights the best-in-class cars)
     
  • Consumer reception and ratings
     
  • Value of car compared to cost

2. Determine your budget.

As we mentioned before, determining your budget before you set your heart on any one car is key. Once you have done your research and have a better idea of the types of cars you’re looking for, you’ll have a good general idea of how much those cars cost. When you choose a budget, you need to stick to it, already keeping in mind all of the potential fees that will be involved.

Budget

Make sure you consider:

  • The maximum amounts the cars you’re interested in are selling for
  • How much money added features, such as power locks and heated seats, will cost
  • Which additional features you absolutely need for your vehicle, and which ones you are willing to sacrifice to fit your budget

3. Choose a car.

Once you know what kind of car you want and how much it will likely cost you, it’s time to make a decision. This step may take the longest, but it’s also very important. You’re (hopefully) going to have this car for a long time, so you want to make sure you take the time to make as informed a decision as possible.

It’s a good idea to make a chart comparing some of the final cars you’re interested in, so you see exactly how they stack up against each other. Once you have a car in mind, it will be much easier to start looking for the place to buy from that’s going to get you the best deal.

4. Figure out your financing.

You may already know your budget, but you need to know whether or not you have the money available to outright buy the car you've chosen. This may be easier if you’re buying a used car, but regardless, you need to make sure you have your finances in order before you start approaching dealerships or sellers.

This helps to prevent you from missing out on getting a car that you're in love with. And, obviously, there’s no reason to be getting into a final sale position with a car if you aren’t ready to make the financial commitment.

5. Check local availability.

After you’ve completed all the initial work, it’s time for the fun part – shopping! Start out by checking the local availability of the car you’re looking for. Visit the websites of all the dealers in your area, and see if they sell the car you’re looking for. Make sure to check slightly outside your city, too, because other dealers may offer better prices when you contact them. Or, they may be selling the model you want at a discount for reasons that don’t affect the dealer closer to you. It may be worth the further trip out!

6. Contact dealerships for price quotes.

Many “starting” prices for cars will be listed online, but you will need to actually contact the dealers to get price quotes. Make sure you’re asking for price quotes including the added features you want with the car. Usually, you can find the contact information of those qualified to give you quotes and actually sell you cars in the sales department section of a dealer's website. At the very least, contacting the dealer's customer service department will put you in touch with someone who can help you.

Remember that, at this stage, you still aren’t ready to make a purchase. So make sure you let the salesperson know that you won’t be signing any papers. You’re simply looking to get an idea of what you’re going to need to spend to get the car you want, and then go from there.

7. Test-drive cars (if you want to).

This is more of an optional step, but we would definitely recommend it. Up until this point, you’ve been able to complete most of the car-buying process at home. But for this step, you will have to leave the house and go to a dealership to try driving the different cars you’ve fallen in love with. This will help you determine whether that car that looked good on paper is what you really want to drive in practice.

Man driving a car

8. Haggle for a price until you get an acceptable quote.

Once you’ve settled on the specific car you want, you need to choose which dealer (or seller) you want to purchase it from. However, remember that the sale price of a car is totally negotiable, and that you’re in a position of power in this respect because everyone wants to be the one who makes the sale to you.

Meet with as many different salespeople as you can until you get a price that you think is acceptable to you. Remember, you can always say no to a deal and then come back to it later. Keep haggling until you find the deal that’s right for you: one that fits in your price range and sticks to your budget. Be sure to check out our list of tips for haggling and negotiating online car prices later in this article.

9. Negotiate for financing, and decide if you want to trade in your old car.

Now that you’re ready to make the commitment to buying a car, you can negotiate your financing. If you’re paying for the car in full up front, you probably won’t need to do this. But if you need financing, the sales department will make you offers on rates for your financing over time. Be sure to negotiate a fair rate that you can afford, and see if you can get any money taken off the price of your new car by trading in your old car (if this is an option for you).

10. Sign the paperwork and pick up your car.

If you've worked everything else out, you’re ready to go get your car! Again, this is a step that will require leaving the house, as you will need to sign the paperwork and get the keys to your new vehicle in person. Make sure to carefully review the terms of your contract, especially if you are financing the car, and ensure that all of the terms meet the conditions you previously negotiated.

Be sure to bring in paper copies of your previous correspondence with the sales department. That way, if anything is out of order, you can prove that you were quoted or offered specific rates or features. This can be especially useful if the person you have been dealing with online is not present at the dealership when you go in to sign the paperwork.

And that’s all there is to it! Make sure you follow these steps to make sure you get the best car that you can for your budget! If you want some more tips, we’ve got some hints below on how to haggle for a great price when you're negotiating online!

Tips for online price haggling

Signing a contract

1. Compare prices from different places.

This is one of the best ways to come to a negotiation from a position of power. If you don’t know what specific cars are selling for in your area, how can you expect to know if you’re getting a good deal? When you're doing your preliminary research, check out what’s being offered – and what has recently sold – at dealerships in your vicinity. This will help you find an average price point.

2. Ask which fees and options are included in the price.

This is very important when you are asking for price quotes. Often, a “quote” won’t include additional fees, taxes, or charges for upgrades you want on your car. Make sure that, from the start, you know the all-inclusive prices of the cars you have your eye on. That way, you won't be surprised by any "hidden" costs during the negotiation stage, by which point it may be too late to back out of the sale.

3. Look for other financing options before approaching the dealer.

Financing your vehicle with the dealership is not your only option! If you have a good credit rating, you may be able to get even better rates from a bank loan or from a credit union. At the very least, exploring these options will give you rates to compare to the ones the dealer offers you with their financing options.

This gives you the power in the negotiation, because you may be able to get the dealership to reduce their interest rates or monthly payments if you can prove that you can get better ones somewhere else!

4. Focus on APR for financing, not the monthly payments.

The APR (or Annual Percentage Rate) is the interest rate for an entire year, rather than just the monthly payments. This will help you think about how much money you’re going to need to actually contribute to your car payments over the year, and whether you’re actually getting a good rate for your financing or not.

5. Know the value of a good deal on your car before you start the haggling process.

Adding all of these tips together, you should have a pretty good idea of how much the car purchase is going to cost you, and what you need to do to get to a position of power at the start of the haggle. Knowing all of this information before you start haggling means you won’t be taken advantage of, and you will get a great deal on your car.

Safety tips for buying your car online

Car manufacturing plant storage

1. Make sure to still purchase your car in person.

You should never send scanned documents to a dealership over the Internet in any way, especially if they contain your signature. Sending out your signature online is a huge risk to your security, as anyone could print and re-use your signature to sign any kind of document. Nor should you send electronic payment for a car directly to a seller, at least without seeing the car and knowing that you'll be able to drive it immediately after you pay for it.

It’s also very important to bring someone you trust with you if you are purchasing a car directly from a non-dealer seller. If you're taking it for a test drive, have a friend follow in a car behind you to make sure you are alright. There have been instances of people claiming to sell cars, but their true intentions have been to use test drives or negotiation meetings as a way to kidnap, rob, or otherwise harm unwary buyers.

2. Don’t give out personal information until you verify who you’re speaking to.

Simply asking for price quotes on a vehicle –including information on added fees or upgrade charges – should not require you giving out your personal information, even to a dealership. And if you’re shopping for your car online using a classifieds website, never give out your personal information to the seller until you're finalizing the purchase.

Until you’re signing the paperwork or negotiation for financing, there’s no reason to give out information such as your full name, address, telephone number, social security number, credit card number, or banking information. When you finally do give this information out, be sure to verify that you're speaking to the actual person who is selling you the car. The best thing to do is to visit them in person, but if you can't for some reason, test them with questions about your prior communications when you contact them.

3. Make sure to get everything in writing.

Any quotes you ask for should always be provided to you in writing. So even if you speak to a salesperson over the phone, ask them to summarize the information they have given you in an email. This will prevent any issues down the road when you’re negotiating for a deal, as you can prove that a particular salesperson offered you a car at that price.

It also helps particularly when you’re shopping for cars online, as when/if you actually visit the dealership, there’s a chance you may be dealing with someone different than who gave you the information when you were shopping online.

4. Read reviews online and learn to recognize when a review is legitimate.

Reading detailed online reviews of vehicles is a great way to determine whether a car may be for you or not. However, you must remember that not all reviews are written by people who have actually owned the car. Online reviews could be biased in order to sponsor a certain type of car, or damage the reputation of another. Some could be just downright bogus, with no other purpose than to trick you – rather than being written by an actual unbiased consumer.

Car review

Ask these questions to determine if an online car review is legitimate:

  • Is the review entirely positive? Is there any negative feedback or criticism?
    Why it might be fake: If there are no criticisms, then the review is most likely biased in order to sell more of this type of vehicle.
     
  • Is this a review of only one vehicle, or are multiple vehicles from many brands reviewed on this site as well?
    Why it might be fake: If only one car is being reviewed, it’s more likely that the review is to help sell (or boycott) that type of vehicle. If the website reviews other vehicles from other brands as well, it’s much less likely to be biased.
     
  • What is the background of the writer, and are they really a consumer?
    Why it might be fake: A consumer would write a review to help other consumers. Someone who is being paid to write the review wants instead to benefit whoever is paying them, be it the brand they are writing about (if the review is overly positive) or a competitor brand (if the review is overly negative).
     
  • Does the writer actually own this car?
    Why it might be fake: If the reviewer doesn’t actually own this car, they might not have a very good understanding of its mechanics and driveability.
     
  • Are there advertisements for other products on this site?
    Why it might be fake: If there are a lot of advertisements or product placements in a review, especially for a certain brand, chances are the review is sponsored. At the very least, the writer may stand to make money from you purchasing these other products.

5. View real photos of the vehicles, not stock photos.

Look online for photos of the vehicle from people who own the car or are looking to buy it. Photos on dealer websites are often altered to display the car with all of its best upgraded features. So, instead, try to find images of the car you want to buy that show roughly the amount of upgraded features that you want or can afford. This will give you a much better idea of what you’re paying for.

Stock photo of a Toyota Corrola next to real image

 

And that’s what we can tell you about buying a car online. Remember that your safety and privacy should be your number one priority when looking online, and you can always call into a dealership to verify a deal you’re being offered!

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