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8 Tips for Buying a Car Online

buying car online
Buying a car online makes it easy to avoid the high-pressure sales tactics of a dealership, but it also comes with its own set of pitfalls. Aslan Alphan/Getty Images

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If you've shopped for a car recently, chances are, you've wondered if there's a way to bypass the traditional car dealership. Some car manufacturers are making it easy to avoid the high-pressure sales tactics of a showroom floor, in the hopes of attracting new customers, while other services tout the ease and convenience of shopping for a car the same way you'd shop for dog food — online.

We're not talking about buying from a conglomerate site like eBay Motors, which is mostly individuals selling cars the same way they sell anything else on eBay. We mean using the internet to shop for — and buy — a car and how that's different from the traditional dealership experience. But how can you feel OK buying a car you haven't test-driven? What about buying a car sight unseen? Is it risky? We've got all the answers — and some great tips for buying a car on the internet. Some will apply whether you're buying from an online car vendor, like Carvana or Vroom, or using the online services of a regular car dealership or service like CarMax.

1. Research Is Still Key

This step is still where you have to start (meaning it's no different from if you'd planned to buy or lease a car from a dealership). Before you really start daydreaming about having a shiny new car in the driveway, it's important to determine the kind of vehicle you need and can afford, especially if you're on a tight budget. Research will help keep your expectations in check with reality, and from there, you can start to narrow down the cars on the market that meet your goals and fit your price range. Car manufacturers want you to fall in love with their latest model and decide you must have it, but a five-figure impulse buy just isn't a good idea.

2. Decide Whether to Work With a Dealership

You may have been drawn to the idea of buying a car online thanks to sites like TrueCar or Carvana, which can help you buy new or used cars over a computer without personally interacting with a dealership salesperson. These sites can offer a variety of vehicles from different manufacturers and at different price points. However, if you've done your research and narrowed down your list to one or two possibilities, it might be easiest or cheapest to stick with the traditional dealership. Simply track down the contact information for the internet sales department (most dealerships have one), and fire off an email to them asking for quotes on the vehicles you're interested in.

This is also when your research will come in handy. For example, if the car you want is at the end of its model year and the dealership has a lot in stock, you're in better shape than if you're heading into summer and you want the hot new sports car that just came out. In any case, you're not bound to a purchase regardless of the dealership's response, and you have the option of comparing quotes from multiple dealerships, so it can't hurt to ask.

3. Consider the Test Drive

If you're planning to buy your car online for the main purpose of avoiding a dealership, keep in mind that it'll be a challenge to get a test drive unless you're willing to be flexible. If you're working with a dealership's internet salesperson, you can schedule a test drive of the vehicle you want (or one like it) but it'll be hard to avoid engaging with dealership staff while you're there.

If you're going with a third-party service and a test drive is important to you, bear in mind that not all online car services can accommodate test drives. In the case of a new car, you can still drive one at a local dealership, but it won't be the car you're buying and it's probably the exact kind of hassle you're shopping online to avoid. And in the case of a used car you can't see or drive, you'll be taking some serious chances.

4. Get a Vehicle History Report, But Don't Pay for It

CARFAX is the standard for used vehicle history reports. The service provides a detailed report of how many owners a car has had (though this can also include sales or transfers between different dealerships) and how many accidents a car has been in. Just be aware a CARFAX isn't always accurate or complete due to clerical and insurance errors.

Most dealerships will provide CARFAX reports for used cars to demonstrate transparency about the car's condition, so you don't usually need to buy one yourself. A good CARFAX report isn't necessarily an all-clear to buy a car, and a less-than-stellar report doesn't always mean the car will have problems. But if the dealership is unwilling to provide a copy of the report, that's almost always a bad sign.

5. Have Used Cars Independently Inspected

This step is especially important if you're buying a used car online long-distance, from a dealership or from a private seller. Tom McParland, a car-buying consultant and Jalopnik columnist, has advised that even a car advertised as "certified preowned" can have problems, so if you don't have the mechanical knowledge to inspect a car yourself or you aren't close by, it's worthwhile to arrange to have the car looked over by an independent mechanic for extra peace of mind. If the seller doesn't want to bother taking the car to a shop, there are services that will go to the car's location for an inspection.

6. Look for a Return Policy

Carvana is one online car-buying service that offers a seven-day return policy. Though Carvana won't disclose how often customers take advantage of the policy, the company says the policy helps provide peace of mind to customers. "We call every customer on the sixth day to check in, see how things are going, and if they are happy, we're happy," Amy O'Hara, Carvana's associate director of communications, says via email. "If they have questions, concerns, or want to return the vehicle or swap it for another one on the site, we're there to work with them to ensure they have an exceptional experience." This can be a valuable option if your online shopping experience doesn't meet your expectations.

7. Decide How You'll Get Your New Car

If you're buying a car through a dealership's online sales department or from a third-party service, they might deliver the car right to your home or place of work, which is pretty cool. After all, you've done the hard part, and now you can sit back and enjoy while the seller literally goes the extra mile. Not all dealerships provide this perk, however, and while some third-party services include delivery in the price of the car, others charge a separate fee.

8. Consider Car Subscription Programs

If you like the idea of managing your car "ownership" experience entirely online, but don't especially care about owning a car, a subscription service might be right for you. Car subscription services are fairly new and, so far, most common from luxury automakers like Volvo and Porsche, as well as a number of third-party services. Most of these services currently operate only in certain metro areas, but if there's one near you, it can be a convenient way to get access to a nice, new car for a monthly fee, rather than buying one outright. Some car subscription services even include insurance and maintenance.

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