Buying a car can be one of the most overwhelming processes of adulthood—especially when you’re facing pushy dealers or pressure to purchase options you don’t need. Luckily, with online car retailers, you can buy exactly what you want while sitting on your couch. Here are some essential tips for buying a car online.
1. Before you begin your online car search, decide what you need.
The best tip for buying a car online is to go into the process knowing exactly what you require in a vehicle, not just what you want in the way of perks. Take a hard look at how the car will be used. For example, if you have four kids, buying a two-seater convertible probably isn’t the wisest idea. Other things to consider include how far you commute, how often you drive, and car accessories that you might want to splurge on (like seat warmers for a Chicago winter).
2 Determine your budget before you browse for cars online.
One reason why people choose to purchase their cars online is because there’s less pressure to spend more. But even if you’re cutting out the in-person dealership experience, you want to have a clear idea of your budget, including loans and the value of your trade-in vehicle, before browsing the new options. You should know what you can afford in terms of up-front costs, monthly car payments, and insurance so you don’t end up with a recurring obligation that hurts the rest of your budget.
3. Make a short list of potential cars that fit your requirements.
Once you know your vehicle needs and how much you want to spend, the Better Business Bureau recommends making a short list of the cars (including their makes, models, and optional accessories) that fit your criteria. You can browse the selections at online dealers’ websites or consult impartial reviewers like Consumer Reports.
4. Choose a reputable online car dealership.
By now, you’ll be armed with your research and ready for the next step in buying a car online. Finding a virtual car dealership that will provide excellent service, a trustworthy and transparent buying process, and the car that you want can be difficult, but there are a few things to look for. Ask about their return policy: They should have one clearly spelled out, but laws for returning cars vary from state to state. (If the car turns out to be a lemon, your state's "lemon law" may allow you to get your money back.)
You should also scope out the online dealer’s delivery methods. Some may drop it off at a local dealership for you to pick up, and some may deliver to your home. A car may also need to be shipped from another state to your area. Ask about the options and how much they cost.
When in doubt, ask friends and family for dealer recommendations, and check online reviews of the businesses.
5. See the car in person.
If possible, see the actual vehicle in person before buying it online. You might discover surprise stains or dents not mentioned in the online description. You could also test drive the car, which will give you the clearest picture of its maneuverability, safety features, and comfort level.
6. Request a vehicle history report for the car.
Getting a vehicle history report on the car you want to buy is not only wise, it's free. Using websites like CARFAX makes it easy—you put in the car's VIN number to obtain a record of its past collisions, parts replacements, and other factors that impact the value of your future ride. That way, when they say that the engine is brand new, you can verify it.
7. Beware of scammers when buying a car online.
Make sure you have a digital paper trail of your transactions in case there’s a dispute during or after your purchase, and use a credit card to pay for the vehicle. Never wire funds or complete bank-to-bank transactions—and if the dealer you’ve been working with asks you to pay in gift cards, run! Scammers will often ask for you to pay with these methods so you can’t get your money back.