Times are changing around car dealerships, with the internet responsible for many revolutionary changes in the car-buying process. Instead of spending days traveling from dealer to dealer looking for the car they want, then hours more negotiating a deal on the vehicle, today’s buyers and lessees can visit dozens of dealers without ever leaving home.
Buying a car online has many advantages over the traditional process. Few consumers will tell you they enjoy the face-to-face negotiations that still occur on car lots every day. Fortunately, nearly every step in the car-buying process can be completed online with much less stress. In most cases, though, a final trip to a dealership is still needed to go for a thorough test drive, to sign the paperwork, and to take delivery of the car. Even that part of the process is changing, however, with more dealers able to bring the car right to your home.
Electric-car builder Tesla has pushed the online car-buying process further than other manufacturers, with the entire purchase process able to occur online. Tesla retailers aren't actual car dealers, they're simply showrooms where you complete the purchase process yourself.
In this guide, we'll explore how to buy a car online. We'll mainly be looking at purchasing new or used vehicles online from dealerships in this article, so check out our guide to buying a used car for information about buying from a private seller.
How to Easily Buy a Car Online
- Set a Budget
- Get Preapproved for a Loan
- Find the Right Model
- Check for Car Deals
- Search the Inventory at Multiple Dealers
- Chat Online With Internet Sales Managers
- Take a Test Drive
- Finish Up at the Dealership
Before you start the online buying process, there are some tasks you want to take care of. First on that list is setting a budget. Without knowing how much you can spend, it’s hard to know what cars should be on your shopping list. Our car affordability calculator can help you narrow down the price of vehicles you should consider, while our guide to how much you should spend on a car will help you determine a monthly payment that fits your budget.
When figuring your budget, be sure to consider all of your car-related spending. If you still owe money on your current car, that money will need to be paid back, either before you buy a new ride or as part of your financing process. Not every vehicle costs the same to insure, so be sure to think about the cost of insurance for any models you’re considering. Our guide to auto insurance can help you determine the coverages you need.
Smart consumers know never to approach a car dealer, whether in person or online, without having a preapproved financing deal in hand. Not only does getting a preapproved loan help you set a reasonable car-buying budget, but it also gives dealers a benchmark deal they must beat if they want to arrange financing for your new or pre-owned car.
It’s easy to get a preapproved financing deal online. You can shop at banks, credit unions, and other lenders or choose a site that can get you offers from multiple lenders with just one application. Our article on online auto loans shows the pros and cons of online lending and how to get the best deal.
Get the Car Loan That's Right for You
Apply for financing today, and get up to four offers. Compare your options before visiting the dealership to make sure you get the best rate for you. It's free, quick, and easy.
Some buyers know exactly the car they want, right down to the color and trim before they even think about starting to shop. Others have no idea what they want and need some guidance to find a vehicle that fits their needs and budget.
Our new car rankings and reviews use the consensus opinion of the nation’s premier automotive journalists along with quantitative data on predicted reliability and safety to rank nearly every model you can buy. Our used car rankings and reviews add information about cost of ownership into the mix to help you find a car that fits your needs and is affordable to own.
If you want to get a closer look at the cars you're considering, go ahead and visit a dealership to check out the vehicles they have available. You may have to be a bit forceful with the salesperson when you say you’re just looking and you always have the ability to leave if you’re not comfortable. Sit in the driver’s seat of cars on your short list and check out their comfort and visibility. Request a test drive if you want to get a feel for the vehicle. Just be sure to stop short of talking about making a deal – that will come later.
Shoppers looking for new vehicles or certified used cars should check to see if there are any purchase or lease incentives available on the models they are considering. You can save thousands if you are able to take advantage of a cash rebate, low-interest financing offer, or subsidized lease deal.
You can find the best purchase incentives available on our new car deals page. Lease customers can explore our lease deals page to find offers with low monthly payments, small amounts due at signing, or both. Certified used car shoppers can find special financing deals on our used car deals page.
Not long ago, you needed to hop in your car and drive from dealer to dealer to see what was on their lots. Now customers can look online to check the inventory of both used and new cars at dealerships. The U.S. News car finder tool can show you which dealers have the vehicles you’re looking at in stock. The individual dealers’ websites provide even more detail about vehicle availability, colors, and options.
With new car purchases, you should talk to a local dealer even if the specific model you are considering is not in their stock. One may be in an upcoming delivery, plus dealers frequently trade stock with other dealers when buyers want specific models, colors, or features.
You can save some time by contacting multiple local dealers with one inquiry through the U.S. News Best Price Program. The program connects buyers and lease customers with local dealers offering prenegotiated prices. Buyers save an average of more than $3,000 when they use the Best Price Program.
Search Outside Your Area
Shopping online for a vehicle allows you to search for cars you’re considering in your local area – or even hundreds of miles away. It’s a good idea to look beyond your area to places and dealerships where you might get a better price. If you’re shopping for a full-size pickup, for example, check at urban dealers where they might not be as popular. Looking for a plug-in hybrid? Check some rural dealers where hybrids may not be in demand.
The next step in an online vehicle purchase is to establish an email or online chat with a dealership's internet sales department or internet sales manager. Dealerships frequently assign experienced people to the internet department, as they understand the potential sales the internet offers and know that consumers buying online tend to be more knowledgeable and savvy than those walking through the front door.
Your initial conversations will be focused on the kind of vehicle you want, whether they have it, or whether they can get it.
If you are looking at a used car, ask the dealer to provide a copy of its vehicle history report so you can see its accident, repair, title, and registration history. If the dealer won’t provide the report, get the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) and order a report yourself from Carfax or AutoCheck.
Eliminate Stressful Face-to-Face Negotiations
One of the greatest benefits of buying a car through a dealer’s internet sales department is you can eliminate the adversarial face-to-face negotiation process that terrifies many car buyers. Though successfully negotiating a price can save buyers a tremendous amount of money, the idea of face-to-face negotiation turns many people off.
Of course, the negotiation process will still happen, but it will occur through email and you’ll have a written copy of everything that was offered, plus time to fully evaluate it before you respond. You’re not limited to business hours, and there’s no pressure to get the deal done so you can go home. Remember that a buyer can't suggest a lower price after their first offer, nor can a seller offer a higher price after theirs.
The least important number in the negotiation for a new car is the vehicle's sticker price, or MSRP. Instead, your online research, including the buying insights at the end of many of our new car reviews, will give you an idea of the amount you should pay. In most cases, the purchase price will be a bit higher than you wanted it to be, and the dealer will accept a bit less than they wanted to get out of the sale.
It’s a common and accepted practice to take the offer you have and let other dealers know they need to match or beat the deal if they want you to buy from them.
If all goes well in the online negotiation process, you’ll have a deal in place, so very little needs to be done at the dealership other than getting a final appraisal on your trade-in, taking a test drive, and signing documents.
You need to take a test drive in the exact vehicle you are purchasing. Not all new cars are perfect from the factory, so you want to drive it before you buy it. Used vehicles need to be thoroughly checked out, even if they are being sold as certified used cars.
More and more automakers and dealerships have programs where salespeople can bring vehicles to your home for test drives. Hyundai’s Shopper Assurance program is an example of a program with at-home test drives. Getting a test drive at your home provides an excellent opportunity to drive the car on the roads you normally travel. Not all car companies offer at-home test drives, so you may need to visit a dealer for this step.
In most cases, you’ll still have to visit the dealership to complete the sale. You should have a nearly complete deal in hand from your online negotiations, with a set out-the-door sales price that includes all fees and taxes and financing either through your preapproved auto loan offer or the dealership's finance department.
If you have a trade-in, the dealer is going to want to check it out to make sure it is as you described it during your negotiation. If they come back with a trade-in value that is far lower than they originally offered, they need to provide a good reason for the change. If they don’t, it’s time to pull the trade-in out of the deal and sell it yourself to a private party, another dealer, or a used car superstore.
The final thing you'll need to do at the dealership is to sign the purchase paperwork. It is crucial that you read each document before you sign to ensure it is accurate and complete. Make sure the papers match the deal you agreed to online and no spaces are left blank. Never sign documents that are incomplete or incorrect, even if you are told they'll be corrected later. It's easy to change the paperwork before your signature is on it, but it's much harder once you've signed.
If a dealership changes any price quotes when you show up in person and refuses to honor the online agreement you came to, politely decline and find another dealer. Your most powerful negotiating tool is your ability to walk away.
While you are signing the paperwork, the dealer will likely try to sell you several add-on products, such as extended warranties, protection products, or gap insurance. Before you purchase any expensive add-ons, it's important to research both the product and the company behind them. Most dealer add-ons are also available from third parties outside of the dealership, where they can be much less expensive. Many lenders and insurance companies sell extended warranties, and you should compare them to the dealer's offer before you buy one. Before purchasing gap insurance from a car dealer, you should check with your auto insurer to see what they offer.
More Shopping Tools From U.S. News and World Report
Whether you choose to do your shopping online or at brick and mortar dealerships, the journalists and researchers of U.S. News & World Report offer an extensive library of resources to assist you in buying or leasing a great vehicle at a great price. It all starts with our new car rankings and reviews and used car rankings and reviews. They’re based on the attributes that consumers tell us are most important to their buying decisions and are frequently updated as new information emerges and new models enter the marketplace.
We’ll help you make important decisions, such as whether to buy or lease, whether to buy a new or used car, and explore the pros and cons of certified used vehicles. Our car affordability calculator helps you set a budget, while our car payment calculator shows you the monthly payment for different loan terms.