9 steps to buy a car online

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In the wake of COVID-19, the practice of buying cars online has skyrocketed among Americans. It’s a development that’s likely here to stay.

Many dealerships now have “internet sales departments” or are in the process of expanding their online shopping options to make it easier than ever before for you to research, negotiate and finalize a car purchase from the comfort of your sofa.

“Some dealerships are adding new online digital platforms that allow consumers to select a model, trim level, color, options, get approved for financing, and even negotiate the prices of trade-ins,” says Mike Quincy, autos tester and writer at Consumer Reports.

Here are some of the steps to take when car shopping from your computer.

How to buy a car online

Consumers have easy access to an immense amount of information to aid in the online buying process, from the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) to trade-in values, financing, incentives, inventory, expert ratings, and user reviews. Use all of this information to your advantage to be an informed shopper when buying a new car online.

1. Set your budget

Your first step should be determining how much you can afford to spend. This includes calculating such things as fuel costs and car insurance, as well as identifying how much of a down payment you will bring to the table. All of these things contribute to the ongoing monthly cost associated with owning the vehicle.

Your budget calculations should also take into account the interest you will pay for a loan, as this will also influence your monthly payment and your overall cost for the car. Buyers who have higher credit scores will be offered more competitive interest rates than buyers with lower credit scores.

Insider tip: Quincy advises to make at least a 20 percent down payment and spend no more than 10 percent of your monthly household budget on all vehicle expenses, including maintenance and insurance.

2. Get loan preapproval

To get the best deal on a car loan, it’s often a good idea to research auto loan financing and get preapproved by a lender before approaching any dealerships. There are many options buyers can use to obtain financing, including banks, local credit unions or online lending platforms that provide options from a variety of lenders all at once for your review.

Another benefit of having loan approval in place before shopping around is being able to use that loan offer as leverage with car dealers when negotiating a deal.

“When you’ve agreed on a price, show the dealer your financing and ask if they can beat that rate,” says Matt DeLorenzo, senior managing editor for Kelley Blue Book. “Sometimes dealers have little-known incentives attached to manufacturer-sponsored financing, which could save you money.”

You should take the dealer financing only if the rate offered beats what you’ve qualified for from an outside lender.

Insider tip: By prequalifying for a loan in advance, you’ll know what interest rate you’ll pay, which plays a significant role in how much your monthly payment will be and how much you’ll pay out of pocket over the life of the loan, DeLorenzo says.

3. Find the right car for you

Most people already use the internet to determine what type of car they want and find out as much as possible about the make, model and options. Websites offer expert reviews and articles on hundreds of vehicles, detailing the best vehicles for myriad lifestyles, says CarGurus’ Deputy Editor Matt Smith.

“And with YouTube, shoppers no longer need to walk the vehicle lot in order to get a good look at cars that interest them,” Smith says.

Insider tip: It can still be a good idea to go see a vehicle in person before signing a sales contract, making sure it looks as good in person as it does on a website. Alternatively, you can call the dealership and ask a salesperson to take pictures of the vehicle for you.

4. Research the value of your trade

Knowing the value of your trade and being open to other ways of liquidating your used car can provide more money toward the new car’s purchase price.

Most people search Kelley Blue Book to determine the value of their used cars. In addition, car shopping and research websites like CarGurus use algorithms to determine the expected trade-in value of a car based on characteristics including its age, mileage, location and features.

There’s a variety of ways to liquidate your used car.

  • Trade in your used vehicle at the dealership from which you’re buying a car. You can also get an offer for your trade-in using the Instant Cash Offer tool on AutoTrader.com, a site for buying and selling new and used cars at participating local dealers.
  • Sell it yourself privately for cash. Search your make and model online for price and availability on private-party sale sites such as eBay and Craigslist.
  • Sell to a used-car dealer such as CarMax. Ask for its guaranteed cash price, and compare it with what you’ve found from Kelley Blue Book.

Insider tip: Don’t just fall for the convenience factor and trade in your used car at the dealership, where you’ll most likely get the lowest amount for it. “Plenty of sites now want to buy your trade, CarMax, Caravana and Shift to name a few,” says Nathan McAlpine, founder and CEO of CarMate, an auto broker. “Having an offer from one of these companies will always be a good negotiating tool to hold over a dealership’s head when buying a car. The dealership should most likely offer more.”

5. Check local inventory

When there’s a limited supply of the car you want on dealer lots, there’s less of a chance you’ll get a great deal, so be sure to check what local dealerships have in stock.

“You find the perfect color combination and equipment only to get to the dealership and it appears to be in transit or sold,” McAlpine says.

Call a variety of dealers to inquire about availability for the car you have in mind.

Insider tip: If you don’t see a vehicle identification number, or VIN, next to each car in the listing on the dealership website, the vehicle is not really on the lot. It’s also a good idea to look for real pictures of an actual vehicle on the lot, not stock photos.

6. Contact local dealerships for price quotes

Once your online research is complete, contact dealerships for online price quotes. Many dealerships now have departments dedicated to online sales because these deals are becoming more common. Whether you email the internet sales department or manager or fill out a contact form on the dealer’s website, you’ll reach someone who has the authority to quote you a price.

“The more quotes you have, the more leverage you’ll have when it comes to sealing the deal,” says Quincy, of Consumer Reports. “But keep in mind that many dealers are going to be reluctant to give you their best price without some certainty that you’re going to buy from them.”

Insider tip: Be as specific as you can with make, model and options, and ask several dealerships for their best offers. Once you collect some responses, compare them with your researched price ranges and to one another to determine which is best.

7. Trade-in and financing

Once you’ve agreed on a price with a few dealerships, negotiate the trade-in and financing. Simply ask the dealer for the best offer for your trade.

“Trade-in valuations have skyrocketed in 2020 and 2021. So, if a shopper is in the market for a new car and has a used vehicle to trade in, they should always see how much the dealership is willing to offer,” says Smith, of CarGurus.

You also can mention AutoTrader.com’s trade-in value at participating dealerships. Once you receive quotes for your trade, compare them and choose whether you’ll accept a dealer’s trade-in offer, sell privately or accept an offer from a used-car dealer such as CarMax.

Next, ask about rebates and financing incentives. If you have a voucher or preapproval from your lender, you can mention those because it’s like being a cash buyer — taking financing and the down payment out of the dealer’s profit equation. Ask if the dealer can offer you anything better.

Insider tip: If you qualify for 0 percent financing, evaluate any other rebates or incentives before accepting the deal.

8. The online price haggle

If none of the initial price quotes you receive fall within your range between the fair market value and the invoice price, you can use those two numbers to again ask dealers for their best prices.

“It’s best to ask first what’s the dealer’s best offer. You don’t have to share any details of other offers or negotiations that you’re in with another dealer unless it’s to your advantage,” DeLorenzo says. “Use those figures to ask if the dealer can beat the other deals. If not, remember you are in control and can take your business elsewhere.”

Be sure any price quotes are itemized in an email, and remember to ask whether any extra fees are withheld or included. Items such as “customer service fees,” options and add-ons — which are negotiable and can be removed — can tack thousands on to your overall price.

If one dealer gives you a price you like, you can email the quote to another dealer to get competing bids, especially if you know exactly what each price quote includes.

Insider tip: Never quote your monthly payment budget to a car salesperson. That allows the dealer to pack whatever they can into your quoted payment and still meet your budget. Don’t mention your trade-in or any financing at first, either. These variables give the salesperson leverage in negotiations. Instead, stay focused only on the actual price of the vehicle to bring it down.

9. Sign and drive 

By now, you should be working with the dealership that has the car you want to buy and that has offered you the best deal. At this stage, you may still have to visit the dealership to finalize the bill of sale, sign any required financing paperwork and pick up your keys and vehicle. But many dealerships are also now delivering cars and paperwork right to your driveway, allowing this final step to be completed at your home.

No matter which approach you take, look over the final contract carefully. Check all of the numbers and ask for explanations of any additional charges or documentation for fees that look questionable.

Insider tip: The finance and insurance managers may try to sell you options and add-ons, but you’ve done your thorough research. Be resolute in saying “no,” and only add something to your car loan if there is no cheaper way to get the service or option.

The bottom line

Buying a car online or doing the majority of the legwork online before visiting a dealer can save you time and money. Using the abundance of information available on the internet to your advantage can also eliminate much of the stress from negotiating a price for your new car.

Written by
Naomi Mannino
Contributing writer
Naomi Mannino is a contributing writer at Bankrate. Naomi writes about loans and banking.
Edited by
Associate loans editor