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In a mostly post-pandemic America, buying cars online is here to stay. Buying online boasts convenience and accessibility that heading to a dealership does not offer. Learning how to find the best car deals when shopping online is important.You have easy access to an immense amount of information to help with the online buying process. From the basics, like the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, financing and trade-in values, to the more complex incentives and reviews — it can be found online. Use all of this information to your advantage to be an informed shopper.
1. Set your budget
Your first step should be determining how much you can afford to spend. This includes calculating regular and one-time costs. Fuel, car insurance and your down payment all contribute to the purchase price and ongoing monthly cost associated with owning a car.
Your budget calculations should also take into account the interest you will pay since it is the biggest influence on your monthly payment and the overall cost. Buyers with higher credit scores will be offered more competitive interest rates than buyers with lower credit scores.
2. Get preapproved for a loan
To get the best deal on a car loan, research your options and get preapproved by a lender before approaching any dealerships — online or in person. Banks, credit unions and online lenders offer preapproval periods that allow you to see your potential interest rate and monthly payment so you can shop smartly.
And when you have preapproval, you can use it as leverage when negotiating a deal. Dealer financing involves big markups, so getting a loan online first will help you get the best 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.”
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. You can do most of your shopping online to reduce time on the car lot. And in some cases, dealers offer entirely online buying processes, although you may not be able to negotiate the price.
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. You can always trade in your car at the dealership, but you should know how much it will sell for before accepting a deal.
Most people search Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds 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 are three common ways to sell your used car — and you can do them online, too.
- Trade in your used vehicle at a dealership, even if you don’t have plans on buying from it. 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 or Carvana. Ask for its guaranteed cash price and compare it with what you’ve found online.
5. Check local inventory
When there is a limited supply of the car you want on dealer lots, there is less of a chance you’ll get a great deal, so be sure to check what local dealerships have in stock. Call a variety of dealers to inquire about the availability of the car you have in mind.
But beyond dealerships that may allow you to submit an online application, look for private sales. There are numerous sites, like eBay Motors, Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, that help buyers and sellers connect. You may be able to find a good deal by skipping the dealer entirely.
You may also want to consider shopping with mixed in-person and online dealers like TrueCar. This way, you can easily browse the inventory at both the local and national levels to keep your search broad, especially if you want to buy a specific used model.
It can still be a good idea to go see a vehicle in person before signing a sales contract. You can call the dealership and ask a salesperson to take pictures of the vehicle for you, but you should always go for a test drive and mechanic inspection before buying.
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, and whether you email the online sales department or fill out a contact form on the dealer’s website, you should 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.”
7. Evaluate trade-in value and financing
Once you’ve agreed on a price with a few dealerships, negotiate the trade-in value and financing. Simply ask the dealer for the best offer for your trade.
You can also mention AutoTrader.com’s trade-in value at participating dealerships. Once you receive quotes for your trade, compare them and choose if you’ll accept a dealer’s trade-in offer, sell privately or accept an offer from a used-car dealer, such as CarMax.
Don’t forget to ask about rebates and financing incentives. Manufacturers are bringing back incentives in a big way — spending on incentives hit the highest level since October 2021 in June, according to KBB. 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.
8. Negotiate online
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 if 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 onto 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.
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. Schedule an appointment with a mechanic to check the car over, even if it’s new — and don’t finalize any paperwork until you are sure your financing and vehicle are what you want.
The bottom line
Buying a car online — or doing most of the legwork online before visiting a dealer — can save you time and money. Check up on current rates, view local and national inventory, compare current vehicle prices and prepare yourself for negotiation. Using the abundance of information available on the internet to your advantage can eliminate much of the stress of getting a new car.