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How to Buy a Car Online in 5 Easy Steps

Dreaming of purchasing a new (or used) car without physically going to the dealership? Here’s the solution: buying a car from the comfort of your home via the internet. In five steps, you’ll compare models, get approved for a loan, secure auto insurance and even have a car delivered to you.

The pros and cons of buying a car online

Buying a car is a big decision – and some people like to make big decisions in person. However, according to Bloomberg News, in the first half of 2020, online car retailers experienced a 36% increase in sales as compared to the same period in 2019. The shift to online car shopping accelerated rapidly due to the pandemic.1

Purchasing a car online has many benefits, including convenience. Here are the most notable perks: 

  • Shop without feeling pressured to buy.

    In one study, more than half of the people surveyed said they felt anxious at used car dealerships.2 Shopping online gives you space to research cars and come to your own decision.

  • Compare multiple models quickly.

    Online options are limitless. Virtual car retailers give you a view into cars all over the nation, including vehicles you’d never normally see. If you find a car you like, you could have it delivered to you. 

  • Convenience and accessibility.

    Have young children? Live in a remote area? Want to avoid crowded sales rooms? Visiting a car dealership is time-consuming and difficult for many. Buying online eliminates some hassle without forgoing the variety of options. 

There are a few downsides to buying a vehicle online. Cars are expensive, so you want to choose the right make, model and features.

As you contemplate whether to buy a car online or in person, consider these challenges:

  • Inability to see, smell, touch or test drive the car.

    For some people, photos alone may not be enough to evaluate a product. If you buy a car online, you’re facing a potential risk — disappointment when the vehicle arrives. You’ll also miss out on test driving the vehicle, which helps drivers determine if the car is the right fit for them.

  • Delays in receiving your car.

    If you buy a car in person at a dealership, usually you can drive it off the lot or set a pickup date. But if you’re buying a car online (particularly from another state), it needs to be delivered. And just like with any other delivery, there’s the risk of scheduling mishaps or delays. 

  • Lacking in-person conversation. 

    When you shop for a car online, you need to rely on your ability to browse for vehicles, rather than a salesperson’s recommendation. If you don’t feel comfortable with this approach, then you may want to visit a dealership to talk to someone in person. 

Next, let’s talk about how to buy a car online, websites to visit and steps to take before making a purchase. 

Ways to buy a car online

Today, nearly all consumers research cars online first.3 And one study proves a spike in consumers going more digital in their car-shopping experience if given the option.4

If you’re wondering where to start your online car-purchase journey, here are a few ideas:

  • Online marketplaces:

    Websites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are great for finding local car deals. Both marketplaces are free to join and user-friendly. They’re easy to search for a car, browse photos and directly reach out to your local seller.

  • Online car retailers: 

    Carvana offers a digital purchasing process from start to finish. You can browse for cars online, make a purchase and even get a vehicle delivered to your home. Meanwhile, CarMax gives you the best of both worlds: allowing you to buy a car online or visit a nearby retailer to see it in person.

  • Dealerships: 

    Car dealerships advertise their vehicles on their websites, as well as popular online marketplaces like Autotrader. Check out a dealership’s website to see what models are on the lot. Or use Autotrader to compare vehicles at a few different dealerships near you. 

How to buy a car online

  • Step 1: Evaluate your budget and needs.

    Set a realistic budget first. Consider if you can buy a car outright or if you’ll need a loan with a monthly payment. Next, outline the key features you need in a vehicle. Think about the car’s size, gas mileage and where you’ll drive it the most. For example, if you live in the mountains, you may want to consider a car with all-wheel drive (AWD).

    If you have flexibility, aim to buy a car during the industry’s slow months — January, February, October or November. During these months, dealers may offer promotions and be more willing to negotiate. 

  • Step 2: Compare brands, models and features.

    Research cars using the websites mentioned above. Many of them let you compare features, read reviews and save listings for later. Don’t rush this step; your research may lead you to buy a car you never thought you’d own. It also helps to write down questions and use the chat feature (if available) to talk with online sales managers.

  • Step 3: Secure auto insurance.

    If you don’t have an auto policy, now is the time to explore coverage options, get a quote and protect yourself/others in your vehicle. Amica offers online quotes for top-of-the-line auto insurance policies. Compare coverages and choose the right policy for you in minutes. 

  • Step 4: Go for a test drive, if you have the option.

    Carvana and other online retailers have created a completely digital purchasing process. This means that once you buy the car, they’ll deliver it to you. As a result, you don’t have the option to test drive vehicles in person. But if you find a car online using CarMax or Autotrader, you can usually set up an appointment for a test drive. 

  • Step 5: Finalize your purchase.

    Some online car retailers let you secure financing and sign purchase agreements virtually. But depending on where you shop, you may need to visit a dealership to finalize your purchase. Ask a customer service representative or sales manager which steps to complete online and if any must be done in person.

    Buying a car online is no longer a distant concept. Now that you know how to buy a car online and how to secure auto insurance, why not get started? You may find the perfect car online today. 

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1 Covid and a Crowd of Startups Are Forever Changing How Americans Buy Cars, Bloomberg News, 2020.
2 PIN Automotive – A Disruption to the Automotive Industry, Cision PR Newswire, 2020.
3 Auto Advertising: What’s Ahead for Marketers, Outbrain, 2022.
4 The Ongoing Evolution of Car Buying: Consumer Opinions on the Way of the Future, CarMax, 2022.

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