How to Buy a Car Online — from Start to Finish

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Updated on Friday, March 6, 2020

Visiting a car dealership lot can sometimes feel like walking on a knife-edge. Salespeople could pressure you into spur-of-the-moment decisions that could leave you buried up to your eyeballs in debt for the next several years.

Buying a car online can be a much smoother and well-informed experience compared with traditional car buying, but it does require a bit more legwork on your part. Before you dive in, you’ll want to make sure you’re well-informed on how to buy a car online.

Part I: Traditional vs. online car buying

Curious about buying a car online but unsure of how the experience compares to traditional car buying? The processes are similar in a lot of ways, but skipping the dealership can actually give you a leg up as a buyer.

“There’s all this back-and-forth and, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go talk to my manager,’” said Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America and author of “The Car Book.” “Well, the guy goes back and has a cup of coffee and lets you sit there and steam for a while, then he comes back and gives you some song and dance about why they can or can’t do something.”

With online car buying, it’s possible to complete every phase of the car-buying experience — from finding the right car to negotiating — entirely online. You can expand your options for cars, financing and trade-ins, and then use your findings to negotiate for your best price possible.

“The whole digital part really is empowering for the buyer because there’s so much information that you can use to make an informed decision,” said Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor of KelleyBlueBook.com.

The downside of all this power is that it requires a bit more legwork on your part to bring all the pieces together.

Part II: 7 steps to buying cars online

Step 1. Choose the right car

It’s important to choose a type of car that will best fit your needs. Do you want a fuel-efficient vehicle for short commutes? Do you need to haul around large amounts of cargo? Do you have a large family or a small one? Thinking about questions like these can help you zero in on what kind of body style (truck? SUV? compact car?) will suit your needs.

Once you narrow down a body style, it’s time to research what specific makes and models of cars might be best for you. Good research websites include Edmunds, Car and Driver and Kelley Blue Book.

If you’re buying a new car, you might be offered certain options and add-ons from the dealer, such as VIN window etching or rust-proofing. Before you go signing up for every option offered (and sign away your whole paycheck in the process), it’s important to research these options. You can face big markups and can easily get these add-ons yourself if you decide you need them down the road.

Step 2. Determine the price you want to pay

Next up is determining how much car you can actually afford. The more conservative rule of thumb is the 20/4/10 rule, but if that’s not possible for your budget, make a concerted effort to try to meet the 10/5/20 rule. Here’s how the two rules break down:

Rules of Thumb for Transportation Costs
20/4/10 Rule10/5/20 Rule
Minimum down paymentMake a minimum 20% down paymentMake a minimum 10% down payment
Loan termFinance for no more than four yearsFinance for no more than five years
Monthly transportation expenses, including insurance, gas, etc.Total expenses shouldn’t exceed 10% of your monthly incomeTotal expenses shouldn’t exceed 20% of your monthly income

These rules could help you set a cap on your car-shopping budget. For example, if you have $3,000 saved, it might be a good idea to avoid buying a car for more than $15,000 ($15,000 x 0.20 down = $3,000). From there, you can assess any financing offers to make sure that you’re not spending more than 10% of your income on the car and that your financing doesn’t stretch beyond the four-year mark.

You can narrow your car search down even further using these budget caps. If a car’s MSRP is far outside of your budget, weed it out of consideration. You can use websites like Kelley Blue Book or the National Automobile Dealers Association to research the current prices for new and used cars in your area.

Step 3. Get approved for financing online

It’s important to get preapproved for an auto loan before you actually go shopping. Getting preapproved for a loan does not mean you have to take the financing; rather, it helps you stay within your budget and gives you a bargaining chip in negotiations.

Using our auto loan marketplace, you can fill out one online form and potentially get offers from several auto lenders at once, depending on your creditworthiness. It’s also a good idea to check around with local banks and credit unions, which may offer deals locally.

You’ll generally need a high credit score to qualify for the best auto financing offers. If you don’t have a high credit score, you will likely be preapproved for a loan, but it may come with higher interest rates. If you’re outright denied for a preapproved loan, you may need to consider shopping elsewhere or waiting a little while so you can take steps to increase your credit score.

If you are qualified for preapproval, the lender will give you a preapproval letter. Make sure to keep a copy of this letter, and bring it with you when it comes time to negotiate a price on the car you’ve chosen.

Step 4. Choose the right source

Once you get to this point in the process, it’s time to cast your net and see what cars are out there.

One place to look is AutoTempest, a comprehensive website that searches several websites, including Craigslist, for specific makes and models. If you’re looking for one particular brand, don’t overlook your local dealership’s website. Other possible websites to go to scope out cars include:

We also made a list of the best online car-buying sites that you can check out to help you in your search.

With the power of the internet, the whole world (or at least the whole country) can be your virtual car lot. If you’re able to travel to pick up your new vehicle, you might be able to save a trunkful of cash by broadening your search.

For example, if you live in a snowy climate and are looking for an all-wheel drive car, you might try looking in a warmer area. “There might be better incentives on all-wheel drive cars in, say, Arizona than in the Northeast where they got a lot of snow,” said DeLorenzo.

Step 5. Get quotes

Once you’ve identified your targets, the next step is to find out how much they’ll cost. You’ll negotiate your final price in the next step, but this step sets a starting point.

Contact the dealership directly and ask for a quote for each vehicle you’re interested in. It’s important to do this as the price may have changed or the vehicle may have been sold. But perhaps the main reason this is crucial to do is so dealers will be motivated to give you a better price than what’s online, and it puts the starting line for negotiations much closer to the finish line.

Email or call the dealership and ask for their internet sales manager, as this is the person you’ll work with through the negotiation process. Give them the VIN or stock number of the vehicle you’re interested in and ask for a quote. Then, ask them to email it to you so you have it in writing.

It sometimes can be difficult to get a dealership to quote a price, but it’s important to insist that dealers give a price estimate for the make, model and year. If quote collecting isn’t your thing, you also can hire a service to do this for you, such as CarBargains. For $250 and a detailed description of what you’re looking for, CarBargains will collect at least five different dealership quotes for you.

Collecting these quotes gives you the bargaining power you need to negotiate prices down as low as possible in the next step.

Step 6. Time to negotiate

Ah, the dreaded negotiation. Since you’ve already gone through all of the steps to be an informed consumer, negotiating your price will be a much smoother process. Specifically, you’ll be negotiating the price of three separate items: vehicle price, financing cost and trade-in value.

Vehicle price

This is the most important piece. You can — and should — present the offers you’ve received in the prior step. Did someone offer $12,500? Show that emailed quote to another dealer and ask if they can lower their price to $12,000. Car dealerships are usually very easy to negotiate with online.

Remember to think carefully about add-ons and stick to the basic total numbers, not the monthly payment, and don’t let yourself get distracted.

Trade-in price

Chances are that you already have a car that you want to trade in to help defray your costs. Most dealerships will accept trade-ins, but be warned: You will probably get much less than if you shop around for trade-in prices on your own.

Websites like Kelley Blue Book allow you to find a fair trade-in price for your vehicle. In addition, you can use a tool on Kelley Blue Book’s website called “Instant Cash Offer” to get bids from dealers on your car.

“The beauty of having something like that is that it sets a floor for what your car is worth,” said DeLorenzo. “You’ll know you’ll get at least that much in trade or in an outright purchase, and that’s important leverage to have when you’re negotiating a new car deal.”

Additionally, you can try selling your car yourself through sites like Craigslist. Generally, going this route will net you your best price for your old car, although this may take more time and energy than simply driving onto a car lot with your old car and driving off with a new one. Here’s more on what to know before you trade in your car.

Financing cost

The final piece of the puzzle is how you’re going to pay for your new car. Since you’ve already taken the time to be preapproved for an auto loan, this step should be simple.

Show the dealer your preapproval letter and ask them if they can beat it. If so, great. If not, then you know you’ve already secured the best auto financing deal possible.

Step 7. Making the final purchase online

Once you’ve lined up the three pieces of the puzzle — the lowest car price, the lowest financing price and the highest trade-in value — it’s time to make your decision. Most dealerships still require you to physically come in to complete the final paperwork signing. However, that’s beginning to change.

“Savvy dealers are beginning to digitize as much of that kind of paperwork [as possible], to just make it easier to buy a car from them,” said DeLorenzo. “It works out better for them, too. I mean, if they’re able to get you in and out quicker, they can sell more cars quicker.”

But as far as completing the entire purchase process online? “I think there are dealers who are willing to do that,” DeLorenzo said. “The question is, do you want to do that?”

For now, you’ll likely still need to do some of the physical aspects of buying a car, such as taking it for a test-drive, in person. Perhaps someone will invent a virtual test-drive machine in the future!

Part III: Staying safe while shopping for cars online

Luckily, outright scams aren’t too common when it comes to buying cars online, according to Gillis. Many car dealers are subject to consumer-friendly regulation by the Federal Trade Commission. Still, there are some things to be aware of when shopping for cars online.

Beware the bait-and-switch

One situation that Gillis has seen involves a bait-and-switch technique when consumers arrive at the dealership to complete the purchase after negotiating everything online.

“You’ve got it all squared away. You get to the dealership to close the deal, and all of a sudden, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t believe it, someone just came in and bought that car, but we have another one here that actually has a few better features on it, and it’s just the color you wanted, and it’s only gonna cost you $20 more per month,’” Gillis said.

If this happens to you, be prepared to walk away from the dealership as they’re likely just trying to weasel more money out of you.

Get an inspection from an independent mechanic

If you’re buying a used car, whether at a dealership or from someone you found on Craigslist, you should absolutely get an inspection first. Everyone has heard horror stories about buying a lemon (or worse, being the person who bought the faulty car). The seller will surely tell you that the car is in perfect shape, but how do you really know? Getting an auto inspection by an independent mechanic is perhaps one of the best ways to protect yourself.

If you’re unable to take the car to your own mechanic, DeLorenzo recommends a service from AiM Certify. For as little as $129, you can book an independent mechanic anywhere in the country to travel to the dealership and perform an inspection for you. You’ll get back a full mechanical report complete with actual photos of the car.

Try before you buy

If you’re not happy with your choice, you may have wasted tens of thousands of dollars. That’s why it’s crucial to take a test drive before you commit.

“Most of the problems that consumers end up not liking about their vehicles could have been determined in a test-drive,” said Gillis. “For example, it’s hard to park, or the back seat really isn’t that comfortable, or the trunk really doesn’t hold that much, or when changing lanes, there’s a big blind spot in the back.”

Jenn Jones contributed to this article.

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