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How to Handle an Upside-Down Car Loan

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Upside-down. Negative equity. Underwater. No matter what you call it, it means you owe more on your car than it’s currently worth. While it happens to most people who finance the purchase of a vehicle at some point, it’s not a good place to be — especially when you’re planning on selling the car or trading it in for a newer model.

It’s also a situation that’s becoming more common. According to the Edmunds Used Vehicle Market Report for the third quarter of 2016, a record 25 percent of all trade-ins toward a used car purchase have negative equity, and the average negative equity at the time of trade-in was $3,635 — also a record in the used-car market.

You can find out if you’re in this position by looking up the value of your vehicle using a research tool such as Kelley Blue Book. If the value is less than the balance on your current car loan, you are upside-down.

Part I: How do you get upside-down in the first place?

There are some reasons car loans may be upside-down.

Low down payment

Dealerships often offer incentives for new cars, including very low or no down payment loans. A new car loses about 20 percent of its value in the first year, so a small down payment can quickly cause the balance of your loan to soar above its actual value. A healthy down payment can help keep your loan balance in line with the worth of your car.

High interest rate

Remember to shop around for an auto loan, because the higher the interest rate, the less you’re paying toward principal each month. That makes it more likely you’ll become upside-down, even if you made a decent down payment.

Anthony Curren, a sales and marketing manager and salesperson with Rick Curren Auto Sales in Corning, N.Y., says he sees this happen pretty regularly when disreputable salespeople charge higher interest rates to make more money off a loan.

“This happened to my girlfriend before we met,” Curren says. “She had an 800-plus credit score and got stuck in a loan charging 5 percent interest. She should have been paying 2 percent or less at that time.”

Longer loan term

According to Experian’s State of the Automotive Finance Market report for the second quarter of 2017, the average length of a new auto loan is currently nearing 69 months. While longer loan terms may keep your monthly payment low, you’ll end up paying more interest, and you’re more likely to be upside-down.

Past upside-down loan

You could be upside-down because you carried negative equity over from your last car loan. Many dealers offer what’s known as a rollover loan: When people trade in an upside-down vehicle, the dealership rolls the negative equity into the purchase of their next car. With a rollover loan, you are upside-down before you even drive off the lot.

People who trade up for a new vehicle every couple of years are most likely to have car loans with rolled-over negative equity. In the first few years of a new car loan, your car depreciates faster while your loan balance declines the slowest due to interest. This means many people are upside down in the early years of their loans. The longer you keep the vehicle, the more likely it is that the loan balance will be less than the current value of the vehicle.

Being upside-down on your car loan may not pose a problem, as long as you are planning on holding onto the car until you have some equity in it. But if an unforeseen financial setback means you need to sell the car, you may need to come up with extra cash to pay off the loan difference. And if your car is wrecked or stolen, your insurance may not pay out enough to retire the loan.

Part II: How to get out of an upside-down car loan

The first step to dealing with an upside-down car loan is knowing your numbers.

Step 1: Figure out how much you owe.

The fastest and most accurate way to find out how much you owe on your loan is to contact your finance company. If you are planning on selling or trading in your car right away, you’ll need to know the payoff amount, not just the amount remaining on your principal. The payoff amount is how much you actually have to pay to satisfy the terms of your loan. It includes the payment of any interest you owe through the day you intend to pay off the loan, as well as any prepayment penalties.

You may be able to find this figure by logging into your lender’s online account portal. Otherwise, you’ll have to call the finance company.

Step 2: Figure out how much your car is worth

You can get a value estimate using Kelley Blue Book’s What’s My Car Worth tool. You’ll need to provide the car’s year, make, model, mileage, style or trim level (the alphanumeric code that helps identify at what level the vehicle is equipped), and the car’s condition. If you’re not sure how to rate your car’s condition, you can take a quick quiz to help you assess it.

Once you input those details, you’ll receive a range suggesting how much (or how little) you can expect to receive from a dealer for a trade-in. Keep in mind that every dealer is different, but you may be able to negotiate.

Step 3: Calculate your negative equity

If the payoff amount on your loan is greater than the value of your car, you are, as we’ve said, upside-down. Subtract the value of your car from the payoff amount to find out how underwater you are. If the difference is small, you may be able to make extra payments toward the loan’s principal to catch up. If the difference is significant, you may have to take more drastic steps.

Step 4: Strategize remedies

If you find yourself upside-down on your car loan, the most prudent course of action is continue to pay down the debt until you have some equity in the car. You can hasten the process by making extra payments toward the loan’s principal.

If that isn’t an option, here are a few other ideas.

Pay off the car with a home equity loan or line of credit

As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to paying off a car loan with a home equity loan or line of credit (HELOC). One advantage is that you can typically lengthen your repayment period, thereby reducing your monthly payment. HELOCs also have more flexible repayment options, compared with the fixed monthly payment that comes with an auto loan. This may be a good option if you’re having trouble making your monthly payment due to a temporary financial setback.

The second advantage of paying off your car loan in this fashion: The interest paid on your HELOC is typically tax-deductible, while interest on your car loan is not. Keep in mind that you’ll have to itemize deductions on your tax return to take advantage of this benefit. If you take the standard deduction, there’s no tax advantage.

But before you pay off a car loan with a HELOC, consider the downsides. First off, HELOCs are often variable-rate loans. If interest rates rise, your monthly payment could go up. Second, even if the interest rate on your HELOC is lower than the interest rate on your car loan, you could end up paying more in interest by stretching out the loan term. Finally, if you can’t make your HELOC payments, you could lose your home.

If you decide to take this route, make a plan to pay down the HELOC as soon as possible. Otherwise, it could well outlive your car, and you’ll be paying off the HELOC and a new loan for your next vehicle at the same time.

Pay off the car with a personal loan

Paying off a car loan with a personal loan could be a good option if you plan on selling your car without buying a new one. In that case, you would sell the car, use the proceeds to pay down the balance of the car loan, then refinance the remaining balance with a personal loan.

However, keep in mind that auto loans are secured by collateral (the car). If you’re unable to pay, the lender can repossess the car. Personal loans are unsecured. If you stop paying, the lender has fewer options for recovering the money. For this reason, personal loans usually come with higher interest rates than auto loans.

The Federal Reserve Bank’s survey of commercial bank interest rates for the second quarter of 2017 shows just how much higher those rates can be. The average 60-month new car loan comes with an APR of 4.24 percent. The average 24-month personal loan has an APR of 10.13 percent. So with the typical personal loan, you’ll pay more than twice as much interest in half the time. Hard to see that as a good deal.

Refinance the car loan

Refinancing your car loan can help in a few ways. You may be able to lower your interest rate and lower the term of your loan, both of which will help you get equity in your car sooner. Curren says deciding whether refinancing is the right option depends on the remaining loan term and interest rate.

He uses the hypothetical example of a person who, because of credit issues, used a subprime loan with an interest rate of 22.9 percent to purchase a car. “My advice to that person is to build their credit up as much as possible and as quickly as possible,” Curren says. “In one year, they should be looking at refinancing the loan with an interest rate as low as 6 or 7 percent, which is still relatively high, but much more palatable. It will save them thousands of dollars in repayment.”

However, Curren says he doesn’t offer the same advice to someone with only a year or two left on a loan. “At that point, the savings is minimal,” he says. “The better advice is to pay off the car quicker.”

Part III: What to watch out for when you have an upside-down car loan

Car dealers push the latest vehicle designs and advertise very attractive incentives for trading in your old vehicle, no matter how upside-down you are at the moment. But take heed: You’ll want to be very careful about trading in an upside-down vehicle for a new loan. Here’s a look at the problems that can arise:

Rolled-over negative equity

As we mentioned above, many car dealers are willing to roll the negative equity from your old car loan into a new loan. This is a popular option because it doesn’t require coming up with any money immediately. But it also means your new car will be underwater before you even drive it home. That new car may be fun to drive, but your monthly will be higher because it includes the cost of your new vehicle and the remaining balance on the old one.

Dealer cash incentives

Some car dealers offer cash incentives that can help pay off your negative equity. For example, if you have $1,000 in negative equity on your current car loan, you could buy a new car with a $2,500 rebate, use $1,000 of the rebate to pay off the negative equity, and still have $1,500 left over to use as a down payment on the new car.

But be wary of dealers advertising they’ll “pay off your loan no matter how much you owe.” The FTC warns consumers that these promises may be misleading because dealers may roll the negative equity into your new loan, deduct it from your down payment, or both. If the dealer promises to pay off your negative equity, read your sales contract very carefully to make sure it’s not somehow folded into your new loan.

Part IV: How to avoid an upside-down car loan

Being upside-down on your car loan, at least for a little while, is very common. But there are things you can do to prevent it from happening.

  • Make a larger down payment. Because a car depreciates by around 20 percent in its first year, putting down 20 percent of the total purchase price (including taxes and fees) can help you avoid going underwater.
  • Choose a car that holds its value. Some makes and models hold their value better than others. Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds and other car research sites regularly release lists of car brands and individual models with the best resale value. Do your research and pick out a car that will depreciate more slowly.
  • Opt for a shorter loan term. Longer terms are more likely to leave you underwater in the early years of the loan because you’re paying less toward the principal each month. Try not to finance a car for longer than you plan on keeping it.
  • Shop around for the lowest rate. The lower your interest rate, the more money you’ll pay toward principal each month. Don’t settle for the first offer you receive at a dealership. Shop around for a car loan before you go to the dealer, so you can feel confident you’re getting the best deal.
  • Avoid unnecessary options. Sunroofs, leather upholstery, rust proofing, extended warranties, fabric protection, chrome wheels — all these attractive add-ons are often overpriced. They’ll increase the purchase price of your vehicle, but rarely add long-term value.

Final thoughts

Being upside-down on your car loan is not an ideal situation, but you do have options. Understand the circumstances that led you to be upside-down in the first place can help keep the problem from recurring, or from carrying over to your next loan.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Auto Loan, Reviews

LightStream Auto Loan Review

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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If you’re in the market for a quick, affordable and hassle-free way to finance your next car, a LightStream auto loan should definitely be on your radar. It’s particularly well-suited for deal-seekers with good credit who don’t mind working with an online company when it comes to financing their cars. If you’d rather work with a local company that can offer in-person support, however, you might want to skip this lender.

How LightStream auto loans work

LightStream offers a wide range of options for financing your next ride, including:

  • Purchase of a new or used car, either from a dealer or an individual
  • Auto loan refinance (except it does not refinance its own loans)
  • Auto lease buyouts
  • Loans for motorcycles, as well as boats and RVs
  • Classic car loans

Auto loans at a glance:

  • Starting APR range: 3.49%–9.49%
  • Fees: None
  • Loan amounts: $5,000–$100,000
  • Terms: 24–84 months
  • Credit requirements: Minimum 660 credit score
  • Mileage or vehicle restrictions: None

LightStream offers the same starting rate whether you’re buying a new or used car from a dealer, something you don’t see at other lenders. But keep in mind that the lowest rates go to those with the best credit who opt for the shortest loan terms possible and use autopay to make their car payments.

Satisfaction guarantee

If you see a lower rate elsewhere, LightStream will beat any verified offer with a rate that is .10 percentage points lower. It also promises a $100 guarantee within 30 days if you aren’t satisfied with your loan experience.

How to apply for a LightStream auto loan

The only way you can apply for a LightStream auto loan is through its online form. It is an online lender, after all, so you should be comfortable with handling your business details — including the loan application — online. You’ll need to:

  1. Acknowledge receipt of LightStream’s statement on the use of electronic records.
  2. Agree to receive electronic records.
  3. Agree to use electronic signatures to sign your loan documents.

You’ll also need to have a Visa or Mastercard credit card to apply, which LightStream uses during the verification process.

You will be asked to provide:

  • The purpose, term and amount of desired loan
  • Your name
  • Your address
  • Phone number
  • Social Security number
  • Employment information
  • Annual income
  • Total amount of assets and equity in your home

From there, LightStream may contact you for more details and documentation. If approved, you’ll need to sign your loan documents electronically and provide LightStream with your bank account details. The money will then be deposited into your bank account, which means you’ll need to pass it along to the seller, whether that’s a dealer or private seller. LightStream will not send the money to the seller directly.

It’s important to note that LightStream doesn’t offer any preapproval options, but if you apply and are approved for a loan, you are under no obligation to accept the loan.

How to qualify for the best rates

LightStream requires good credit at a minimum, but looks for excellent credit when giving the best rates. It defines excellent credit as:

  • Five or more years of significant credit history.
  • A credit history with a variety of account types such as major credit cards (for example, Visa, MasterCard, Amex), installment debt (vehicle loans) and mortgage debt if applicable.
  • An excellent payment history with no delinquencies or other problems repaying debt obligations.
  • A proven ability to save as shown by some or all of the following: liquid assets (stocks, bonds, bank deposits, etc.), cash down payments on real estate, retirement savings and little, if any, revolving credit card debt.
  • Stable and sufficient income and assets to easily repay current debt obligations and any new loan with LightStream.

Pros and cons of LightStream auto loans

LightStream offers the convenience of an online lender with the backing of a brick-and-mortar bank as the online arm of Truist, the bank created by the merger of  SunTrust Bank and BB&T. But it’s important to weigh all of your options carefully when choosing an auto loan. It’s one of the biggest purchases you’ll make, after all.

Pros

  • Wide variety of loans: New, used, refinance and lease buyouts loans are available on a wide range of vehicles. Unlike other lenders, LightStream doesn’t place restrictions on your vehicle’s age, make, model or mileage.
  • Decent rates: We’ve seen lower starting rates at credit unions, but you’ll have to meet membership requirements. LightStream has no membership requirements and provides the same starting rates for new and used vehicles as well as refinance loans.
  • No down payment required: LightStream finances up to 100% of the car’s cost. Of course, it’s always best to put down as much as you can afford on an auto loan. This will help you save money over the life of your loan and avoid becoming underwater on that loan.
  • Quick funding: If you complete the application process and are approved by 2:30 p.m. EST, you could receive funds the same day.
  • Good reviews: LightStream auto loan reviews are generally positive.

Cons

  • Good credit required: To qualify for a LightStream auto loan you’ll need a credit score of at least 660 or better.
  • No preapproval process: Unlike many lenders, you’ll have to complete a full application in order to see your rates and terms. Still, the process is fast, and if you complete your rate shopping within a certain time period, multiple applications should not impact your credit any more than a single application.
  • No face-to-face service: If you’re the type of person who likes to seal the deal with a handshake after signing the documents, you’ll want to stick with some place local.

LightStream vs. Capital One

If you’d like a bit more of a guided approach to the car-buying process,  Capital One’s Auto Navigator loan options might be better for you. Rather than sending you cash directly that you can use on whatever car you want to buy, Capital One’s Auto Navigator service lets you first get prequalified for financing, and then shows you which dealers in your area may offer based on the type of car you want to buy and the financing you can afford.

If any of the offerings pique your interest, you can then finish the application and buy the car. It’s still a good idea to compare the offer with other new and used car loan rates.

LightStream vs. Carvana

Carvana works similarly to Capital One Auto Navigator in that you can prequalify for financing and browse real cars in your area that you may then be able to buy. It’s important to remember that Carvana only sells used cars and its financing is only available on Carvana cars. But it is possible to finance here with poor credit — Carvana requires borrowers to be 18 years old, have no active bankruptcies on their credit report and earn at least $4,000 per year.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Auto Loan

How to Buy a Car Online — from Start to Finish

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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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.

The troubles of traditional car buying

Before the internet revolutionized everything, there really was only one way most people bought a car: They’d visit car lots, find a car they liked and then sit down with a car salesman to work out an agreement. This led to the dreaded negotiation process.

“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.”

Because most people treated car dealerships as one-stop shops for buying a car, they often wouldn’t be informed about the full range of cars, financing options or trade-in choices available to them. Without these bargaining chips, consumers are at the mercy of the car salesmen.

How buying a car online empowers the buyer

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.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of buying a car online is that it puts you in greater control of the car-buying process and no longer at the mercy of the salesmen at one dealership. 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. On the bright side, doing your homework can save you thousands of dollars and ensure you get the best car possible.

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.

You can easily get preapproved for an auto loan online through websites like LendingTree, which is the parent company of MagnifyMoney. 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.

“If you think about it from an efficiency point of view, an online salesperson can be working more deals at one time than somebody on the floor who’s physically with one person,” said DeLorenzo. “Sometimes it’s actually more cost-effective for the dealer to sell it through or do a lot of the negotiation online.”

Car salespeople will often try to upsell you on add-ons when negotiating the price for a car. “They may say, ‘Well this will only cost you 10 bucks more a month.’ Well, yeah, and that’s $120 over a year. Over five years that’s $600, $700. You can’t let bells and whistles cloud your judgment,” said DeLorenzo.

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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Fact Checked By:Tom Sumrak

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