Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

A man is smiling while looking at an online car dealership.

Buying a Car Online: How It Works

Some traditional brick and mortar dealerships have started to dive deeper into the digital world, offering online services to compete with the companies who made online car shopping and door-to-door delivery their mainstay practice. If you haven’t ever purchased a vehicle online, this may be all new to you as a customer. You may be wondering where to even begin the process of buying a car without ever seeing a human being in person. Here, we will walk through the process of how to buy a car from an online car dealership.

Step One: Set a Budget

Most people are familiar with this portion of the car-buying process. You go to your lender and figure out how much of a car loan you can afford before visiting the dealership, whether online or in person. Most banks and credit unions are still functioning to help people with loans, but if your banking institution isn’t able to process loans right now, you can often get loans through the online dealership from which you plan to buy.

Online purchasing typically offers online credit approval and loan application. Whatever site you choose, you will often find a link right on the homepage of the dealership. If you can’t find it, you can usually find a chat button or a contact page so you can ask about loan processing. Just be careful to ask about interest rates in case they aren’t mentioned before you apply. Rates should be low to compete with lending institutions.

A woman is setting a budget on her laptop.

Step Two: Research the Car You Want

If you already have your heart set on a specific vehicle, you can skip this step and go on to online browsing. For those who aren’t sure, narrow down your search to consider what you will do with the vehicle once you purchase it. Are you commuting alone? Driving kids to sports or extracurricular activities? Doing a lot of travel with an RV? Do you live in an area that requires all-wheel drive? These questions can help you think about what type of car will best serve you if you aren’t sure where to start.

Step Three: Browse Online

When browsing for a car on a website, you should be able to look up cars by make and model to find vehicles according to the style you want to view. Some of the smartest websites provide video footage of the vehicles for sale, which gives potential buyers a virtual tour of features, both in the interior and the exterior.

Descriptions of the vehicle should include important information like standard features included for the trim level listed, options or packages which may have been added, warranties from both the manufacturer and dealer, mileage you can expect, what type of fuel it needs, the price, and vehicle measurements. You should also be able to request the make or model you want specifically, including ordering one with the trim level and options you prefer.

If the car is used, the odometer reading, a Carfax report, and a list of any imperfections or damage should be listed in the description. When you view the Carfax report, it should show whether or not the vehicle has been in any accidents, how many people have owned the car, and what work may have been done to maintain or repair it.

While you browse, you should be able to bookmark certain vehicles you like, and then you can come back to look at them again later. You can often also take advantage of the online chat box available on most dealership websites, or call the number listed on the website to speak to a person who can answer any questions you may have about vehicles you find. Alternatively, you can look for an FAQ page if you want some quick answers.

Step Four: Chat with a Representative about Test-Driving

Once you find the vehicle you are interested in purchasing, you should always request a test drive before you buy, especially if you purchase a make or model unfamiliar to you. It’s rare that you can look at a picture and know a car is for you, so while you chat or speak with a rep from the dealership, ask how they conduct test drives. Some online dealerships will loan the car to you for a short time period to allow you to drive it during your daily routines. Others may bring the car to you and allow you to test-drive while the delivery person waits, or there may be other ways they handle test-driving. Ask their procedure. None of them should require that you ride with anyone from the dealership.

Step Five: Ready to Buy? How to Purchase

A car salesman is on the phone next to a computer and cars.

Now that your test drive experience has led to a purchase, it’s time to sign on the dotted line. In actuality, most of the paperwork should be done through an online form. From applying for and receiving a loan to getting the title and temporary registration, the dealership should have all that paperwork set up in an online format. If you feel uncertain about filling it out properly, the dealership should have people who can talk you through it over the phone or via online chat. You should also be able to email questions if you prefer.

The dealership should be in touch with you as soon as they receive the completed forms, and most online purchases walk you through the expected process of getting the vehicle, how long it should take to be delivered, and other necessary information. Last, clarify that the delivery person will bring copies of all paperwork to be signed, so you have immediate possession of any contracts or agreements; the driver should leave those with you when the car is delivered.

Step Six: Having the Vehicle Delivered

This process should be contact-free, including having to sign paperwork. Each state will vary in rules about how online purchasing works, but you typically need to sign contracts, the title, or other paperwork in order to make the purchase valid. You may want to look at the rules of your home state or state of purchase, but this should be easy enough to complete.

If all the papers have the correct information and you can sign them, this should be your last step. At this point, the driver should be able to place your keys in the visor or leave them in the ignition for you. Most dealerships are taking extra measures to wipe down high-touch points such as steering wheels, shift knobs, and turn signal wands to ensure the car is sanitized. When your vehicle is delivered, this should be done after the car is moved from the delivery truck to your parking space.

Once you have your keys and papers in hand, you will be the proud owner of a new vehicle! A last, consideration is to remember to read the fine print about return policies. Typically, online dealers will give you a certain number of days or miles to return without penalty, but you want to be clear about this policy before signing any paperwork. Even new cars can have problems, so you want to be sure you’re covered in case of unforeseen issues. That aside, the online buying process may actually be less complicated than buying in person. If nothing else, you will probably save on the price, and you will most likely avoid having to haggle.