Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

A man is laying on a couch looking at used cars for sale online.

Couch Shopping For Cars: A Guide

Shopping for used cars for sale online can be overwhelming; the endless options almost make you miss the slimy car salesman perpetually persuading you to upgrade to the higher trim with 95-way power seats. Think of this guide as your not-slimy salesperson: a resource to give you the information you need to make the right choice for your next daily driver. It may not be your dream car, but it’s a decision worthy of being informed. After all, you’d probably get tired of driving to work every day with the top down in your pearl blue, LS-swapped 1999 Mazda Miata. Okay, maybe you wouldn’t.

Why Buy Used?

Since new cars depreciate in value essentially the moment they’re driven off the lot, purchasing a used car can be a savvy financial choice for those whose primary objective is getting from Point A to B. New vehicles may feel like a safe bet, but purchasing a model that is the first of a generation has inherent risk – you never know what type of mechanical issues may crop up once the vehicle is put to the test on the market. If you’re commuting to work on a near-daily basis, the last thing you want to deal with is an endless barrage of warranty claims. Well-maintained vehicles that have stood the test of time can actually be less of a gamble.

Why Buy Online?

Getting a used car for sale online allows buyers to be really specific while shopping. A lot of online platforms allow you to filter the inventory based on mileage, body type, technology features, etc. You’ll also have the option of sifting through a national inventory, opposed to perusing through whatever options are available at your local What’s His Name’s Chevy, Buick, and GMC.

A woman is online shopping while holding a credit card.

Fuel Efficiency

Since commuters usually drive alone, having an eco-friendly, fuel-efficient vehicle is beneficial for the planet and the bank account. Purchasing a Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) or an Electric Vehicle (EV) may be a good option for commuters as they have the best efficiency in the market. HEVs are powered by gas and electricity and don’t require charging (although plug-in hybrids can be charged). EVs need to be charged but require no gasoline and are becoming increasingly popular.

It may be counterintuitive, but HEVs and EVs are actually more fuel-efficient in stop-and-go traffic (they recapture energy whenever you brake), so when you’re thirsty, tired, and agitated, sitting in particularly bad traffic after a particularly bad day at work, at least you’ll be able to feel good about the little boost of fuel-economy you’re scoring (yaaay). However, HEVs and EVs are relatively new technologies and may have limited availability in the used car market, even when shopping online.

Fortunately, gasoline cars have come a long way as far as fuel economy goes and can be great options as well. Keep in mind, smaller vehicles tend to get better gas mileage, and the online dealership you’re browsing should provide official EPA-estimated highway and city MPG so that you can compare across different types of vehicles.

Comfort and Safety

Your daily commute should be comfortable, and there should be no worry in your mind about whether or not your vehicle is going to be able to go the distance. If you’ve got a desk job, you know the toll it can take on your back and neck. The first thing you need to do is sit up straight. The second thing you need to do is consider buying a vehicle with adjustable power seats and lumbar support (you can thank me later).

When you’re driving the same route every day, it can be tempting to check out. Some safety features to look for to keep your driving sharp include:

  • Adaptive cruise control – keeps a constant distance between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you, adjusting as needed.
  • Automatic emergency braking – the brakes activate in emergency situations, reducing the severity of or avoiding front-end collisions.
  • Lane departure alert and assist – alerts you when your vehicle is starting to veer out of your lane and gently steers you back in the right direction

CARFAX

The longevity of a car depends greatly on the person taking care of it, so it’s important to review the history of any used car you’re considering purchasing. CARFAX is one of the more comprehensive car history reports you can get, and reputable dealerships will provide a free CARFAX report with any used vehicle they sell. If the online dealership you’re using doesn’t offer CARFAX reports with their used vehicle inventory, you can purchase them at carfax.com. The report will let you know whether or not the vehicle was involved in any reported accidents, how many prior owners there are, and more. This may go without saying, but the fewer accidents and owners, the better!

A man is holding a set of car keys while sitting in the front seat of a car.

Pre-Owned vs Certified Pre-Owned

Pre-Owned and Certified Pre-Owned is terminology you’ll come across when shopping for used cars, but they aren’t the same thing. The “certified” moniker is used to distinguish used inventory that’s in the best shape and was certified by the manufacturer. These vehicles have fewer miles, fewer owners, and have been carefully inspected by the dealership to ensure there are no major issues. Certified Pre-Owned vehicles are also backed by factory warranties to give the buyer some additional peace of mind. However, this quality guarantee comes with a premium.

Choosing a Virtual Dealership

Test-driving a vehicle before purchasing may not be an option when buying a car online. Look for dealerships that have money-back guarantees if you’re not satisfied with your purchase. These often take the form of a day/mileage window that the vehicle needs to be returned by (i.e. within 3 days of purchase and fewer than 100 miles driven). This will give you the opportunity to feel a vehicle out and get it to your mechanic to rule out major issues.

Online dealerships sometimes have specialists that can offer guidance over the phone or chat. They can help narrow your search and go over financial details, which can be daunting if you’ve never bought a car before. Delivery of the vehicle is a unique aspect of purchasing a car online. Before deciding to buy, check if your seller offers free delivery, or if not, get an understanding of what you’ll be charged to get the vehicle delivered.

Finally, check to see if the vehicle has a warranty. Warranties typically cover mechanical issues like the transmission going out, an airbag malfunction, or faulty spark plugs. Things that aren’t covered? Reversing into your neighbor’s mailbox – backup cameras may not be a bad idea, either.

Shopping in the New Age

Purchasing a used car online can feel strange. Buying paper towels online is one thing, but when you’re spending a significant amount of cash, you likely take comfort in being able to see the product in person – I know I do. But as risky as it can feel, online shopping for used cars doesn’t have to be a gamble. As long as the dealership you’re using has appropriate safeguards in place, buying a used car online is just as reliable as buying one in person. But unlike buying in person, online shopping opens the buyer up to more options and gives you the ability to find something specific. Plus, you can do it all without ever having to leave your couch.

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