Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

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How to Get the Used Car You Really Want Online

When you’re looking for a used car, you might think you have to simply accept that you’re not going to get what you really want when going to traditional dealerships. It can feel like playing roulette when you go online to search local dealerships for used cars, with lots full of vehicles that someone else chose new and loaded with the features that worked for them…not you. While it may feel like the deck is stacked against you in used car lots, new ways to buy online are revolutionizing the way you find the car you actually want to drive. Everyone has heard of car vending machines and online car shopping, but only a fraction of people have experienced car buying online and how easy it can be.

In case you feel leery of the process of buying a car online, you may be curious about how you get a car you actually want without being cheated. How do you know the car is as nice as the pictures look? What if you hate the car after driving it and want something else? We are going to help you answer all of these questions, and for those who need to buy a car online and feel trepidation about it, you can read on to learn how the process works and what to do if you want to return the car. After you try it, you may never want to go to a dealership in person again.

Finding the Perfect Car Made Easier

Let’s start with how you find a car online. Most dealerships are now offering online searches for potential customers, with most dealerships posting photos, features, and competitive pricing for vehicles they have on their lots. Some dealerships have videos, and others have photo galleries that show interior, exterior, and other shots of details like the odometer or unique features. What’s really great about online searches is that now you can find vehicles from miles around you without having to leave your house. Shop in your underwear if you want, and no one cares.

Beyond the local offerings, you have some dealerships that offer nationwide searches to allow you access to more than what is available in the current inventory. Dealerships that offer this option allow you to see what vehicles are for sale anywhere in the country, which can be great if you’re looking for a specific brand or model that may be harder to find. With such a wide range of opportunities, you have a much higher chance of actually finding the exact make and model you really want.

If you’ve been resisting online shopping, this may change your mind. Back in the day, you had to traipse over to your local dealerships to ask what they had. Maybe they had a few nice used cars, but it was a lucky strike if you found exactly what you wanted. Nationwide search engines expand your options exponentially.

Research Before You Commit

Any car dealership worth its salt will offer a free CarFax report so you can see the vehicle’s history before you decide to buy or test-drive. It’s a good idea to read through a report to discover who previously owned the car and how well it was maintained. If it was ever in an accident, if it was a lease vehicle, or if it was part of a rental fleet should all be on that report. It’s better to look for a vehicle that has been leased or has had only one previous owner, so you know it’s been maintained well and doesn’t have a lot of miles on the odometer.

A row of blurred used cars is shown at a dealersip.

How You Test an Online Car

You found the perfect car online and have gone through the process to reach a point where you can actually drive it. Now what? Again, each agency differs in how the car gets to your doorstep, but most dealerships – whether strictly online or as a service of a brick and mortar – will deliver the car to you, even if you only plan to test-drive. If the dealership has the car brought from across the country, you will probably have bought it already, but if you want to see a car that’s already on a local lot, you can often test-drive from home before you buy.

However, there is also the option to shop online and schedule a test drive of the models you are looking at if the dealership is local. While this may not make the process completely digital, it can be advantageous if you like to test out all your options before committing. Most dealerships are clear about what you need to do if you use their online resources, so just follow the instructions they provide, and you can have your vehicle delivered to you for a test drive in no time.

What If I Buy Without a Test Drive?

So, you’ve bought the car you think you’ll love (you know, that dreamy convertible that’s been calling your name). You don’t love it. Usually, there’s a clause in the contract for purchasing that outlines how to return a car if it isn’t satisfactory. Read that fine print before you buy, so you know how many days or miles you have to return it and what the dealership says it will need from you to accept the return. That once-in-a-lifetime deal to buy the car of your dreams can be hard to resist, but if it doesn’t work out, you have options. Contact the dealership to start the process as soon as you know you don’t like the vehicle, so you don’t risk going beyond the return allotment window. When you make the return, most online dealers will come pick the car up for you, and you will get your full refund.

How Do I Trade in My Old Car?

Just like test-driving at home, dealerships will often come pick up your old car when they deliver your new one. You will most likely need to enter the information about your old vehicle online, and then the dealership website can give you an estimate of what your current vehicle is worth. Be prepared to snap photos you need to upload or have your vehicle odometer reading, trim level, and year of your vehicle available when you fill out the online form. Each website will be different, and you may need to confer with a sales rep from the dealership to get an exact amount for your trade. Otherwise, much of the experience can be done online, so you know how much your current vehicle will go toward your new purchase.

A close up shows a hand inserting keys into an ignition.

The Final Step

Once your new vehicle is delivered and your old one is hauled away, you can expect to fill out the final physical paperwork to complete the deal. Obviously, your financing will be part of the process as well, and all the paperwork should be prepped for you when the car arrives. You will have filled out most of this paperwork online and will just need to sign the copies your deliverer will bring you. Read everything before you sign, and make sure the paperwork includes the warranty and return information.

Another wise choice to make before signing is to take a walk around the vehicle to check for any unreported damage or missing features. Also, check the odometer reading to ensure it matches your paperwork. If the paperwork and the vehicle match the description online, you’re good to go. Once those papers go back to the dealership, you are the proud owner of a vehicle you purchased online. The future of car buying has arrived, and it is digital.

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