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17 New Rules for Buying and Selling a Car During the Pandemic

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woman buying car coronavirus

How Car Shopping Is Changing

For many people, the car shopping and buying process has traditionally been a very hands-on endeavor involving test drives, conversations with salespeople, and visits to multiple car lots to inspect vehicle options first-hand. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the continued need for social distancing have upended that tradition in many ways, creating a new set of norms and shopping options moving forward. Gone are the days of personally running your hand over the leather of a new car and opening up a vehicle while on a lot to take a look inside. To get a more detailed picture of exactly what the car buying and selling process now looks like, Cheapism spoke with car dealers and industry experts across the country. Here are some of the new rules of the game. (We've also looked at the 2019 cars that have the most remaining inventory — and potentially the deepest discounts.)

Car Dealership

Limited Showroom Capacity

Like many other businesses that have limited the number of customers that can be onsite, many dealerships are limiting car shoppers to only a handful of people. "The number of customers will be monitored throughout the day in order to restrict contact with each other," says Michael Lowe, CEO of Car Passionate

woman with mask and gloves

Personal Protective Gear

Those who still want to shop in person will be able to do so, but many sales rooms will require customers to don appropriate personal protective gear before entering. "You won't be allowed to walk around without newly applied gloves," Lowe says, adding that, in many places, customers will be provided with a free pair of disposable gloves and be expected to dispose of them when leaving the premises. 

Carmax online

Enhanced Online Shopping

A CarGurus study conducted in April found that car shoppers are more open to buying online and more likely to prefer it since the spread of COVID-19. In fact, before the pandemic, only 32% of car buyers said they were open to buying online. Now that figure is 61%, and car dealers are heeding the call. "Our websites will be packed full of information about the vehicles so there will be less need for face-to-face contact," Lowe says. "We've added videos as well as virtual test drives so that customers can get a feel for the car without being present. We also added reviews and statements from trusted sources so that buyers know what to expect from each vehicle. This was implemented due to the coronavirus, but it will be something we maintain for the foreseeable future."

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FaceTime Car Viewing

Yet another option for getting a closer look at a vehicle without visiting in person is a FaceTime tour of a car. "You can call most dealerships and a sales representative will use FaceTime to take you through the car," says Nathan McAlpine of Los Angeles-based CarMate, who urges car buyers not to be shy about asking for this option.

Book car appointment

Shopping by Appointment

In some places you may still be able to simply drive onto a lot and wander around checking out the inventory, but many dealers are requiring a far more structured process. "You have to book an appointment first, and all of the showroom doors will be locked," says McAlpine of CarMate. "You have to call them first and schedule a viewing, and then somebody will come out when you arrive and let you in."

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Lie: Bring It Into 'the Dealership'

Final Negotiations Out on the Lot

In the past, negotiating the final price of a vehicle typically involved sitting across a desk from a sales rep and haggling. There'd also be a computer handy to look up comps, financing, and other specifics. Every so often, the salesperson would speak with a supervisor in another room to discuss price even further. Those days are largely gone. With enclosed environments potentially being far riskier amid COVID-19, the haggling will take place mostly outside. "At some dealerships, there's nobody inside at all. Everything is outside now," McAlpine says. "It's a bit of a headache really. To negotiate, you'll have people standing outside where they haven't got a computer, and then there'll be this game of the sales representative walking in and out of the showroom, and the customer will likely get annoyed."


No More Handshakes

The simple act of a handshake has always been an integral part of car shopping — from the initial greeting when walking onto a lot to shaking on a deal. But that, too, is now verboten amid a global pandemic. "There's no formal law, but it has become a universal norm across all of our dealerships," says Charles Breen, senior service manager for Quirk Automotive, which operates throughout New England. "We want to keep our customers and our employees as safe as possible."


Goodbye, Free Coffee and Doughnuts

Who among us hasn't grazed a bit on the free baked goods that are often provided in car showrooms? The free coffee was also a nice perk to get you through the long negotiation process, contract signing, and more. But Sean Pour, co-founder of car buying service SellMax, says this little nicety has been removed. "Many of the new car dealerships we have partnerships with are no longer putting free food out ... which they used to do pretty much every morning, as they feel it's too big of a risk," Pour says.

Drive the Car

Self-Guided Test Drives

If you want to get behind the wheel of a car and test drive it in person before purchasing, that will be allowed, but don't expect the salesperson to join you. "They give you the keys to a vehicle and you drive around the block on your own," McAlpine says.

Drive Stick

Home Test Drives

If the vehicle you're considering is located in your geographic area, you may even be able to request that it be brought to you for a test drive, says LeeAnn Shattuck, owner of The Car Chick, a car-buying service based in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Many dealers have started doing 'home test drives' within a certain geographic radius during the pandemic, and will bring the vehicle to your house," she says. "The salesperson does not go with you on the test drive, since you can't social distance inside a car." 

Car Wash/Detailing

Frequent Sterilization of Cars

While not all are following a strict policy on this front, many dealers, including Quirk Automotive, are sterilizing vehicles before and after test drives. "Seat and steering wheel covers are placed in the vehicle before test drives, and after the test drive is completed, sanitizing solutions are used to wipe down all touch point areas," Breen says.

E signature

E-Signed Contracts

Nearly every phase of the car buying process can now be done remotely, including signing on the dotted line for the purchase. "Instead of signing paperwork with the customers in person, we are allowing them to sign online forms using DocuSign or HelloSign," says Pour, of SellMax.

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Digital Payments

In addition to digital document signing, the updated car buying process often involves making payments digitally. "We have the capabilities to accept digital payments and are encouraging all customers to pay digitally," Breen says. "We can send invoices right to a customer's phone, where they can pay by debit or credit card, which prevents unnecessary contact between our customers and employees."

tow truck

Contactless Home Delivery

In the past, dealers often balked at home deliveries of purchased vehicles, for a variety of reasons including paperwork challenges and lack of resources, but this, too, is becoming standard. New England-based Quirk, for instance, is pushing contact-free home delivery rather than asking customers to come to showrooms to pick up their vehicles. "We put the customer vehicle onto a flatbed and deliver it to the customer's house," says Sean Western, director of marketing. "A sales consultant will deliver the vehicle, answer any questions, and explain how certain features work. " 


Remote Trade-ins

With so much of the car buying process now being done remotely, it should be no surprise that dealers are also allowing customers to unload trade-ins from afar. "You can even shop your trade vehicle via email," says Shattuck, of The Car Chick. "They're doing it now for most online car shoppers due to the pandemic. Some dealers have added a questionnaire on their website for you to complete, asking very detailed questions about your trade vehicle, and some will request that you send in pictures of the car, both inside and out." There is, however, one caveat here: The quote may be lower than it would have been if the dealer were able to inspect the car in person. "They're taking a risk that the car is not actually in the stated condition," Shattuck says. "So, it's important to shop your trade around, as well, to get the best selling price."

The CarChick
The Car Chick

Concierge Services

For those who don't want to go through the hassle of shopping for a car on their own amid the coronavirus, there are companies that provide concierge-style shopping services, such as The Car Chick in North Carolina and CarMate in Los Angeles. "Clients call us, and we do all of the work and they've always stayed at home," McAlpine says. "I do all of the legwork, crunch the numbers, send customers pitches, and negotiate the final deal for them."