Salesman holding keys to a new car. Car auto dealership.


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Just a few years ago, buying a car — new or used — was a big deal, and usually meant multiple trips to dealerships followed by lengthy conversations to ensure you were getting the best deal. Today, you can buy a car from the comfort of your home and have it delivered to your doorstep.

Buying on the internet lets you research at leisure which make and model of vehicle is best suited to your needs. From browsing inventory to knowing the right price to pay, shopping online gives you the upper hand. 

With a growing number of dealerships offering delivery among other online features and options, you might set foot in a dealership only for a test drive, or if you feel you really need to see a vehicle in person before deciding to buy. The majority of car buying can be done online. 

We've outlined the details — from best-rated car-buying sites to key things to look out for — to ensure a seamless and stress-free experience. If you've bought a car online and have insights, share them in the comments.

  1. Set a budget

    The first step should be determining how much you can afford to spend. This includes calculating long-term and one-time expenses. Long-term costs should include paying for fuel, routine maintenance, and car insurance, while one-time costs include expenses such as a down payment and other fees that will contribute to a final purchase price.

  2. Get preapproved for an auto loan

    To get the best deal on a car loan, research lender options and make sure you are preapproved before approaching dealerships — online or in-person. Most banks, credit unions, and online lenders offer preapproval periods that let you see your potential interest rate and monthly payment so you can take those expenses into account. Once you are preapproved for a loan, you can use it as leverage when negotiating prices. Dealer financing often involves big markups, so having a loan in your back pocket will help you get the best deal.

  3. Figure out what kind of car best fits your needs

    Before heading to the dealership, make sure you have a clear picture of the kind of vehicle you're looking for. Whether it be gas mileage, safety, or speed that you're after, be sure you know what to ask and look for. Websites such as Edmunds and CarGurus offer expert reviews, valuation tools, and articles on hundreds of car models.

  4. Find the trade-in value of your current car

    If you are trading or buying a new car to replace a used vehicle, knowing how much money you can get for your old car can help offset some costs. Most dealerships give credit on an old car that can be applied toward a new purchase — but it's important to know how much your old car is worth to make sure you're getting the best deal. Likewise, knowing the value of your new car in a trade or sale is important in planning for the future.

  5. Browse away

    It's time for the fun part: shopping. These are the highest-rated sites for buying a car online, according to Consumer Affairs:

  • Carvana — We've all seen the ads. Carvana offers a wide selection of used cars with a 100-day limited warranty in which you can test a newly bought vehicle, as well as a seven-day "money-back" guarantee. It's helpful for trading in or selling your used car.  
  • DriveTime — Boasting a lineup of more than 9,000 used vehicles, this dealership has 144 locations nationwide. It offers customers credit and loan assistance to help you find the right car, and lets you see a detailed cost breakdown before you decide to buy.
  • CarMax — Offers 125-point inspections to determine whether a car is in good shape and offers a seven-day trial period with the option to return a vehicle for a full refund. CarMax does not charge a fee for home delivery. 
  • Tred — Marketed as a person-to-person used-car marketplace, Tred helps you search from thousands of used vehicles on the market and offers options to compare prices, communicate directly with sellers, schedule test drives, apply for financing, and set up delivery. You can sell or trade in your current vehicle (at a 30% value or more).
  • TrueCar — Offering new and used cars, TrueCar offers detailed pricing data (MRSP and market average estimates), as well as filter options that ensure certified dealerships honor price reports. It lets consumers complete paperwork electronically and get set up for home delivery with select dealerships.

Final checklist:

You chose a car online and the numbers check out — hooray. What can you expect now? 

The dealership will have you sign and submit electronic documents with personal details including contact and employment information. After that, you and any cosigner will see a detailed breakdown of the transaction, including fees and taxes. Once you wrap up the financing process with your bank or lender, get that bubbly ready — you've just bought a car online! 

Confirm that all the information on your newly bought car title is correct — they're usually sent in the mail after being processed at a motor vehicle registry — and let the dealership know where and when you want your car delivered. 

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