Car dealerships are experiencing a transformation due to the Internet, which is revolutionizing the car-buying process. Instead of the traditional days spent traveling from one dealer to another in search of their desired car, truck, or SUV, and negotiating for hours on end, today’s buyers and lessees can explore numerous dealerships from the comfort of their own homes. Increasingly, they can finalize much of the car-buying process without needing to leave their house, and sometimes, they can complete it entirely without setting foot in a dealership.

Buying a preowned or new car online offers numerous advantages compared to the traditional process. Few consumers enjoy the face-to-face negotiations that still dominate car lots daily. The back-and-forth among buyers, salespeople, and managers remains one of the final strongholds of free-wheeling price bargaining, though its days could be numbered.

Fortunately, nearly every aspect of the car-buying journey can now be handled online with significantly less stress. While a visit to the dealership is often still required for a thorough test drive, paperwork signing, and car delivery, even this part of the process is evolving. Many dealers now offer to deliver the car directly to your doorstep, and electronic signatures are increasingly replacing traditional paper documentation.

Tesla, a pioneer in electric vehicles, has advanced the online car-buying experience further than other manufacturers. Tesla’s retail locations are not typical dealerships but rather showrooms where customers can complete the entire purchase process either at a kiosk in-store or from their own homes. Tesla adopts a no-negotiation pricing model, meaning the price advertised is the price paid.

In this guide, we will outline eight straightforward steps for purchasing a car online. Our focus will primarily be on buying new or used vehicles from dealerships. For information on purchasing from a private seller, refer to our guide on buying a used car.

Before embarking on the online buying journey, there are essential tasks to address. Foremost among these is establishing a budget. Without a clear understanding of your financial limits, it’s challenging to determine which cars and trucks should make your shopping list. Utilize our car affordability calculator to pinpoint vehicles within your price range, and consult our guide on setting an appropriate car budget to ascertain a monthly payment that aligns with your financial situation.

Your car-buying budget should not solely focus on monthly payments. Instead, consider the overall cost of the vehicle, including total interest payments over the loan term. Factor in additional expenses associated with vehicle ownership such as fuel, insurance, maintenance, and parking fees.

If you still owe money on your current vehicle, that outstanding amount must be settled either before purchasing a new one or as part of your financing arrangement. Insurance costs vary by vehicle model, so factor in insurance expenses when evaluating different models. Refer to our auto insurance guide for insights into necessary coverage considerations.

Savvy consumers understand the importance of arriving at a local dealership, whether in person or online, with a preapproved financing deal already secured. Not only does obtaining a preapproved loan help establish a sensible price range, but it also sets a benchmark that dealers must strive to beat if they wish to provide financing for your new or used car.

Securing a preapproved financing deal online is straightforward. You can explore options from banks, credit unions, and various lenders individually, or opt for platforms that aggregate offers from multiple lenders with a single application. Our guide on online auto loans outlines the advantages and disadvantages of online lending and offers strategies for securing the most favorable terms.

Some buyers arrive with a clear idea of the car they want, down to the specific color and trim, even before beginning their search. Others are unsure and require guidance to discover a vehicle that meets both their needs and budget.

Our new car rankings and reviews aggregate insights from leading automotive journalists nationwide, augmented by quantitative data on predicted reliability and safety, to assess nearly every available model. For used cars, our rankings incorporate information on ownership costs, providing a comprehensive guide to finding a suitable and financially viable vehicle.

To get a closer look at the cars you’re considering, visiting a local dealership is advisable. Explore the range of cars, trucks, and SUVs they offer. When browsing, assertively inform the salesperson that you are only looking. Remember, you have the option to leave if you feel uncomfortable. Sit in the driver’s seat of the vehicles on your shortlist to evaluate comfort and visibility, and request a test drive to experience the vehicle firsthand. However, it’s wise to refrain from discussing purchase negotiations at this stage; that can be addressed later in the process.

Not every vehicle becomes a standout success in the automotive market. When sales fall short of an automaker’s expectations or a vehicle nears the end of its product cycle, manufacturers often introduce money-saving incentives to stimulate demand.

Prospective buyers interested in new vehicles or certified pre-owned cars should check for available incentives on the models they are considering. Taking advantage of cash rebates, low-interest financing offers, or subsidized lease deals can result in substantial savings. Cash rebates directly reduce the purchase price, low-interest financing minimizes or eliminates interest charges on loans, and lease deals reduce upfront costs or monthly payments.

For the latest purchase incentives on new cars, visit our new car deals page. Lease customers seeking attractive terms such as low monthly payments or minimal upfront payments can explore our lease deals page. Those interested in certified used cars can find special financing offers on our used car deals page.

Not too long ago, visiting multiple dealerships in person was necessary to view their inventory firsthand. Nowadays, customers can conveniently browse the new and used car offerings of dealerships across a wide geographic area online.

When considering a new car or truck purchase, it’s beneficial to engage with local dealerships even if they don’t currently have the specific model you desire in stock. Often, vehicles matching your preferences may be scheduled for future deliveries, and dealers frequently exchange inventory with each other to accommodate customer requests for specific models, colors, or features.

Expand Your Search

Shopping online for a vehicle empowers you to explore cars of interest within your local vicinity or even hundreds of miles away. It’s wise to widen your search to include locations and dealerships where you might find better pricing. For instance, if you’re eyeing a full-size pickup truck, consider checking urban dealerships where such models may be less popular. Alternatively, if you’re interested in a plug-in hybrid, rural dealerships might have lower demand for hybrids and thus offer more competitive pricing.

The next step in an online vehicle purchase involves contacting the dealership’s Internet sales department or Internet sales manager via email or chat. These departments typically assign knowledgeable staff who recognize the potential of online sales and understand that online buyers tend to be well-informed and savvy compared to traditional showroom visitors. Buying online often offers a greater likelihood of a straightforward, no-haggle purchasing experience compared to face-to-face transactions at a dealership.

Your initial communications will revolve around identifying the type of vehicle you’re interested in and whether they currently have it in stock or can acquire it. They may inquire about financing options and potential trade-ins. It’s acceptable at this stage to keep your responses vague regarding your financing plans and current vehicle sale intentions, focusing instead on discussing the car’s price.

For used vehicles, request a vehicle history report from the dealer detailing its accident history, repairs, title status, and registration history. If the dealer doesn’t provide this report, obtain the vehicle identification number (VIN) and purchase an AutoCheck or Carfax report yourself for a comprehensive review.

It’s crucial to test drive the specific vehicle you intend to purchase. Not all new cars roll off the factory line without any flaws, so experiencing the exact car before finalizing the paperwork is essential. For used vehicles, it’s advisable to have an independent mechanic thoroughly inspect it, although this step is typically optional when purchasing a certified used car.

Increasingly, automakers and dealerships offer programs that allow salespeople to bring vehicles directly to customers’ homes for test drives. Hyundai’s Shopper Assurance program exemplifies this trend, providing convenience by enabling test drives in the comfort of your familiar driving environment. However, not all car manufacturers provide home test drive options, necessitating a visit to the dealership for this phase.

There are specific guidelines for conducting a successful test drive of a used car. Prior to getting behind the wheel, refer to our comprehensive guide on test driving a used car. Many aspects covered in the article are also applicable to test driving new cars.

Completing a vehicle purchase typically requires a dealership visit, even after extensive online negotiations. Before heading in, ensure your deal is nearly finalized, encompassing an out-the-door price that covers all taxes, fees, and financing details—whether through a preapproved auto loan or dealership financing. It’s crucial to confirm with the dealership what documentation is needed if you’re using an external lender to streamline the process and avoid unnecessary back-and-forth trips. During your dealership visit, expect a final appraisal of your trade-in vehicle. Despite potential discrepancies in valuation, consider leaving it in the deal, particularly if it helps offset high sales tax rates in your state, potentially saving you money in the transaction.

Upon arrival, your primary task will be signing the purchase paperwork. Take the time to meticulously review each document to ensure accuracy and completeness. Verify that all terms align with the agreed-upon online deal and that no crucial details are left unspecified or incorrect. Refuse to sign any incomplete documents, as changes are more manageable before your signature is affixed. If the dealership attempts to alter the previously agreed terms without justification, be prepared to politely decline and explore other dealerships. Finally, while signing paperwork, be mindful of the dealership’s offerings of additional products such as extended warranties or gap insurance. Research these options thoroughly and compare prices with third-party providers to make informed decisions that align with your budget and coverage needs.