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It seems like you can buy just about anything online these days, including cars. And while dealerships are starting to get in on the action, brands like Carvana and Vroom provide a completely online car buying experience. But is it a good idea to buy a car online? As with everything, the answer isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

A Carvana car vending machine is a splashy selling point of buying a car online
A Carvana car vending machine | Getty Images

Reasons it is a good idea to buy a car online

Let’s start with the positives, because there are many reasons that it may be a good idea to buy a car online.

For one, there is a large nationwide selection of vehicles to choose from. For people shopping in rural areas this is incredibly beneficial. You’re not stuck with the handful of vehicles at the one dealership in town. Furthermore, you won’t be driving hours for a more extensive selection. With online car buying, the entire catalog is available for you to view and order from home.

Of course, the delivery and pick up of your trade-in also make remote car buying a good idea. Forget bringing your old car to the dealership and waiting for the paperwork to process on your new ride. It’s simple, convenient, and quick – everything buying from a dealership isn’t.

Cons of skipping the dealership

While no dealership connection is good for getting away from pushy salespeople, those same folks are great for handling issues that arise after the sale. Most dealerships want to protect their reputations, so if you have problems with a car you just bought, they’ll help find solutions.

When you buy a car online, you’re largely on your own even if something goes wrong right away. And though you may have a warranty, it can take days or weeks to get repair approvals.

In addition, there are a fair few horror stories like this New Jersey report about titles and  trade-in payoffs taking months to arrive. 

That’s can leave buyers paying two car payments at once, and that can be a big problem for those on a budget. Unfortunately, the bank won’t care that a web-based dealership has agreed to buy your car – they just want their money. The payments are entirely on you until the company handles the paperwork.

Perhaps the biggest downside of buying a car online is the lack of in-person inspection. Unfortunately, it’s easy to hide big paint imperfections and coverups with clever lighting and photography. In some cases, poor paint has been spray painted to appear better in photos than it is in reality. That can leave you with thousands of dollars in repairs to contend with that likely won’t be covered by the online dealer.

Should you buy a car online?

A Carvana car vending machine
Car vending machines are a fun concept, but the real process of buying a car remotely is often different | Getty Images

Clearly, there are big points in both directions that make it hard to know if buying a car online is a good idea. As with all car buying experiences, doing your research can help avoid potential problems.

Read the review of the company you’re working with to see if any patterns emerge regarding bad experiences. And if possible, find vehicles that are still under the original factory warranty. That will ensure you can get the help you need if something goes wrong, without having to rely on the online marketplace to process your request.