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Editor’s note: Updated 6/23

Car dealerships have never been where most folks want to spend much time. Even for those of us who enjoy a bit of shopping and haggling, the dealership has long been a chore. In this technological day and age, the internet is the marketplace, and more online car dealerships like Carvana and Vroom are popping up regularly. Even OEMs like Rivian are foregoing the traditional dealership. This shifting marketplace can be overwhelming for some, so here are five tips for shopping for a car online.  

A car salesman and auto expert assists a customer in the lot of a Toyota dealership in El Monte, California
A car salesman assists a customer | Getty Images/Bob Riha, Jr.

Can you buy a car online? 

Between the pandemic and an increasingly digital world, we have seen a massive increase in car retailers moving their fleets online. Despite the recent indiscretions with Carvana selling stolen and damaged cars, sites like this are growing quickly, and customers are warming up to the idea. 

To be clear, shopping for a car online means more than cruising Facebook Marketplace or eBay Motors. Sites like CarMax and Vroom are offering more of the traditional car dealership feel without the pressure of a salesperson breathing their hot sales breath all over you. If you find yourself stressing about that process, these tips might help ease your car-shopping blues. 

Don’t forget to do your research

When buying a new or used car, research is key. Tools like professional car reviews, Consumer Reports testing, and IIHS and NHSTA crash tests can give customers a decent idea of what to expect from a new or used car. 

Research is doubly important these days for figuring out what fair pricing is. The new car shortage has driven the price of new cars way up, and as a result, used car prices also jumped. Unfortunately, many dealerships are raising prices well above MSRP on new cars. By doing some research, you can save yourself thousands by passing on greedy dealer markups. 

Always try to test drive any car you are interested in 

Red 2022 Honda Civic driving on a street, highlighting the cars Democrats and Republicans drive the most
2022 Honda Civic | Honda

The test drive is one of the most fun parts of buying a new car. However, shopping for a car online makes that part a little tougher. With a little cleverness and dedication, this step is not only still possible but recommended. 

Some online car retailers will allow you to schedule a test drive of the model you want (or one like it). However, How Stuff Works mentions that you will need to deal with dealership sales-folk. 

Although some online retailers can accommodate test drives, many cannot. In these instances, you can cruise the local car lots and see if they have something similar to a test drive. This process may be frustrating and require some patience, but it is very worth it. No one knows what you want and need from a car better than you. 

Get a vehicle history report when shopping for a car online

CARFAX is essentially an industry standard. This service is a helpful tool for finding out more about a used car’s history. However, CARFAX reports aren’t always accurate. An accurate report requires the insurance provider and all clerical operations to be flawless. A bad report doesn’t always mean a bad car, and vice versa. 

The value of this tool with dealerships is taking the extra step to see how eager a second-hand seller is to give you this information. Any used car dealership worth its salt should provide this to any serious buyer, but if a dealer is hesitant to provide a report, that is usually a bad sign. 

Shopping for a car online might require some extra eyes

Mechanic | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Since buying a car online could mean buying a car from far away, inspecting the car yourself might be difficult. Don’t be afraid to ask the dealer to have a third-party mechanic check the car out and report back. This is a fairly common request, so most dealerships should have a way to accommodate the request. 

Like the CARFAX report, it could be a bad sign if a dealer is hesitant or defiant about this request. Also, if a dealer is fine with it but won’t deliver the car themselves, some mechanics provide an onsite inspection. 

Keep the receipt 

Multistory Carvana building with multiple cars on display.
Carvana building | Getty Images

As we know, return policies can vary from company to company. When shopping for a car online, always pay attention to the dealer’s return policy. These things are important to keep in mind because buying a car is often heavy financial lifting for many of us. Having the option to return a car if you don’t like it or if there is an issue can take a lot of the pressure off the purchase. 

How Stuff Works mentions that Carvana wouldn’t disclose how often customers take advantage of their seven-day return policy. However, Amy O’Hara, Carvana’s associate director of communications, told HSW, “We call every customer on the sixth day to check in, see how things are going, and if they are happy, we’re happy.” 

The way we shop for cars is changing 

As we mentioned above, more and more OEMs are taking on the modern approach of online car sales supplemented by physical showrooms. Ford and Rivian are both taking advantage of this shifting landscape. 

While shopping for a car online might be intimidating, there are ways to protect yourself if you take your time and exercise patience. Not to mention, online car shopping should only get better as more companies join in the digital space. Happy hunting.