The coronavirus shutdown has forced car dealers and auto manufacturers to place a much greater emphasis on selling vehicles online. The process isn’t new to the COVID-19 crisis, but the current situation has compelled virtually every major automaker to expand their online offerings to the point that you can now research, select, test drive, negotiate for and purchase virtually any new car without leaving your home. Here’s what to keep in mind when buying a car.
Last updated: March 9, 2021
Don’t Panic, Not Much Has Changed
If you’re feeling overwhelmed about the prospect of buying a car online for the first time, don’t. Much of the traditional car-buying process — shopping, researching, applying for loans, etc. — takes place online anyway, so not that much is different. The important thing is not to forget the basics.
Open Your Mind, Even If You’ve Already Made It Up
If you’re about to buy a car, you might have already made up your mind on the make and model. Consider reconsidering. The shutdown has caused virtually every major automaker to offer deals and incentives to boost sales as the economy falters. Some are offering deferred payments, others are pitching 0% financing, others are doing both or offering other deals altogether. It’s a buyer’s market right now. Even if you’ve already shopped around, shop around again.
Make Sure To Read the Fine Print
It’s true that there are plenty of deals to choose from right now, but virtually all of the shutdown-related promotions come with restrictions, exceptions and limitations. These promotions almost always apply only to the most qualified buyers. Deferred payments and similar programs often require the buyer to demonstrate need. The list goes on and on. Automakers are marketing these deals as if they’re offering them out of compassion, which many of them might be, at least in part. But they’re in business to sell cars and make money. Read the small print.
Coronavirus or no coronavirus, dealers make most of their money through the financing department. By getting approved for a loan before you begin the process, you arm yourself with the option of saying no to dealer financing.
Do Your Homework, Just Like You Would Pre-Virus
You’re not just investigating money-saving deals. You’re investigating vehicles. When buying a car online, do exactly what you would have done before the shutdown. Use sites like Kelley Blue Book to browse both user and expert reviews on any models you’re considering buying. Check out their reliability ratings, their average long-term cost of ownership, their fuel economy and how much they’ll cost to insure.
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Learn What People Are Really Paying
Another holdover from the days of walking into a dealership is to find out what people in your area pay on average for any vehicles you’re considering. The average purchase price varies from region to region and even from locality to locality. Tools like the Edmunds True Market Value calculator can help you understand what people near you paid for the same car, right down to the color and trim package.
Look For a Return Policy
Some automakers are offering fairly generous return policies as part of their shutdown promotional offerings. The Ford Promise program, for example, lets buyers return their vehicle within one year from the date of purchase if they experience financial hardship. Just like with the previously discussed buying incentives, however, there are a whole bunch of exclusions and restrictions to watch out for.
Check Out Cleaning Protocols
Aside from financial incentives, many automakers have instituted strict cleaning and sanitization protocols for their dealerships, vehicles and employees based on CDC standards. Although you’ll be completing the entire transaction online, you’ll eventually take possession of a vehicle that other people have handled. Make sure you work with a dealership or online-only vendor that takes safety seriously.
Research Delivery Offerings
You should be able to go through the entire process, beginning to end, without leaving your home. Most major automakers have added home delivery to their updated offerings. Many offered dealer-to-door delivery even before the crisis forced them to reconsider their business models, but it’s much more common now.
Ask About At-Home Test Drives
The same thing applies here, too. You shouldn’t have to visit a dealership to take a test drive. The dealer should bring a sanitized car to you for you to try out on the road for yourself. If the dealer doesn’t offer this service, work with another dealer.
Ask About Valet Service Options
Some dealers are sweetening the pot by offering valet options for when it comes time to service your new vehicle in the future. Whether it’s for an oil change or anything else, the dealer’s service department will drive to you, pick up your car, have it serviced, sanitize it and bring it back. Enough automakers are offering this service that you might be able to get it just by asking, even if your dealer doesn’t regularly provide a valet option.
Make Sure There’s No In-Person Paperwork
According to the AARP, there’s no reason you should have to fill out any paperwork in person. You should be able to handle most of it online, although you’re likely to encounter some documents that require hard signatures. Ask the dealer to mail them or drop them off in a safe place so you can sign them and then have the dealer come pick them up.
Take a Virtual Tour
Before the shutdown, buyers went to dealerships and inspected the vehicles they were interested in. That, of course, is no longer an option. The online equivalent is a virtual tour, a multimedia presentation that is a big step up from traditional pictures of the interior and exterior. Many automakers give you a multimedia tour of the vehicle of your choice just by clicking on the model as you browse on their website. In other cases, you might have to reach out to the dealer with a call or an email. Many automakers, like Kia, offer virtual tours of their entire dealer showrooms.
Consider a Credit Union
As you’re checking off your to-do list, you might want to look into your local credit union for your auto loan. Unlike traditional lenders, credit unions are member-owned not-for-profits. This business model often allows credit unions to offer better rates to their members/customers than banks.
Search Beyond Your Area
One of the benefits of buying online is that you can shop inventory well beyond your immediate area. U.S. News and World Report suggests shopping based on regional demand. Convertibles, for example, are more popular — and expensive — in warm climates. Likewise for SUVs in cold, snowy climates. Consider searching urban areas for pickups, where trucks are less popular, and rural areas for hybrids and EVs.
Choose Your Preferred Method of Communication
When you decide on a few models you like, the next step is to communicate with a sales representative or preferably a sales manager to do things like find out which deals are specific to that dealership and to negotiate the price. The dealer might invite you to a Zoom meeting or another virtual chat, or might simply ask you to call.
The communication format is up to you. Don’t let yourself be pressured into a virtual call if you don’t want to chat face to face or a phone call if you don’t want to talk. You’ll eventually have to communicate, but no matter what the dealer says, it’s up to you how that communication takes place.
Keep Your Personal Data Close to the Vest
When it comes time to talk, Consumer Reports suggests that email might be the best form of communication throughout the process. Part of the reason dealers might pressure you into a phone call or a video chat is to get your number in their files. If they have your email address and nothing more, you won’t be bombarded with sales calls and marketing pitches, which tend to continue long after you’ve bought the car.
Stoke a Bidding War
Make sure to shop around to multiple dealers. You’ll be able to search for better deals, of course, but there’s a second benefit, as well. If you get a lower price from one dealer, you can go back to the other and use it to get them to lower their own price. Once dealers know you’re talking to other dealers, according to Consumer Reports, they’ll feel a sense of urgency to secure your business.
Keep Trade-In and Purchase Negotiations Separate
This one holds true whether you buy a car online or the old-fashioned way — never let the dealer talk you into combining purchase and trade-in into one negotiation. If the new purchase and trade-in are discussed at the same time, the dealer can give you a seemingly great deal on one by juicing up the price on the other.
Consider a Dealership Alternative
The most popular alternative to a traditional dealership is CarMax. In addition to its no-haggle, user-friendly business model, CarMax’s website also makes things simple for buyers with an easy-to-navigate website. You can browse the inventory of the store closest to you, or any store across the nation. Once you find a car you like, you can place a hold for a test drive, buy it curbside at the store or have CarMax deliver it to your home — for free. Regardless of which option you choose, there is no obligation to buy, and CarMax even offers a seven-day money-back guarantee.
Don’t Negotiate Off the MSRP
This, too, applies whether you’re buying a car online or in person — never negotiate with the MSRP as the starting point — that’s the price the dealer hopes to get. Edmunds suggests using a tool like its TMV calculator to see what people are paying in your area and compare that to the car’s MSRP and invoice. In the end, you’re not only trying to pay less than the MSRP, you’re trying to pay less than the TMV price.
Don’t Reveal How You Intend To Pay
Whether you’re communicating over the phone, through email, through text or video chat, make sure you don’t say how you intend to pay. The dealer is sure to ask — simply say, “I haven’t decided.” If you give up that information, you’re playing into the dealer’s hands. If you say you’re paying cash, the dealer knows they won’t be making any money in the finance office and will be less likely to give you a good deal. If you say you’re financing through the dealer, they can offer you a seemingly great deal on the car only to make up for it by offering a higher interest rate.
If You Must Visit a Dealer, Make an Appointment
Some dealerships are simply closed because of mandatory shutdowns and shelter-at-home orders. Others are receiving customers, but not on a walk-in basis. Even if unannounced walk-ins are allowed, make an appointment. If for whatever reason you must visit a dealership in person, you want to spend as little time there as possible and interact with as few people as necessary.
Consider a Concierge Service
If you’re still intimidated or uncertain about buying a car online, or you’re not confident you can get the best deal on your own, look into concierge services. The Car Concierge, for example, charges a flat rate of $495 for all cars under $75,000 and a little more for pricier cars. In exchange, they go through the entire process for you. You simply tell the concierge service the make and model you want to buy, and they shop the best deals — even those well beyond your area — and get a price as close to wholesale as possible in a few days. You could spend a few hundred dollars to save a few thousand — and you also offload all the stress and uncertainty.
Consider an Online-Only Site
Most of these tips deal with buying online line through a dealership, but that’s not the only option. The last few years have witnessed the arrival of a whole bunch of competing services that only sell vehicles online. The most widely known service is Carvana, but there’s also AutoTrader, eBay Motors, Vroom, TrueCar and more. They all, of course, come with pros and cons. Consumer Affairs maintains a helpful ratings-based roundup of the best.
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