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The Pros and Cons of Buying a Car Online

9 minute read

By Devon Taylor

Like everything else, the car buying experience is moving online. Surveys show that roughly two-thirds of American car-buyers now go online to research a car. While many still prefer a face-to-face meeting for the final transaction, they can get every other piece of information form the web first. They will look at online car listings, compare different models, judge the value of their own trade-in, calculate their loan payments, and research potential dealers. Some buyers will even secure their financing online, before they even bother to make an offer on their desired new car.

Increasingly, car shoppers are also turning to social media to learn about vehicles and dealerships in their areas. As with most things, there are benefits and drawbacks to shopping for car online. In this article, we explore some of the Pros and Cons of buying a vehicle online.

PROs of Buying a Car Online

Let’s start with the benefits of online buying. You can get a lot done without even putting on pants and leaving the house. Just break out your laptop or smartphone and get to work. There’s a wealth of information at your fingertips. Your vehicle purchase will always be smoother (and potentially cheaper) if you’re well-informed.

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It Saves Time

Most people who shop for a vehicle in-person do it on the weekend. After a busy week at work, it’s normally the only spare time they have. However, very few people actually want to spend their Saturday in a car dealership. The place is crowded and often full of pushy salespeople who are doing everything they can to make sure you sign on the dotted line before you leave. Shopping online skips all of that.

The main benefit of shopping for a vehicle online is that it saves time. Forget visiting multiple dealerships, checking out various models, and negotiating terms. You can do all that from your couch. Figure out the model you want, the features you’re willing to pay for, and your budget. When you find an ad that fits your buying needs, contact the seller via email or phone.

In fact, the whole process can be completed from home these days, including the paperwork. You just have to show up in person to pick up the keys and drive your new ride home.

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No Haggling

Sure, some of us enjoy haggling with a salesperson or feel we’re particularly good at negotiating. However, there are also plenty of us who dread the experience. Why can sellers just list the car for a reasonable, fair price so we can agree to pay it? The back-and-forth over price is the most-hated part of the process for many buyers. As such, buying your new vehicle online removes a lot of the stress associated with haggling over price.

Most online car sales have clearly posted prices. On more advanced websites, you can even see the prices (or your monthly payments) adjust in real-time as you submit your personal information like credit history, trade-in vehicle, or down payment amount. Still, a clearly displayed price is a great place to start.

If you still want to negotiate, you can probably send an email or text message with your offer. At least you won’t have to deal with the pressures of doing it in-person. Even if the seller isn’t willing to negotiate, you have a wealth of options to comparison shop their price against. Determining whether it’s a fair one (or not) is simply a matter of looking around at similar ads.

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No Sales Pressure

Speaking of sales pressure, there is none. Buying a vehicle online removes yourself from those high-pressure sales tactics that so many car dealers utilize. Online sales aren’t normally overseen by a single salesperson, whose commission depends on closing the deal.

There are plenty of car salespeople who are friendly and honest. Then again, there are still some who remain pushy, aggressive, and a bit dishonest at times. They put a lot of pressure on you to sign on the dotted line. It’s too much for some people. A majority of Americans say not having to deal with a salesperson is a major benefit of buying a car online.

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Lots of Choice

When it comes to buying a car online — particularly used cars — there’s more choice than ever before. Online used car dealers such as Vroom, Carvana, and Shift are constantly growing the vehicles they have for sale and the states in which they operate. Private and professional sellers can still use AutoTrader to post their ads too.

These websites offer a full-service online car buying experience. Their goal is to deliver the same experience online that you’d receive in-person at a dealership or used car lot. The sheer volume of vehicles, both new and used, available online today is a huge plus for every consumer.

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Convenience

The positives of shopping for a car online can be summed up in one word: “convenience.” Online car-buying can be done any time of day or night. from the convenience of home. You can search for a car in your pajamas, while walking on a treadmill in your basement, or at 3:00 am while eating the leftover stale pizza.

There’s no rush when shopping for a vehicle online. There’s no pressure, either. If you do end up making a purchase, many online car sales sites even offer home delivery. A representative will deliver the car to your front door — or whatever address you choose — and give you all the documentation and information you need. What’s more convenient than that?

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CONs of Buying a Car Online

Buying a new car online might be convenient, but it’s not perfect. There are still a few drawbacks that prevent this method of car shopping from completely taking over.

No Kicking The Tires

Let’s start with the most obvious negative. When you buy a car online, you don’t have the ability to “kick the tires.” No, not literally striking the rubber with you foot. Rather, you can’t see, feel, or physically inspect the vehicle with your own eyes. For many buyers, this is a deal breaker. A car is just too expensive of a purchase to commit to without inspecting the item first-hand. Like it or not, buying completely online will always require a fair bit of extra trust.

That being said, most online sellers go out of their way to help ease this anxiety. They provide extensive photo and videos of both the interior and exterior of the car. It’s almost like seeing it in person, but not quite. Really, there’s nothing that can replace being able to check out your potential new car with your own eyes.

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No Test Drive

Along with not seeing the vehicle in-person, buying online often limits your chance for a test-drive. It may eliminate it altogether. Most people still aren’t comfortable spending thousands of dollars (or tens of thousands, even) on something they can’t at least drive around the block a couple times first. Seeing really is believing when it comes to buying a car, and buying online has this one major shortfall.

Online sellers often try to compensate for the lack of a test drive by offering generous warranties and  return policies. You’re likely going to have 30 to 90 days to request a no-questions-asked refund. However, this only applies if buying through a particular online seller. Private sales are almost always completed As-Is.

If your desired vehicle is geographically close to you, it may still be possible to arrange a test drive. Contact the seller and see if they will arrange to meet you. Just keep in mind that this is still the exception, not the rule. Most online car purchases don’t involve a test drive at all.

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No Haggling

We know what you’re thinking. Didn’t we just say that “No Haggling” was a pro of buying a car online? Yeah, we did.

For some people, however, not being able to haggle is actually a con. There are people out there who specialize in negotiating, and use their talents to grab a lower price on almost anything — vehicles included. Even if they can’t get the sale price moved, expert negotiators can argue for a lower interest rate or some free add-ons thrown into the deal. If you love the art of the deal, the inability to negotiate with an online seller might actually turn you off buying a car online.

How you feel about not being able to haggle over your new car ultimately depends on a few key things. The first is your personality. If you love negotiating, then you’ll miss out of this part of the transaction. If you have a lot of experience dealing with salespeople, you may be better off going to a traditional dealership to work your magic.

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Limited Financing Choices

One of the biggest cons to buying a car online is that financing choices tend to be limited. You’re not working with a dealership, who will often offer you in-house financing. Your online car marketplace of choice may only offer a single lending option — and you may not like the terms.

To get around this, we recommend you take steps to secure financing before you start shopping for a car. Look around at local banks and financial institutions, as well as various online lending companies. If you can get pre-approved for a certain amount, you can make any car purchase in cash, knowing that you already have access to the money.

Just don’t mention it to the seller until the very end. They may be counting on earning a bit of extra money by charging you interest over the term of your car loan. Since they aren’t the one earning it if you’re pre-approved elsewhere, they could try to increase the price of the car to compensate.

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Trade-In Difficulties

Another negative of online car buying involves the trade-in of your existing vehicle. Consumers frequently complain they had trouble getting an accurate or fair price for their current vehicle when they tried trading it in for a vehicle they bought online.

Trade-in value is a critical factor in determining the quality of a car deal. It can be extremely difficult to resolve a difference of opinion on the trade-in value of a vehicle when conducting a deal online or via email. The online marketplace has all the same Pros and Cons when it comes to your trade-in as you do regarding their car.

For this reason, consumers are increasingly selling their outgoing vehicles privately, by themselves. Then they put that cash towards the purchase of their next car, which they can buy online without having to deal with a trade-in. Even if you wait and sell your old car after you’ve already purchased a new one, you might be able to take the proceeds and apply it as a lump sum against your new car loan. Just make sure you won’t pay any penalties for doing so.

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Fraud Warning

Unfortunately, scammers have realized the internet is a great place to con people out of their money. Make no mistake, the online auto marketplace has its fair share of fraudsters, hoping to take advantage of gullible buyers. Don’t let yourself get caught up in a deal that is “too good to be true.” Chances are, it probably is.

There’s a great article about avoiding online scams right here. In short, though, you should avoid any seller who gives you reason to distrust them. Are they constantly changing the price? Unwilling to provide new photos or videos of the vehicle? Are they short on details, like mileage numbers or other important features? Do they insist you pay with some strange currency, like gift cards, wire transfer, or cryptocurrency?

If you encounter any of these situations, just walk away. The likelihood of online fraud is also why some experts recommend using a burner phone number or email for a major transaction like buying a car online.

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The Bottom Line

Deciding whether buying a car online is right for you (or not) will depend on several factors. The two biggest are the amount of time you have to spend searching for a vehicle, and you personality. Online purchases tend to work best for those with little time and who don’t like in-person shopping.

For speed, convenience, and lack of hassle, buying online could be a great choice for you. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who wants to see, touch, and smell the car before you acquire it — or you want to grind the dealer down to the lowest possible price — online car shopping probably isn’t for you.

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Devon Taylor

Managing Editor

Devon is an experienced writer and a father of three young children. He's simultaneously trying to build college funds and plan for an eventual retirement. He's been in online publishing since 2013 and has a degree from the University of Guelph. In his free time, he loves fanatically following the Blue Jays and Toronto FC, running, camping with his family, and playing video games.

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