How to Buy a Car Online

Jack R. Nerad | Mar 05, 2021

In an era in which we are more concerned about the use of our time than anything else, the traditional car-buying process seems archaic. Undoubtedly, you've asked yourself this question: "How can I buy a car online?" 

How to Buy a Car Online

After all, we can purchase almost anything else we want online, and we can do it from the comfort of our family rooms in just minutes with a few clicks. So the idea of going to a massive balloon-bedecked dealership on a traffic-choked commercial street to spend several hours hashing out a vehicle purchase has all the appeal of do-it-yourself heart surgery. 

We have good news for you. You can buy a car online, and this article will show you how.

How to Buy a Car Online - Find the best car deals!

Buying a car online is a straightforward process, but it is also multi-faceted and includes the following steps:

Consider this article your knowledge hub for how to buy a car online. It will take you down the online buying path in a simple, easy-to-follow progression. 

By concentrating on available online processes and resources, it will tell you how to make all the critical steps in your online purchase process from the research and shopping process through financing and negotiating techniques. 

It will also reveal online alternatives to purchasing your new or used vehicle from a car dealer. And it will explain an alternative to owning a car at all — a vehicle subscription.

Turning your back on the traditional car-buying approach might seem too good to be true, but thousands of car buyers do it every day. That said, there are some disadvantages to the online buying process, and we will reveal those to you in addition to pointing out the many advantages. 

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to buy a car online. 

How to Research a Car Online - Find the best car deals!

Choice is good, but too much choice can be paralyzing. Many car buyers find themselves in that position every day as they are faced with thousands of local options among new, used, and certified pre-owned vehicles. 

In response, you can shrug your shoulders and give up. Or you can begin to make your way out of the forest of choices by conducting research, something that is incredibly easy to do online. 

Simply by spending a few minutes using the free research tools available, you can gain the information you need to choose a great car and make a great deal that will leave you satisfied for years.

Here are some of the useful research tools on

One thing is certain — there are more good cars, trucks, SUVs, and vans on the market than ever before. Our J.D. Power research, based on the experiences of hundreds of thousands of new- and used-vehicle owners, shows vehicle quality and dependability have been on nearly steady upswings for decades. 

During the research phase of the online car-buying journey, what is necessary is to access and leverage the helpful information that is available to you to narrow your choices until you land on the one car that will fulfill your expectations. Learn more in our How to Research a Car Online article.

Know What You Can Afford - Find the best car deals!

Related to researching a car online, you need to understand what you can afford to spend on a new car.

If you are paying cash, you've already established your budget. But if you plan to buy using a car loan, or you're going to lease a new vehicle, you'll need to know what fits your monthly budget.

Financial gurus say the typical consumer should spend no more than 15% of their total monthly budget on automotive expenses, including insurance, maintenance, gas, and other costs of ownership. To help you establish a budget for a vehicle, a car loan calculator comes in handy.

How to Get Auto Financing Online - Find the best car deals!

After you determine what you can afford to spend on a vehicle, you need to decide if you're going to pay cash, finance using a loan, or sign a lease. If you need a loan, you should arrange one before you shop for the actual car you might buy, and definitely before you start negotiating with a dealer.

Most car buyers don't pay enough attention to auto financing. They don't know how auto financing works, and so they have a tough time making it work in their favor. Many car buyers work hard to negotiate the vehicle's purchase price and then pay almost no attention to their car loan. 

That's an easy way to throw away hundreds of dollars. 

To get as good a deal as possible, you need to shop for financing as diligently as you shop for the car. Learn more in our How Does Auto Financing Work article.

How to Shop for a Car Online - Find the best car deals!

Now that you've determined the type of vehicle you need and want, and you know what you can afford to pay, and you've got your financing arranged (if necessary), it is time to shop for a car online. 

For most Americans, the internet has become the chosen path for car shopping. Its breadth and reach allow you to see hundreds of vehicles in a matter of minutes. It is available to you at any hour of any day of any week, even when dealerships are shut tighter than a drum, enabling you to shop for a new or used car whenever it is convenient for you.

For example, supplies access to millions of new and used vehicles you can shop for online.

Of course, just because online car shopping is simple and available to you doesn't mean that you shouldn't apply some discipline to find the best car and the best deal. If you hope to land on the vehicle that will best suit your needs, your finances, and your lifestyle, you should approach the process with the idea of accomplishing tasks in a logical way.

To narrow your online car shopping to find the actual vehicle you are going to buy, be sure to read our How to Shop for a Car Online article. Using our recommendations to locate vehicles for sale that match all your buying criteria — year, make, model, price, equipment, color — will take you to the end of your online shopping journey.

Now you're ready to begin the online price negotiation process. 

How to Negotiate a Car Price Online - Find the best car deals!

Negotiating the price of a new car is painful for many of us. Bargaining, haggling, and negotiating are alien and uncomfortable processes we just aren't used to. The happy news is buying a car online can relieve you of those uncomfortable tasks. 

Some online car purchases involve no negotiating at all, and perhaps that's the tack you want to take. On the other hand, to get the very best price and the very best deal, you might feel you have to negotiate.

By this point, you are very well-positioned and well-armed to negotiate your online purchase. You've decided which car you are going to buy. You know what consumers like you are paying for it. You've seen what deals are available in your area. And you've already arranged your financing.

And as an online price negotiator, you have advantages that other car buyers who walk into the dealership do not:

  • You're not engaged in face-to-face interaction with salespeople, so there is no sales pressure 
  • You know you should contact the Internet Sales Manager or the Fleet Sales Manager of the dealership that has the car you want in stock
  • You can initiate contact by email, by chat on the dealer's website, or by telephone. If you are negotiating online, you can communicate how and when you want to without being rude 
  • You have the opportunity to negotiate with several dealers simultaneously

Since you know what you are willing to pay based on your pre-negotiation research and loan qualification, you are well-positioned to make a satisfying deal. Learn more in our How to Negotiate a Car Price Online article. 

What is a Car Subscription? - Find the best car deals!

You know that you can buy or lease a car, but did you know you can get many of the advantages of car ownership while avoiding many of the hassles? What are we talking about, you ask? Vehicle subscriptions are a relatively new way to put yourself behind the wheel of a new vehicle. 

A car subscription is a new take on an old business model. In exchange for a premium, car subscriptions relieve customers of the many expenses and irritations of car ownership while delivering all the advantages of having a car. Repairs and maintenance, license and registration fees, smog checks, car insurance — all those things go out the window when you subscribe to a vehicle. 

Car manufacturers, auto dealers, car rental companies, and internet startups have launched various car subscription services and apps. All are trying to figure out how to serve customers best and at the same time profit from the subscribe-to-a-car idea. That last thing has proven difficult for many of them. 

Subscribing to a car is not for everyone. In fact, as many car manufacturers and Internet entrepreneurs have discovered, it might be an idea whose time will never come. But if the idea of subscribing to a car appeals to you, learn more about how car subscriptions work.

Alternatives to Buying from a Dealer - Find the best car deals!

If you like the idea of buying a car without going to a dealership, you should know that alternatives exist. Each will enable you to do all of your vehicle searches online, and each will offer you ways to complete the entire deal online. But before you turn your back on car dealers forever, you need to know that while online car-buying alternatives offer potential advantages over the local dealer, they also have drawbacks. 

The three most prominent alternatives to buying a vehicle from a car dealer are: 

  • Purchasing from a private party
  • Purchasing from an online auction
  • Purchasing from a car rental company

A private party purchase offers you a fantastic variety of used vehicles. And cars purchased from individuals can be much lower-priced than cars purchased from a dealer. But there are several disadvantages to buying your car from a private party that could be off-putting.

Auctions are another car-buying alternative, and they can provide many of the benefits of purchasing from an individual private party. Online public auctions are open to everyone, and some websites enable non-dealers to participate in dealer auctions. But there are challenges associated with buying a car online through an auction. 

Purchasing a former rental vehicle from a car rental company is another alternative to buying from a car dealer. Prices tend to be low, and no-haggle prices are typically posted online. Often you can pick up the vehicle at a local outlet of the rental car company so you can test drive it for as long as a couple of days before deciding to purchase it. But there are both pros and cons to this alternative. 

Intrigued? Learn more in our Best Auto Buying Alternatives article.

The Pros and Cons of Buying a Car Online - Find the best car deals!

Buying a car online is convenient and time-efficient, and these days many consumers are comfortable with the process. The future points toward online car-buying as the go-to method of auto retailing. But what are the pros and cons of buying a car online?

The pros of online car-buying include:

  • It can save time
  • No sales pressure
  • Convenience
  • Vehicle delivery

When you buy a car online, you control the timing, pace, and process without rushing into a decision that you might regret later.

The cons of online car-buying include:

  • Inability to personally inspect the vehicle before you buy it
  • Inability to test-drive the vehicle before you buy it
  • Limited financing choices unless you arrange a loan in advance
  • Adding a trade-in vehicle complicates the process 

To learn more, read our Pros and Cons of Buying a Car Online article.

Summary - Find the best car deals!

Deciding whether to buy a vehicle online or not depends on what you want and need. If you seek speed, convenience, and lack of hassle, buying online could suit you very well. But if you want to see, touch, and drive the car before you buy it, you would still be well-served by using the conventional car-buying process. 

Jack R. Nerad has covered car buying, auto retailing, and the automotive industry for more than three decades. He has held editorial director posts at dealership, consumer, enthusiast, and market research publications; appeared on television as a car-buying expert; and hosts a popular podcast. He is the author of several books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car.

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