Buying a Car from a Dealership Online: How It Works

Internet car sales can be money- and time-saving options for buyers

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In an age where just about anything can be purchased online with the click of a mouse, online car buying is still a little more complicated. Most local dealerships do have internet car sales departments, but there is a lot more to buying a car online than simply clicking on the car of your choice and checking out.

Buying a car online using a laptop.

The full process of buying a car online varies from one dealership to the next, but most follow the same basic process:

If you're buying a used car online, you should seriously consider paying an independent mechanic to inspect the vehicle before you buy it. If they turn up any mechanical issues, you can either walk away or negotiate a break on the price.

  1. Contact the internet sales department and request an itemized quote.

  2. Review the quote and compare it with pricing information that you find online.

  3. Contact additional dealers if the price quote seems high.

  4. If you locate a lower quote, you can use that to negotiate a lower price.

  5. Request a test-drive, if you prefer to drive the car before buying it.

    You don't have to test-drive a car before buying it online, but it's a really good idea. You may find that you don't like the way it handles, that you don't like the sightlines, or even that the seats are uncomfortable. Better to find that out sooner than later.

  6. Visit the dealership and finalize the transaction in person according to the terms that you agreed to online.

Online Car Buying vs. Visiting the Dealership

The traditional car buying experience starts with walking through the door of a local dealership and meeting with a salesperson. When you find a car that you’re interested in, you’ll notice that it has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) sticker on the window. That’s where the negotiations start.

The biggest difference between buying a car in person and online car shopping is that you’ll rarely ever run into an MSRP on the internet. Internet car sales departments are typically focused on volume sales, which means you’ll usually start out with a much lower price when you buy a car online.

In some cases, the initial price that an internet car sales representative quotes will be very close to the absolute minimum that the dealership will sell that vehicle for.

How Does Buying a Car From a Dealership Online Work?

After you have done some research and decided the specific make and model that you want, and identified important features like adaptive cruise control or automatic parking, buying that vehicle online can proceed in either one of two ways.

The first is to use a dealership aggregator site. These aggregators have the advantage of pulling information from many dealerships, both local and far away, which allows you to rapidly view a lot of different potential vehicles.

The second way to buy a car from a dealership online is to navigate directly to the dealer’s own website. If you prefer, you can also call the dealership and ask to speak with the internet sales department.

The general process of buying a car online starts with selecting the vehicle that you’re interested in and requesting a quote. From that point, you may be able to proceed via email, phone, or even text message. The internet sales department will then provide you with a number that is typically lower than MSRP, and you can proceed from there. And if you truly love doing business online, you may also be able to register your vehicle online when it's all done. 

Drawbacks of Buying a Car Online

The biggest problem with buying a car entirely online is that you can’t test drive a vehicle from the comfort of your home. If that doesn’t bother you, however, then you actually may be able to complete the entire transaction without ever stepping foot in the dealership. Some dealers will even deliver your new car after the transaction is complete.

If you do want to test drive a car before you buy it online, you have a few different options.

  1. Prior to a quote, visit a local dealership and ask to go on a test drive. This can be time-consuming since you will have to actually visit the dealership and deal with a traditional salesperson.

  2. Request a test drive after you have already obtained a quote online. Since you are already dealing with the internet sales department at that point, you can safely visit the dealership at your leisure without having to worry about any time-consuming sales pitches.

Once you are satisfied that you have chosen the right make and model, and you’re happy with the price, you will be ready to sign. This may involve visiting the dealer to physically take possession of the vehicle, although some dealers are set up to finalize the transaction online.

Online Car Shopping Red Flags

While buying a car online can save both time and money, some dealers are more technologically savvy than others. The biggest thing that you want to keep an eye out for is that some dealers use their websites as a way to generate leads and entice potential buyers to visit the dealership and work with a traditional salesperson. This totally defeats the purpose of online car shopping, so it’s important to know what to look for.

When you first contact the internet car sales department of your local dealership, you should expect to receive an email, phone call, or text with a quote. If you request additional information, like the specific options that a vehicle includes, what taxes and fees you will have to pay, or an estimated total price, you should also expect to receive that information.

Dealerships that refuse to provide online quotes or other related information, are usually more interested in generating leads and just getting you in the door to hear a sales pitch. If you run into a situation like this, your best bet is to contact a different local dealer and hope that their internet sales department is better equipped.

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