Some people did buy cars online before the pandemic, but the number of people who did so while quarantined or just spending more time at home went through the roof. Carvana, an online dealership, said that sales in 2020 were 37% higher than in 2019, and that car buyers were happier in general.
A study by Cox Automotive found that the rise in customer satisfaction was directly linked to the rise in online car shopping. This makes a lot of sense since car dealerships have a long history of making shopping stressful and uncomfortable, especially for women and LGBTQ people.
And it doesn’t look like buying part or all of a car online is going away. A recent study by Adtaxi found that 49% of people who want to buy a car are comfortable doing it all online. But is this choice the best? How can you avoid buying a car that will cost you money to fix or that might not be right for you if you’ve never driven it or looked it over?
Buying a car is a big investment of money. Let’s look into the world of digital car buying so you know the pros and cons before you start looking for a car.
What does it mean to buy a car online?
Carvana, Vroom, and other companies offer fully digital ways to buy cars, but that’s not the only way to use the online car-buying process. Carmax and many other local and in-person dealerships have also moved a lot of the car-buying process online.
Now, you can not only look for a car online, but you can also easily apply for financing, negotiate via email, and have a car delivered to your door so you can test drive it. The dealer may even let you take the car for a test drive that lasts a few hours or even a whole day, so you can figure out if this is the right car for you.
Some places will even let you do most of the paperwork online. When the deal is almost done, you can bring the car and the paperwork to your house for final inspection and signatures.
If you decide to buy from an online dealership instead of a storefront, the process is the same. But you usually don’t deal directly with a salesperson, you can’t test drive the car (in many cases), and the sale is final before the car gets delivered to your door.
Here are more details about the pros and cons of buying a car online, so you know what to expect before you start.
Con: No test-driving.
Before buying a car, you should do a lot of research. That shouldn’t change if you’re thinking about shopping for a car online or buying one without seeing it first. It’s even more important than that. When you buy a car from a dealer, you can look at it from bumper to bumper and take it for a test drive to make sure it meets your needs.
You can’t do that when buying a car from an online dealership, so research is the only way to find the best fit. Carrington Cowart, a private automotive consultant who helps people buy cars, says that if you are even thinking about buying a car online, you need to find a way to test drive it first. “Go drive your aunt’s car if she has one. It might not have the same VIN as the one you want to buy, but it’s still a good idea. You should try driving one because you don’t know if you like it or not.”
Pro: Lots and lots of options.
Buying a car from an online dealership will give you a lot of options if you want a car in a certain color or with very unique extras or features. It makes buying a rare car or one with a rare combination of features much easier, saving you time and trouble.
It also makes it easy to buy a car from farther away, so you don’t have to look for the perfect car only in your area. “Not everyone lives in a metro area where they can find every kind of car they can think of,” says Cowart. “It changes the game that they can look at a lot of cars and choose the ones that have the features they want.”
Con: No negotiation.
Well, this might not be quite a con. Some people like that they don’t have to bargain. But for others, it means paying more than they would if they went to a local dealership and negotiated the price. When you buy a car online, the price is usually “clear and transparent,” which is just a fancy way of saying that you can’t negotiate. Most of the time, if you try to negotiate, you’ll end up paying more online than at the dealership. If you don’t like haggling over prices, this is a great way to avoid it.
Pro: Low-pressure shopping from home.
Not everyone likes to go to a car dealership and haggle with salespeople. Many of us would rather do almost anything than deal with the high-pressure sales tactics, sexism, and hardball negotiating that often go along with buying a car. You can shop and buy a car online from the comfort of your own home, at your pace, and without buying rush.
Con: No inspection before buying.
I think that getting a mechanic to check out a car before you buy it is a very important step. It lets you make sure that you know exactly what the car’s condition is. If something is wrong, you could try to get the problem fixed before you buy the house. If not, you can make an informed decision about whether or not to buy it and plan for repairs. This is not an option when buying a car online. Most online car purchases, though, come with a return period, so if you buy one online, get it checked out right away.
As an auto journalist, an expert on cars, and a car who has bought cars before, I’m not sure that buying a car completely online is the best car for most people. My main concern is that you can’t test-drive the car to see if it fits your needs, and you don’t get a thorough pre-purchase inspection. Most online car dealerships do have a return policy, but it’s often hard to understand and not clear how it would work if you got financing from somewhere else.
If you like the idea of buying online, I suggest that you do most, but not all, of the car-buying process online if your local dealerships offer a hybrid method. This will give you many of the benefits of buying online, like being able to shop from the comfort of your own home, but you won’t have to give up the test drive, the negotiation, or the inspection before you buy.
Keep in the car, though, that buying a car online doesn’t have the same risks if you’re buying one that’s still under the original manufacturer’s warranty. In the end, you need to figure out what’s best for you by weighing the pros and cons. With this information, you should be able to do that as well as possible.