Auto Should You Buy a Car Online?

If you’re considering an online car purchase, here’s what to know before you hit “Buy Now.”

By Liane Yvkoff
PUBLISHED 01/03/2024 | 7 MINUTES

Blame it on the hormones, but after I had a second baby, I insisted on a new car. It had to have the latest advanced driver assistance systems, sliding doors, an electrified powertrain and a backseat entertainment system. (Don’t judge me.) 

At the time, there was only one vehicle on the market that fit all those requirements, a Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. It was out of state with a $1,500 price tag just to ship it. I knew it was the car I wanted, but was I ready to buy a car sight unseen?

By avoiding the dealership, I could skip time-consuming conversations on topics such as the vehicle trade-in value, loan and lease financing terms, selecting options and settling on the final price of the vehicle—and instead handle that online. 

Making your way through these steps is often stressful, as each factor can change a financed car’s monthly payment. It’s no wonder buyers often leave dealerships not fully understanding what they bought and fearing that they may have gotten scammed. 

What to Consider With an Online Purchase

Trading the anxiety of in-dealership decision-making for online buying can be beneficial for some consumers—but there are downsides to consider. 

For example, online sites may not fully explain all the financing terms and conditions in their digital menu options, says J.D. Power automotive analyst Jon Sederstrom. In addition, although you might be allowed to return a vehicle to an online retailer, you may still be on the hook for paying the delivery fee.

And even when the process is completely transparent, seamless and a verifiable deal, it’s possible to end up with a car you don’t like.

“In my last car, I hated the sound of the turn signal,” says Catherine Gryp, public relations director for CarMax, the largest national used car retailer. As a result, when it was time to purchase her next sedan, she made sure she sat in three types of cars to hear the turn signal before making a final decision.

How a seat feels, the cabin noise you hear and the vibrations a car makes are just some of the nuances that can’t be replicated through 360-degree videos, says Brian Moody, executive editor for the automotive site Autotrader. He recommends always test-driving a vehicle before purchase. 

But if you already have experience with the vehicle and know how it drives, buying online may make sense. 

Taking a leap of faith, I ended up purchasing a different Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid “online” using a combination of email and FedEx to sign contracts and complete the sale for a fair—though not stellar—price, and the dealer that brokered the sale arranged to have it delivered to my house. 

The vehicle arrived in perfect condition, except for a couple hundred more miles on the odometer than anticipated—which left me with a negative impression of that dealership.

If you’re tempted to skip the trip to the dealer for your next car as well, here’s what you need to know before you click the “Buy Now” button:

There’s a Range of Buying Options

Although an increasing number of companies, such as Carvana, offer a 100% online way to buy a used car, fully digital transactions make up a minority of U.S. vehicle sales. A hybrid or “omnichannel” approach offered by CarMax—which provides a-la-carte services such as online trade-in offers and traditional used vehicle dealership lots—may be more comfortable for many shoppers not yet willing to buy a car sight unseen.

Educate Yourself

Before you hit the buy button, do extensive research on your desired vehicle and understand how it stacks up to its competitors, says Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at the global consultancy firm IHS Markit. Think through what you want, what it will cost and what fits your budget, she says. And while doing your due diligence, tap into tools such as Carfax and AutoCheck to review a vehicle’s accident history, as this can affect the resale value.

Take Some Test Drives 

Try out competitors’ vehicles even if you’re fairly set on the one on your screen. “You’ll either prove that the car you want is the perfect one for you, or you’ll find one that you’ll like better,” says Jeff Bartlett, managing editor at Consumer Reports. “Either scenario is good.” 

Get Preapproved for Financing

Shop around for comparable new and used car interest rates with local banks and credit unions. “The pain in the dealership is really about financing and getting to the right price,” says Brinley. “If they offer something better [through the retailer/dealership], that’s great. If it’s worse, walk away from the deal.” 

Accept That You May Not Get the Lowest Price 

Online sales platforms put a premium on convenience and avoiding the anxiety of negotiating at a dealership. But without the haggling, “there certainly is the potential of money being left on the table online,” says Autotrader’s Moody. 

Understand the Return Policy 

“The most likely place you’re going to get scammed is through an unlicensed guy online,” says Moody. Instead, seek out established firms that have clear return policies. For instance, CarMax has a 30-day money-back guarantee with a mileage limit, while Carvana offers a seven-day money-back guarantee with a mileage limit as well. 

You may be responsible for excess mileage or restocking fees to return a vehicle that you’ve purchased online, so it’s important to know the limits of a return policy. “You may have to pay the delivery charge, which isn’t inappropriate, but you want to understand that going in,” says Bartlett.

Millie content is licensed from Dotdash Meredith, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle, Investopedia, The Balance and more.

Liane Yvkoff is an automotive technology and lifestyle writer covering alternative powertrains, transportation startups and more. Her work has appeared in print and online publications like
Popular Mechanics and


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