Narrow down your options before hitting the dealership.
How to compare cars online
Find your next car at home in five steps.
1. Decide which features matter the most
Before you even sit down to do your research, come up with an idea of what you’re looking for in a car. Think about how you’re going to use it. Will you mainly go to and from work? Will you need extra space for kids, friends or transporting materials. Do you prefer a larger, safer vehicle or a smaller eco-friendly car?
Coming up with a clear picture of what you’re looking for can help you stay focused and avoid spending time on cars that won’t suit your needs.
2. Set your limits
Now that you have an idea of what you want out of your vehicle, further narrow your search by considering at least three main factors.
Calculate how much you can afford to pay up front, and use this to find a reasonable price point for your car. Most lenders and dealerships recommend at least a 20% down payment. It can make financing more affordable and easier to qualify for, because you won’t have to borrow as much.
Add up your regular monthly expenses, and subtract the result from your salary after taxes. This is how much you have to spend each month on your car payment.
Use this number to guide you when considering the price of your car and financing, giving yourself some wiggle room.
You know what you need your car for. Use that information to pick a body style.
|Style||Best for||Defining features|
|Sedan||Four-door car with a typical trunk|
|SUV||Four-door car with a large body frame and high ground clearance|
|Truck||Two- or four-door car with a long body frame, open bed and high ground clearance|
|Hatchback||Four-door car with a door at the back that opens upward and folding seats|
|Minivan||Four-door vehicle with extra leg room in the front and back|
|Crossover||Large, four-door vehicle with a hatchback trunk door|
|Coupe||Two-door car with a fixed roof, sloped back and more leg room than a four-door car|
3. Start a preliminary search on car finder sites
Visit two to three sites to scope out what’s there, filtering by style and price range. You might get hit with a long list of cars, but don’t let it overwhelm you. The more options available means the more likely you are to find a car that fits your unique needs.
Consider visiting sites like:
- Kelley Blue Book
- National Automobile Dealers Association
4. Narrow your focus
After you’ve looked at several cars, narrow your search by selecting features that include:
- Make. The make is the manufacturer that produces the car. It determines the dealership you need to buy the vehicle from.
- Year and mileage. For used cars, come up with a limit on how old and how many miles a car can have for you to consider it. Many lenders restrict funding by age and mileage as well.
- Engine. The type of engine tells you how much horsepower the car has. The more horsepower, the more powerful the car — though also often more expensive.
- Fuel economy. The higher the miles per gallon, the less you’ll spend on gas — and the better it is for the environment.
- Type of fuel. Do you want to buy gas or diesel? Do you want a car that runs on natural gas? Or would you prefer a hybrid or fully electric vehicle?
- Aesthetics. Consider factors like color, seating, safety features and other qualities you’d like in your new car.
5. Conduct a more detailed search
Go back to your search sites and filter your results further. When you’ve settled on a vehicle or two, compare prices you find across all sites. Keep this number in mind when you go to the dealership: It’ll help when negotiating with the salesperson.
If you have any questions about the price — or anything else about the car — reach out to the site’s customer service team. They might provide a more straightforward answer than you’d get later when buying the car.
I think I found my car. What happens next?
Now you take the steps to buy your new car. Before you buy, consider two major factors:
- How it feels to actually drive the car.
- How you’re going to pay.
Take it for a test drive
The only way to learn whether a car is right for you is to get behind the wheel. Stop by a dealership or schedule an appointment to test drive the car as soon as you can.
If you’re happy with it, you’re ready to move on to the next step. Otherwise, consider test driving other vehicles you considered — or go back to the drawing board.
Decide how to pay
You have four main options when it comes to paying for your car:
- Dealership financing. Funding offered directly through the dealership, with room for negotiating rates and terms.
- Car loan. Financing from a third party that you can apply for before you decide on the vehicle.
- Lease. Like a long-term rental that often comes with the option to buy the car at the end of your contract.
- Cash. Cover the entire cost of the vehicle up front so that you own it right away.
Pro tip: Get preapproved for a car loan — even if you think you’ll end up financing with the dealership. You may be able to use your preapproved offer to negotiate down your rates.
Compare car loans
Should I buy online or at a dealership?
While you should still test drive the car, you may not need to visit a dealership to buy it. Many models are also available online through sites like Carvana.
Buying a car online could be a convenient choice if you aren’t comfortable with in-person negotiations. It’s also faster.
But you won’t get the personalized service you’d expect at a dealership, and you could potentially get a better deal by talking to sales in person.
Finding your car online can cut down on the time you might spend driving between dealerships. It also allows you to find makes and models you might not have otherwise heard of.