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How to shop for a car online

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Narrow down your options before hitting the dealership.

Finding a car online can save time and arm you with enough information to negotiate a good deal at the dealership. But you still might want to test drive a few models before you make a decision.

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.

Down payment

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.

Monthly payments

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.

Style

You know what you need your car for. Use that information to pick a body style.

StyleBest forDefining features
Sedan
  • Getting to and from work
  • General use
Four-door car with a typical trunk
SUV
  • Driving in rough terrain
  • Areas with a lot of snow or flooding
  • Transporting more people with more protection
Four-door car with a large body frame and high ground clearance
Truck
  • Driving in rough terrain
  • Areas with a lot of snow or flooding
  • Transporting items in its truck bed
  • Hauling a trailer or other vehicle
Two- or four-door car with a long body frame, open bed and high ground clearance
Hatchback
  • Transporting more people or more items
  • Easy access to its trunk space
Four-door car with a door at the back that opens upward and folding seats
Minivan
  • Transporting groups of people in the suburbs or a city
Four-door vehicle with extra leg room in the front and back
Crossover
  • Transporting more people or more items while driving in rough terrain
  • Easy access to its trunk space
Large, four-door vehicle with a hatchback trunk door
Coupe
  • Tall drivers that rarely drive with more than one other person
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:

  • Carvana
  • CarMax
  • Edmunds
  • 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

Updated October 16th, 2019
Name Product Filter Values Minimum credit score Loan term Requirements
300
Varies by lender
Must be a US citizen with a current US address and employed full-time or have guaranteed fixed income.
Apply with a simple online application to get paired with a local auto lender. No credit and bad credit accepted.
600
Varies by lender
Fair to excellent credit, an income source, US citizen or permanent resident, 18+ years old
Find an offer and get rates from competing lenders without affecting your credit score.
300
Varies by lender
Must be employed full-time or have guaranteed fixed income of at least $1,500/month and be a current resident of the US or Canada.
Get connected with an auto lender near you, even if you have bad credit.
500
3 months to 12 years
Credit score of 500+, legal US resident and ages 18+.
Good to excellent credit
2 to 7 years
Good or excellent credit, enough income or assets to afford a new loan, US citizen or permanent resident, 18+ years old
Quick car loans from $5,000 to $100,000 with competitive rates for borrowers with strong credit.
Good to excellent credit
Varies by lender
18+ years old, good to excellent credit, US citizen
Compare multiple financing options for auto refinance, new car purchase, used car purchase and lease buy out.

Compare up to 4 providers

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.

How to decide between buying online or at a dealership

Bottom line

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.

Learn more about how it works in our car-buying guide. Or compare your car loan options if you’re ready to get behind the wheel.

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