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Finding a Car Online

Posted on 05 September 2008

The idea of buying a car online, in my opinion, is sheer genius. Being able to avoid dealers, while still having the luxury to view a car and select my options is an appealing concept to say the least.

Regardless, I would still be somewhat nervous to make such a momentous purchase with a simple click of my mouse. The average American consumer tends to agree. Perhaps it’s a wariness that keeps us from buying something we haven’t actually touched, or maybe it’s just the ingrained cultural notions we have about our cars. The test drive, for one, is almost as much a traditional mainstay as mom and apple pie. Whatever their reasons, most people prefer to do their research online and then head out later to a brick-and-mortar dealership.

While there are a few sites that promise to deliver your newly purchased vehicle, most car buying sites specialize in putting the potential buyer in contact with an “authorized dealer.” So if you were shopping online to avoid the dealer, you should probably resign yourself to having to deal with a live salesperson at some point in the process.

Why bother shopping online then? Well, the great thing about it is not that you’re necessarily buying anything from the comfort of home, but that you’re doing some in-depth window-shopping, which will allow you to walk into the dealership a much wiser (read: less vulnerable) consumer.

One of my co-workers enthusiastically endorses the online car “shopping” process. While he didn’t actually purchase online, the car he drives now is the result of some thorough mouse-clicking research. He searched through his preferred manufacturer’s pre-owned certified stock, picked several cars that met his needs, and compared the prices that the manufacturer offered against the online Kelley Blue Book to make sure that he wasn’t paying for a huge hike-up price. He even ran lemon checks and VHR reports on his choices. Finally, he compared and ultimately obtained insurance for the car of his choice. In short, he did everything a potential buyer should do to make sure that a car buying experience is rewarding. He offers these words of advice for the online window shopper: “Car shopping is like buying jewelry — you should actually go look at it before you buy it.”

How it Works

When you’re car shopping, the Web can provide two services: providing the means to buy and finance online, and providing a massive quantity of information. Any of the larger search engines, such as Gor MSN, have auto sections dedicated to providing users with online price quotes, a wealth of tips on everything from avoiding “lemons” to getting the best price out of a dealer, to online calculators to help you determine your monthly payments.

Online Comparisons.

Any number of sites, AutoWeb, Autobytel, CarPoint, Cars.com, DealerNet, AutoVantage, and AutoTown, for example, allow you to request free price quotes from local dealers. You simply provide the make and model of the car you’re interested in purchasing, your contact information and you receive a quote in a short period of time, usually within the next 24 hours. Most of these sites also offer model comparisons, reviews, ratings and images in addition to providing price quote services.

Better yet, you can shop for financing in much the same way. Apply for a loan online — from online lenders like CapitalOne Auto Finance, ELoan, and LendingTree.com — and you receive quotes within a matter of days, if not hours.

Consumer Resources.

Another advantage to online window-shopping is that you have quick access to sources like the Kelley Blue Book, which provides a car guide with invoice prices for new cars and current trade-in values (to help you negotiate that trade-in to your best advantage), and Consumer Reports online, which rates just about everything in terms of value-for-your-money. For auto shopping purposes, however, the CR site has an entire section of the site dedicated to advice and ratings on every conceivable aspect of new and used cars. While Consumer Reports online offers extensive information for free, you have to subscribe to their site for a fee of $4.95/month to access their entire ratings and reviews archive. That fee may keep you from making a $20,000 mistake.

Edmunds.com also has extensive vehicle guides for both new and used cars, as well as consumer advice and resources that range from road test editorials provided by the site’s staff, to crash test data. Best of all, the pricing and rating information is free of charge.

The Step-by-Steps.

There are several sites that are godsends to those who, like myself, have never really been familiar with car lingo and need every tip available to make an informed decision.

The MotleyFool.com offers an extensive thirteen-step guide to help you make an informed choice, and alerts you to any of the pitfalls of making such an enormous purchase. It even provides worksheets to take you through any of the car-purchasing processes, giving you handy lists to bring along when you test drive a new or used car.

The guys at CarTalk.com, who host the NPR talk show by the same name, also provide a handy guide for the car novice. The site provides a link to Cars.com’s pricing guides and classifieds, but most helpful are the Car Report and the Test Drive Notebook. The report allows you to access varied information — from performance on crash tests to common user complaints — on the make and model of your choice. The Notebook provides observations made by the Car Talk hosts — the reigning experts on any kind of “funny noise” your car might be making — on their test drives of an extensive list of vehicles.

Now get out there and click that mouse.

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5 Comments For This Post

  1. Harry Warner says:

    This post is somewhat relevant to what I do. We provide auto financing for subprime customers.

  2. Cheap Auto Insurance says:

    Online comparison sites really helps. It can save you time, effort and money too.

  3. Martin Gaudette says:

    Online Auto finance is not only easier but cheaper too.

  4. Paintless Dent Removal Dude says:

    Yes it is true that finiancing before you get that used car will save you tons of money. My loan was 20% at the dealearship, but when I check online, I finally got a good rate at 9%.

  5. Jordan says:

    You simply have to be able say ‘no, thanks at that price’ at least once to the dealer. This gives them a strong message that you are serious about your research.

    You should also bring a piece of paper to the dealership and make sure you do all the math of the finance calculations yourself. The point is not that they will do the math wrong. The point is you will see exactly how the deal is structured. Do not be afraid to take the time to do this or look like a fool for mapping out your car deal in the dealership.

    My dad swears by this process, http://tinyurl.com/nxutm2

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