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How to buy a car online: Tricks, tips, and tune-ups

What we'll cover

  • Advantages of buying a car online 

  • Setting a car buying budget 

  •  Online resources to shop for deals

It’s incredible what’s available to you with just one click these days. All sorts of necessities, oddball buys … and now even four wheels. You might not have considered it before, but shopping for and buying cars online is becoming faster, easier and more common.

Car shopping via your desktop, laptop, or even your phone, is finally hitting the mainstream, and dealers are taking notice by building out their online platforms in response. The buying process has revved-up with virtual possibilities and experiences that often rival in-person shopping. Test-drive our tips for first-time online car shoppers and unlock that horse-powered potential.

Set your budget

Buying a car online comes with endless possibilities, and it can undoubtedly be overwhelming. So, before you start perusing all sorts of makes and models online, you should set a budget. As much as a budget can be limiting, it can also help you narrow down the selection and make your choice much more straightforward. (Goodbye luxury SUV, hello moderately priced crossover!)

Avoid only budgeting for the down payment, though. You should also consider the cost of your monthly payment (if you plan on financing), taxes, fuel, and insurance. If you’re going to sell your existing car or trade it in for your new car, it’s also smart to take a look at its trade-in value or sale price.

Identify your wants vs. needs.

In combo with setting your budget, you should also make a list of desires vs. necessities. Do you need a large vehicle because you have a big family, or should you go for a smaller and more economical sedan with excellent gas mileage for your long commute? Are you big on the outdoors? You might want to consider off-road ability. There’s a lot to ponder.

Once you’ve made a list of your needs, then you can start comparing different wants.

For decades, visiting the dealership was just what you did. When you bought a car in-person, you’d walk around the showroom and check out the various options — color, fabric or leather, moonroof, heated seats, etc. But buying a car online arms you with possibilities simply not afforded by in-person shopping.

The digital car lot allows you to endlessly flex your research muscles since many manufacturers’ sites give you the ability to make side-by-side comparisons of different makes and models, including specs and factors that affect cost, like miles-per-gallon (which can affect fuel expenses). Some even offer 360-degree virtual walkarounds so you can see what your potential vehicle will look like in your favorite colors, fly wheels, and trims.

Go beyond the sticker price.

So, what price should you be paying for your new vehicle? A smorgasbord of online resources at your fingertips empower you to shop for deals and learn more about how various options affect a car’s cost.

Much of the true value of a vehicle is underneath the hood and cannot be determined by looking at it on the lot. Sites like Edmunds , Kelley Blue Book , and Carfax can give you access to this information.

Additional insights from these resources, like model sell-thru and when the model year ends, can help you make better decisions about what price to offer and whether the dealer may be motivated to sell. And information like average price paid by people in your region, lowest depreciation, and highest dependability, can help you determine true-worth.

Shop around, shop around.

Once you know your numbers, you're going to want to comparison shop. Visit the websites of local dealerships. Read reviews and check out social media to learn more about the dealer's reputation so you can feel confident in your purchase. After all, when you buy a vehicle online, you don’t have the same face-to-face interactions as you do when shopping a car lot.

You can shop multiple dealerships simultaneously online, too. Many manufacturer’s sites now allow you to compare dealer inventories and compare prices. Contact numerous dealerships with a price in mind and get competing bids. You might find a dealership that is exceptionally driven to sell or another that is willing to give you some sweet trim level upgrades instead of a price reduction.

Be sure you understand everything included in each sales quote, to avoid any misunderstandings during the purchase process.

Pro tip: Don't forget to inquire about service centers for tune-ups and repairs (you'll want a good one for when you have to take your new baby in for maintenance).

Explore your financing options.

If you’re not paying for a car in full, you’ll need to get vehicle financing. To find the best financing rate and terms for your personal situation, you can explore getting a car loan through a bank, or financing through your dealership. Regardless of your path to purchase your new vehicle, Ally has competitive automotive financing and protection products for all kinds of car-buying journeys.

Take the test drive and buy.

Once your financing has been approved, you’re ready to buy. But before you hit click, you should think about setting up a test drive. (That’s often the best part of buying a car!)

Most dealerships have an internet sales manager that will schedule a time for you to drop-in for a test drive. Like most aspects of car-buying online, you’ll have the convenience of doing this at your own pace.

And nowadays, most dealerships also offer vehicle delivery. So, once you sign the paperwork, your new set of wheels could be at your doorstep not long after. Just confirm all the vehicle specs match your quote and you’re set.

Convenience is the word when it comes to buying a car online. With just one click — and the power of the information superhighway — you can research and shop at the same time, saving time and potentially dollars, too.

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