Best Online Car Buying Options

Car shopping’s never been fun. Every time you pull into a dealership lot, you look around for a polo-clad salesman driving a golf cart — then go the opposite direction. And now, with coronavirus keeping us all at home, going to the lot is even more difficult. In 2019, the amount of cars sold online was only 9.43% of the entire auto industry, but a poll revealed that 53% of consumers were extremely or very likely to conduct the entire car-buying process online.

So you have options to buy a car online even amid the pandemic. Online car buying is booming and making it easier for you to find your next vehicle without leaving your home. But which car buying sites can you trust?

Check Your Auto Loan Rates

View our top-rated lenders and find the best rates today. It’s quick and easy.

In this article

    The 5 best online car buying options of 2020 

    Online car buying options at a glance

    ProviderCar InventoryFinancingStandout Feature
    Carvana21,700 carsIn-house, accepts third-party financingTrade in your car and pick it up at a vending machine
    CarGurusAggregates dealers’ inventoriesCapital One Auto Finance, Westlake Financial and Global Lending ServiceMillions of new and used vehicles available for purchase
    AutotraderAggregates dealers’ inventoriesCapital One Auto Finance and other third-party financingGet cash for your old vehicle and trade it in
    TrueCarAggregates dealers’ inventoriesThird-party financingNew car buyers save an average of $3,280 off MSRP
    Cars.comAggregates dealers’ inventoriesThird-party financingSide-by-side comparison of up to four vehicles

    Carvana — Best for car delivery

    Carvana makes the car buying process simple. You can search for your next vehicle, get a quote for your current one (if you want to trade it in) and find financing all on the dealer’s website. Carvana even offers financing for people with poor credit, but you’ll need to make at least $4,000 per year and have no active bankruptcies.

    The auto loan terms and the amount you can borrow will vary based on the vehicle you pick out and your financial history. Once you settle on your new car, you can either have Carvana deliver it to you (and pick up your trade-in if you have one) or, if you live in certain areas, pick it up yourself from one of the company’s vehicle vending machines. Read our full Carvana review.

    CarGurus — Largest inventory

    CarGurus has a massive selection of vehicles from dealers all over the United States, Canada and the U.K., making it easy to find the perfect car for you.

    CarGurus has more listings than any other online vehicle marketplace in the United States, making it a great choice for finding your next car. The site doesn’t sell vehicles itself. Instead, it’s a platform for dealers to list their inventory online. You search through listings based on your location to find your next vehicle. CarGurus’ best feature is its rating system. Using the Kelley Blue Book value and its own proprietary algorithms, CarGurus gives each vehicle a rating to help to determine if it’s a good deal or not. Once you find a vehicle, you can pre-qualify for financing through the site’s three lending partners — Capital One Auto Finance, Westlake Financial and Global Lending Services. Getting pre-qualified will show you custom offers without impacting your credit score.

    Autotrader — Best for car trade-ins

    If you’re ready to buy a new car, Autotrader can help you find one that matches your needs in your area. The platform uses your location to show you listings from your area first. You can search for new, used and certified pre-owned vehicles on Autotrader. Selling or trading in your current vehicle is easy as well. You can either get a Kelley Blue Book instant cash offer or talk to one of Autotrader’s dealership partners about trade-in value. When you’re ready to buy, you can use whatever bank you want to finance your auto loan (as long as the seller accepts it). Autotrader does work with Capital One Auto Finance to pre-qualify buyers, but you’re not required to use it to finance a purchase.

    TrueCar — Best for mobile car shopping

    The TrueCar mobile app helps you find the best price on vehicles no matter where you are. TrueCar makes shopping for a new or used car simple. Its easy-to-use website allows you to search by make and model to find a dealer near you.

    The TrueCar mobile app is a handy tool that helps you compare prices while you’re away from your computer, so you know you’re always getting the best deal. The app only matches you with sellers and doesn’t provide any financing information — you’ll have to talk to a lender separately to secure a loan for your purchase.

    Cars.com — Best for price comparison

    Cars.com helps you shop for vehicles in your area and compare prices easily. Its Price Comparison Tool shows you when a car is above or below its average listing price so you know you’re always getting a great deal. Its Hot Car feature also shows you vehicles that are likely to sell quickly so you don’t miss any opportunities. Cars.com brings listings from dealerships and private sellers in one place and doesn’t offer any in-house or partnered financing. This gives you more opportunity to find the best rates and lowest fees for your auto loan — especially if you have bad credit.

    [ Read: Best Refinance Auto Loans

    Tips for buying a car online

    When considering tips for online buying a car, the first thing to realize is that buying a car online is a much different experience than buying one in person. You don’t have to talk to a salesman at a dealership, but you also don’t get to look around the vehicle and inspect it in person (at least, not at first). Even though the experience is more convenient, you still need to be diligent while shopping. Here are a few tips online buying a car to make the experience even easier.

    • Decide if you want to work with a dealer or private seller. Most online marketplaces include listings from both. Dealerships offer the ability to trade in a vehicle and easier financing options, but private sellers usually offer better prices and more personal knowledge of the vehicle.
    • Get a vehicle history report. Most dealerships will provide one for free, but you can also buy it yourself. It will help you see if a car has had any major problems or involvement in collisions.
    • Shop local if you can, especially if you’re buying used. The ability to see a test drive a car that you find online will help you make an informed decision.
    • Test drive before you buy. Again, this depends on the seller’s location, but if you can get behind the wheel, you should.

    [ Read: Best Auto Loan Rates of 2020 ]

    Benefits of buying a car online

    Online car stores make it easy to find and buy a car without ever leaving your house — and they come with many advantages over in-person car shopping.

    First, online car shopping is efficient. You don’t have to bounce from dealership to dealership or walk from row to row looking for the perfect vehicle. Instead, you input what you’re looking for and compare without leaving your couch.

    Second, you have more options to choose from. Online car sites can show you vehicles from multiple dealerships and private sellers on the same page. You can compare the same make, model and model year to make sure you are getting the best deal.

    Third, you can avoid uncomfortable conversations. When you shop online, you can do so at your own pace. You won’t have any salespeople trying to get you to buy before you’re actually ready.

    [ Read: New Car Buying Guide ]

    Possible problems with buying a car online

    Buying a car online does have some challenges, though they’re usually avoidable. People will naturally take photos that show their vehicles’ “best side.” You can’t necessarily see small dents and scratches or notice if the interior is wearing out or smells like smoke. You can avoid this by shopping locally and requesting a test drive with the seller before you actually buy.

    If you’re buying a vehicle from outside of your area, a test drive might not be possible. In that case, you should understand the platform’s complaint and return policy in case your vehicle arrives with problems you weren’t told about.

    Best car-buying apps 

    The best car buying apps give you all the tools you need to find vehicles and compare prices both in your area and around the country. These are a few of our favorites.

    • TrueCar. With the TrueCar mobile app, you can search for cars on the go, compare prices (including dealer and factory discounts) and even use the app at a dealership to get vehicle information if you’re shopping after hours.
    • Autotrader. You can search for vehicles and save options you’re interested in using the Autotrader mobile app on either iPhone or Android.
    • Cars.com. This app gives you all the search tools you’d ever want to use when searching for a car. You can also see detailed vehicle histories and read reviews of both vehicles and dealers to help you make the best choice.

    Things to consider when buying a car online

    1. History. Research the vehicle’s history including the total number of owners and any details on the vehicle history report. 
    2. Location. Is it local or outside of your area?
    3. Type of seller. Both dealerships and private sellers are often listed together online.
    4. Delivery. Will you go pick up the car or have it brought to you? 
    5. Returns and disputes. What steps do you need to take if a car purchased online doesn’t match what you were told about it?

    [ Read: How Much Car Can I Afford? ]

    Check Your Auto Loan Rates

    View our top-rated lenders and find the best rates today. It’s quick and easy.

    Online car buying FAQs

    Delivery depends on the online marketplace you used to buy the car. Carvana, for instance, will deliver your car to you, while other platforms simply connect you with the seller. In that instance, you’ll need to either pick up the car in person or arrange to have it shipped to you.

    Usually, the only way you’ll be able to return a car for a full refund is if you were a victim of fraud. However, a few online car sites offer limited windows to return a vehicle, no questions asked. Carvana gives you seven days to schedule a return if you aren’t satisfied.

    Most car buying sites don’t charge fees when you make a purchase. Instead, they either charge a listing fee to the seller or receive a percentage of every sale. You may have to pay a delivery fee if you’re having the car brought to you, though.

    You’ll still be able to take advantage of any factory warranties the car is under, as well as any additional dealer warranties if you buy your car from a dealership through an online marketplace. The details of each warranty will differ based on where you bought the vehicle.

    We welcome your feedback on this article and would love to hear about your experience with the car buying providers we recommend. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Trevor Wallis

    Contributing Writer

    Trevor Wallis is a St. Louis-based personal finance writer who teaches people how to achieve freedom through good money practices. He’s written for Bankrate, NextAdvisor, Rewards Credit Cards and Online Loans. When he isn’t writing, he’s roasting specialty coffee and planning new ways to use credit card rewards to explore the world with his wife and newborn son.

    Reviewed by

    • Courtney Mihocik
      Courtney Mihocik
      Editor

      Courtney Mihocik is an editor at The Simple Dollar who specializes in insurance, personal finance, and loans. Previously, she wrote and edited for Interest.com, PersonalLoans.org, Ballantyne Magazine, Thread Magazine, The Post, ACRN, The New Political, Columbus Alive and the Institute for International Journalism.