The 2016 Guide to Buying a Car Online

Our feature-by-feature comparison of where you can buy a car entirely online

Online shopping is now commonplace for most people—we’ll buy shoes, airline tickets, even groceries—but the idea of researching, shopping, financing, and buying a vehicle entirely online is still relatively new. Even for seasoned internet shoppers, buying a car online (and mostly sight unseen) can mean really stepping out of our comfort zone.

While most car shoppers still make their vehicle purchases in person (either at a dealership or with a private party), many use online resources during the car buying process:

  • Cars Direct: Search for new and used cars, for sale from private parties and dealerships, secure financing, and find advice and research.
  • Carmax: Research, finance, and find used cars, or sell your own used vehicle.
  • Autotempest: Search and compare prices from around the web with this aggregator.
  • TRUECar: Shop for new and used cars from certified dealers. You can lease, too.
  • Kelley Blue Book: Price and compare new and used cars.
  • Compare and price new and used cars, or find an accurate market price for a car you plan to sell or trade in.
  • NADA (National Auto Dealers Association) Guides: See new car prices and used car values.

Many of the above services let you compare different makes and models – both new and used – all in once place. You can see what others have paid for similar vehicles, so you can feel good about securing the best price (some even offer “no haggle” sales experiences).

The catch to buying a car online today? You cannot buy new.

A handful of sites have also cropped up in the last couple of years which actually allow shoppers to go through the entire car buying experience online – “soup to nuts,” as they say – and have the car delivered right to their door (with the option of trading in their current car at the same time). The only catch: if you want to buy a car online, it’ll have to be used. Franchised dealerships still own the “new car pipeline” in the U.S.

Below, a thorough comparison of all the online companies that make the entire car buying process completely digital.


Buying a Car Online

Important to Note

As with anything you finance, be sure to look into the entity underwriting your loan. Some online retailers have a variety of financing partners, some of which fall into the subprime category (which can negatively affect your credit and set you up for potentially difficult payments). Buying a car online is now quite simple, but don’t go too fast. Taking the time to look carefully at the financing details will save you a whole lot of trouble down the line.

True Stories of Buying a Car Online

Hear from real shoppers about their online buying experience.

Jennifer Soos of San Antonio, TX bought her most recent car online with Carvana: a 2014 Lincoln Navigator with about 38,000 miles on it that she purchased in December 2015. Carvana listed the Navigator at $33,000, and after sales tax and other fees, Soos ended up paying a total of $37,000. “The dealership had the same car listed at low $40Ks,” says Soos.

Says Soos, “I’ll do just about anything to avoid talking to a car salesman and/or his ‘manager.’” Before buying her current car, Soos drove her previous one until it had nearly 275,000 miles on it because she hated the thought of visiting a dealership. But then she found Carvana. “I did research online for about a week and then one morning, after the kids were off to school at 7:15 a.m., I bought a car while in my kitchen still wearing my pajamas. It took about 25 minutes. It was awesome.” Soos says she has zero disappointment with her experience, even after a minor glitch. During the seven-day test drive period, Soos and her family discovered a problem with the headphones for the DVD players. She called Carvana and they apologized, had her take it to the dealer for repairs, and reimbursed the cost. “I will never set foot on a dealer’s lot again,” she said.

Darin Herle of Victoria, British Columbia and his family bought their last car online in 2012 in a process Herle describes as “just okay.” They used eBay Motors, Craigslist, Auto Trader, and several dealer websites (many of which advertise on Craigslist, says Herle) during their search. “We ran into a hiccup trying to nail down the car we wanted,” Herle explained. He found the car they wanted online – a Land Rover LR3 – on a dealer lot in Los Angeles. Herle says he spoke to the dealership, completed a remote car inspection and was waiting for the results. When Herle asked about putting down a deposit and flying to pick up the car, the dealership told him they’d sold the car out from under him. “I was furious! I insisted on the dealer reimbursing me for the inspection, and they sent me car wash coupons.” Luckily, Herle found another vehicle of the same type online – this time it was in Houston and he was able to have an inspection, pay for it, and fly down to drive it home.

Blogger Matt Ehnert didn’t have a completely snag-free experience buying a car online with Carvana, but overall he ended up happy with his purchase and says he would use Carvana again. He purchased a car with fewer than 40,000 miles. He writes that the site was inconsistent with the vehicle damage they reported and not all scratches were visible on the 360-degree camera. Ehnert adds that he hadn’t been made aware that the interior wasn’t in great shape. When he decided to return the car during the seven-day trial period he was told he’d have to drive it back himself. He found a different car he liked and ended up switching the two. Bottom line from Ehnert: if price is your primary motivating factor in car buying, Carvana is a good choice.

So is online buying the wave of the future? Or, at least part of the wave? “I think we have reached a new paradigm that if given enough information, people will buy used cars online,” Karl Brauer told Dallas News. “Dealers will be forced to evolve.”

Would you buy a car online?