Skip to main content
photo of a car buying handshake

How to Buy a Car Online: Your Step-by-Step Guide

Want to know how to buy a car online? A car is a significant investment — you want to make the right choice. However, you don’t have to be a financier or tech-savvy shopper to get the best automobile for your buck on the world wide web. Since the beginning of the automobile industry, car buying has been equal parts research and responsibility. That much is still valid in today’s internet-driven market, where a sizable percentage of car buying and selling occurs online. 

Committing to a big-ticket purchase from the comfort of your computer may seem like the farthest thing from the comfort (not least because your new car may be the farthest thing from you), but there are a few steps you can take to make sure your investment is a smart one. In this guide, our experts will show you how to buy a car online in nine easy steps. Get the right ride for your needs with our help, and check out safe, fast, and affordable car shipping from our team here at Direct Express Auto Transport.

Step One: Assess Your Needs

The first step to buying a car online is figuring out what type of car you will need. Here, it’s essential, to be honest with yourself. You may want a feature-loaded luxury vehicle, but you may not need all those features. Other core characteristics, such as all-wheel-drive, strong towing, and different engines and transmissions, may be attractive for those drawn to performance. However, if you’re driving your car around town in an area where the weather is almost always agreeable, you probably don’t need an all-wheel-drive or a top-of-the-line powertrain. Have kids? Prioritize safety features, and leave yourself with enough size to stay comfortable.

Start to narrow down what kind of car you’re looking for (a coupe, sedan, SUV, truck, or minivan). Then, check to see which auto manufacturers have this type of vehicle. It is best to research various models from different years on sites like Kelley Blue Book to see which has the best reviews. That will help you choose a car that won’t let you down.

Step Two: Build Your Budget

Once you’ve started to assess your vehicle-related needs, it’s time to begin assessing your money-related needs: your budget. With all of the different vehicle financing arrangements available today, it can be challenging to figure out what works for you and what you can afford. A good rule of thumb is to spend no more than one-fifth of your annual income on a car. That’s 20% of your yearly income. That includes the down payment and monthly payments. 

A lower down payment will result in higher monthly payments, and a lower credit score will likely result in higher interest rates on the money loaned to you. If you’re going to take out a loan, do the math on how much you will spend in years two, three, and even four to ensure those numbers still fall below 20% of your projected annual income.

Step Three: Learn the Pros and Cons of New and Used Car Buying

There are two main types of cars available for purchase: new cars and used cars. Both have their advantages and (potential) disadvantages. New vehicles come with a higher level of assurance. When you buy a new car, you can rest assured that there is nothing wrong with your vehicle, and if something is wrong by some unlikely chance, you’ve been covered by the dealership and the manufacturer. 

The main downside of new cars is the price. They’re more expensive and depreciate by thousands once you drive them off the lot. Unless you plan on keeping your car for 50 years and selling it as a collector’s car, don’t expect to earn anything on resale when buying new.

Used cars are cheaper than new cars, which makes them an attractive choice for buyers on a budget. The trick is determining how “used” any used car is before buying. In an ideal scenario, the best way is to take the car for a test drive and take it to a mechanic or two for an inspection. 

A test drive may be the only option when buying online, so use your eyes, ears, and other senses to assess a car’s condition. (Check out Step Seven for more information.) Mileage is another good indicator of condition, but high mileage doesn’t necessarily correlate to poor condition; nor does low mileage necessarily relate to good condition. When buying a used car online, it’s essential to get as much of a car’s information and history (see Step Five) to make an informed decision.

Step Four: Start Shopping

Once you’ve decided what type of car you’re looking for and built a budget, it’s time to shop. Use sites like AutotraderCarGurusCARFAX, and Craigslist to find current car listings. With each listing you find, check to make sure you can find car information like Car Facts to get a detailed picture of each vehicle you’re considering. You’ll see listed prices online, but depending on whom you buy from, these prices typically aren’t final. 

Most online car retailer sites are aggregators, meaning they list cars sold by dealerships. Should you choose to move forward with a vehicle, you will be dealing with dealerships, not the sites themselves.

Step Five: Get Quotes and Car Information

After finding a few cars you like, get extra information on the car from the seller and get a quote. Car history is essential — especially for how to buy a car online. Things like previous owners, past accidents, repairs, modifications, and other events in the car’s “life” will give you a better idea of its shape. Some of this information will be available online; some will require you to reach out to the seller. 

When you reach out, we suggest asking for a quote. Often, the seller will give you the exact quote listed online, but sometimes, they will be open to offers. Reaching out will allow you to read the room (so to speak) so that when you go to make your offer, you’ll know what price to pick.

Step Six: Arrange a Test Drive

Upon communicating with the seller and determining that the car you’re looking at is in good condition, it’s time to take the next step by arranging a test drive. That is easier said than done — especially when the car is several states away. That said, it’s always best to arrange a test drive for any vehicle you’re seriously considering, even if it’s a plane ride. Buying a car sight unseen is a considerable risk. Only take it if you think you can afford the cost of repairs and hassle.

When test-driving your vehicle, be sure to give it a thorough inspection by walking around its perimeter and making a note of any concerns. Check the undercarriage for damage and any dangling parts. During your test drive, see how the car feels. Does it have trouble accelerating? Are there any strange sounds or vibrations? These can often signal issues with the powertrain, which can be expensive to fix.

Step Seven: Discuss Financing

If you’ve decided to move forward with the purchase, move the process along by making an offer. We suggest starting slow to see how the seller responds. In most cases, they will meet you in the middle. You’ll also want to discuss financing—in other words, how will you pay for the car? Are you doing it all in one lump sum, or are you going to finance it with monthly payments? We recommend putting as much as possible down on the car (at least 10%, ideally closer to 20%) to keep your monthly payments low and avoid paying hefty sums in interest.

Step Eight: Review and Finalize the Sale

Once you have agreed on a price with your seller, there’s nothing left to do but finalize the sale with paperwork. Ensure the price and interest rates are the same as the ones you discussed in your verbal negotiations, and ensure you have the title in your possessions before signing anything or spending a cent. It’s a good idea to obtain a written record of your new vehicle’s history for reference, as well as the contact information of the seller, in case you have any questions.

Step Nine: Ship Your Car

Even if you show up for a test drive and strike a deal in person, you may need more time to drive your new car back to your home. You might also be one of the rare few who buy a car sight unseen. In both cases, you’ll have to ship your new car back to your area from the dealership or private seller. While some dealerships offer car shipping, you’ll likely find a better deal arranging to ship yourself. 

Once again, research to find a reputable car shipping company that ships from the dealership’s city to your city for an affordable rate. Check sites like Trustpilot to read reviews and see what other people say about the car shipping companies you’re considering. You want to find one that’s affordable and efficient, but you also want the company you’re working with to be safe and responsive to your questions and concerns. You want your car arriving in one piece, after all.

Get More Information and Ship Your Vehicle With Direct Express Auto Transport

With these tips, you should be ready to start the car and the buying process from the comfort of your computer. Want to learn more about how to buy a car online? Our experts here at Direct Express Auto Transport are happy to help. Contact us to speak with a team member directly and have your questions answered. 

Have a car or truck that you’re ready to ship? We’ve got you covered. Used by thousands of professionals and private car owners across North America, our team leads the industry in efficiency, safety, and exceptional customer service. But don’t take our word for it. Check out our 9.8/10 rating on Trustpilot and see what our past customers have said about shipping with us. 

The Original Car Shipping Quote Calculator

Direct Express Auto Transport originated the instant car shipping quote calculator in 2004. It is still the best, most sophisticated, reliable tool available anywhere online. We offer three options that we call tiers of car shipping estimates. The standard rate is the cheapest car shipping quote, but it may take longer. Use it if you are patient. We recommend the expedited car shipping rate and have countless satisfied customers because the shipping process tends to go quicker. The rush rate is our highest level of car shipping service, and many customers are glad they went with that method.

auto transport tips, Vehicle Shipping Cost Calculator