How to Buy a Car Online

By Zac Estrada
Last Updated 06/04/2015

It's common to find a car online and buy it. Like pretty much any other consumer good, the Internet is awash in cars for sale. For an enthusiast, you can gaze like a kid in a candy store. But for those looking for a good deal on sensible transportation, it can be even more daunting than being left alone on a used car lot.

Just like any car buying experience, getting a vehicle over the Internet takes preparation, homework, patience and street smarts to prevent any mishaps. Still, the payoff could be huge because you're able to hunt around, compare prices and find the exact car you're looking for, which should mean you'll get a great deal.

Here's how to avoid getting burned by a deal you found on the Internet.

Know what you want

Like wandering onto a car lot, it's easy to be taken in by the selection of cars online. Before doing your inventory searches, do your research with reviews and understand the models you'll consider. Narrowing down your choices should simplify things and make sorting through listings less chaotic.

But do try to keep an open mind, especially if you're searching for a model that's not commonly available in your area.

Watch out for fake ads and too-good-to-be-true offers

Get a good handle on what the car you're looking at typically lists for in your area. That way, you'll know when you see an ad that just can't be right. A car that should be priced at $10,000 won't be priced for $5,000 unless there's something really wrong with it, or the seller is particularly motivated to unload it for an undisclosed reason.

The easiest way to do this is to buy from verified sellers. Most sites, including Carfax, have sellers with featured statuses and better reputations. These sellers may also offer you some protections, such as a limited warranty or some kind of guarantee if the car breaks down right after you get it (or if something in the transaction process falls through).

Old rules apply

Just because you're buying a car online doesn't mean you should abandon tested methods of used car shopping.

A Vehicle History Report is a must, so get the vehicle identification number (VIN) and see if everything adds up. Obsess over it and make note of any irregularities to confront the seller with.

Try your hardest to see the car in person. Poke and prod every panel and check to make sure all of the buttons work as advertised. If you can't be there in person, ask a friend who's closer to check it out. And if that doesn't work, demand lots of pictures and ask lots of questions.

Like any used car purchase, you need to make sure all the information about this prospective buy checks out before you do a deal and hand over money. If you're doing a private party sale or not picking up the car in person, make sure you and the seller agree to an arrangement where you have protections in the transaction. The last thing you want is to give someone your money and not get the car you thought you were buying in return.

If you must arrange for the car to be shipped, ask the seller to assist in the arrangement. If it's from a dealer or someone who is used to shipping, check out the companies they recommend.

Buying a car online is not necessarily a trap created by unscrupulous sellers to prey. Plenty of great deals on cars can be had and the Internet can offer you so much more than just poking around at the local used car lot.