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Buying a Used Car Online: How to Find the Perfect Vehicle

Quick Tips for Buying Used Cars Online

  • Determine your budget and stick to it when buying a car online.
  • Search often or set alerts for new listings because online car inventory changes frequently.
  • Arrange a virtual test drive or video walkaround if you cannot test-drive the car before buying it online.
  • Understand delivery options and return policies when buying a car online, and use any “test-own” window to ensure the vehicle is a good fit.

Buying a used car online has become a popular option in recent years. It can be a great way to save time since you don’t have to physically visit as many dealerships to shop around. If you’re new to this process, or if you’ve never purchased a car before, the idea may seem overwhelming. The key is to take it step-by-step, read everything thoroughly, and ask lots of questions. Whether you’re a first-time buyer or an experienced shopper, this article will help you make an informed purchase through any online vehicle marketplace.

Set Your Budget 

Evaluate your finances and establish a firm budget before browsing for cars online. How much vehicle can you afford? How much are you willing to spend? These numbers may differ. You must also factor in the cost of maintaining the vehicle, including insurance, taxes, fuel, and maintenance expenses.

Never overextend your budget for a car. Once you’ve settled on a dollar amount, it’s time to start reviewing your options for vehicles that meet your needs.

RELATED: Car Financing Glossary: Finance Terminology Explained

Review the Listings Carefully 

Refine all online search results to show cars with prices within your budget. Consider a variety of makes and models before you settle on the exact vehicle you want, especially if your budget is tight. Cars with a manual transmission are typically less expensive than fully automatic options, and you might consider a lower trim level if you find a model you like that’s slightly out of your price range.

When reviewing each listing, read the descriptions very carefully. Look closely at each picture to clearly understand the vehicle’s condition before contacting the seller. Pay attention to the features, mileage, quirks, and cosmetic issues. Make sure the VIN in the listing matches the VIN shown in the vehicle photos. You should also review the history report. Check for all accidents, major recalls, unusual repairs, and other red flags.

Here are some other things to review:

Check Often

If nothing immediately stands out, refresh your search the next day or sooner. Most sellers update inventory on a rolling basis, so keep checking regularly. Consider setting alerts to notify you of new stock as soon as it posts on the website.

Contact the Seller 

When you find something that suits your needs and fits your budget, it’s time to contact the seller and ask any outstanding questions not answered by the web listing. If you’re browsing an online-only retail site, that company serves as the “seller” or “dealer.” You should contact it directly if you still need more details.

Online Marketplaces 

Popular online marketplaces typically have a virtual chat option or a contact form. Still, it’s worth calling and speaking with a representative directly. Be prepared with a list of questions to ask to have an understanding of the vehicle before proceeding to purchase. You might not be able to obtain additional photos or videos, but the customer service team may be able to address some outstanding concerns.

RELATED: Private Seller Exchange: Autotrader’s Platform for Peer-to-Peer Car Transactions

Things to Look for on a Used Car Test Drive  

It’s always best to test drive a car before you buy it. This will help you feel how it handles on the road and how comfortable the seats are. The experience allows you to detect any strange sounds, smells, or shakes. Do your best to schedule a test drive. If that’s not possible, ask if the seller or dealer can arrange a virtual test drive or video walkaround instead.

Here are some key things to look for:

  • Paint and Exterior: Check for scratches, dents, and rust on the car’s body. Also look at the paint finish, in general, to make sure everything is even and uniform. Mismatched areas may indicate previous repair work.
  • Tires: Tires can be hit-or-miss with used vehicles. While worn tires aren’t necessarily a dealbreaker, you should still check the tread and evaluate any damage. If the depth is uneven, it may indicate an issue with the alignment or suspension.
  • Brakes: How do the brakes feel? Tap them lightly to see how they respond, and try applying firm pressure at a safe driving speed to get a feel for their age. Listen for squeaks and squeals. Pay attention to jarring pulses or vibrations.
  • Suspension: Take note of how the vehicle handles speed bumps or dips in the road. Does the suspension system respond well? There shouldn’t be any excessive bouncing.
  • Engine: Listen for any strange noises or shaking from the engine bay. Pay attention to the way it responds when you accelerate and apply pressure to the brake.
  • Transmission: Test the transmission by shifting gears, both manually and automatically. Pay attention to any slipping or jerking sensations when shifting gears.
  • Battery: Check the condition of the battery. Ask when it was last tested or replaced. If you’re test-driving an electric vehicle, checking the battery pack’s health is crucial. The EV’s battery is perhaps its most critical component. An older battery may not perform as well in extreme weather conditions, and the overall range decreases as the battery degrades.
  • Steering: The car should feel comfortable and easy to steer. It should turn smoothly. There should be little resistance when you change lanes at different speeds. Veering toward one direction may signal an alignment issue.
  • Electrical: Test the electrical systems. Activate the headlights, interior lights, dashboard lights and dimmers, horn, radio, and more. Make sure all the features of the infotainment system turn on and function correctly.
  • HVAC: Turn on the climate control. Give it a few minutes to make sure the heating and air conditioning reach the optimal temperature and blow air at the expected intensity.
  • Upholstery: Examine the seats, dashboard, and other interior finishes. Look for any rips, stains, or signs of excessive wear.
  • Tactile Controls: Test the pedals, gear shift, power window buttons, and seat adjustment panels. Make sure they all work well and are easy to maneuver.
  • Visibility: Make sure you can see all angles of the car. Sit in the driver’s seat and the front passenger’s seat to check the rearview and side mirrors.
  • Safety: Ask about any airbag recalls and test each seat belt. When you’re driving, ensure the advanced safety features — like the backup camera, blind-spot sensors, cruise control or head-up display — work properly.

You must review its delivery options and return policies if you’re buying from an online marketplace. Since you typically can’t test drive these cars before purchasing, the seller will extend a short “test-own” window to ensure it’s a good fit. Read its guidelines carefully. You should drive the vehicle immediately after delivery. Use this time to consider all the points outlined above.

RELATED: 5 Things to Do on a Used Car Test Drive

Negotiate the Price 

A big part of finding your perfect vehicle is paying your perfect price. Research the current market trends and the car’s fair value to determine how low the car should be priced.

Private sellers and traditional dealerships may be more willing to negotiate. Online marketplaces are generally less likely to entertain offers. Still, it’s always worth trying to see if there’s any wiggle room on the price. You can also ask about any promotions or incentives that will help lower the final out-the-door cost.

Use your best negotiating skills, and always be willing to walk away if the seller won’t agree to your proposed number. Buying a car online is a much bigger investment than most other virtual shopping sessions, so stay within your budget.

RELATED: How to Negotiate a Car Deal: What You Need to Know 

Schedule an Inspection

Before you finalize the deal, ask about scheduling an inspection with a trusted mechanic. Work with the dealer to have your technician perform an onsite evaluation of the car’s condition. Without payment, the vehicle probably won’t be “on hold” for you, so act quickly. You don’t want someone else to purchase it first. Review the mechanic’s report as soon as possible and immediately bring any concerns to the dealer.

Complete Your Purchase

Once you’ve agreed on a final number, it’s time to complete the paperwork. When you buy a car online, most of this involves digital signatures. Read all the documents before e-signing on the dotted lines. You may still have to physically print, sign, and mail in a few essential files — especially if you’re financing through the dealer. Its web portal should walk you through the process.

Online marketplaces might only accept payment via ACH withdrawal directly from your bank account. After you submit payment, keep a copy of the receipt or bill of sale for your records. Print it and store the hard copy away in case you need it in the future.

Then, schedule the pickup or delivery. When you get the car, perform a visual inspection to see that everything looks right. Take a drive around the block to ensure it’s operable. If there are any glaring issues or new problems that weren’t present in photos or on the test drive, you have the right to refuse the delivery and engage the dealer for a resolution.

Read Related Articles:


Can you buy a car online?

Yes, it’s possible to buy a car online. Many dealers and online marketplaces make it easy to purchase a vehicle without ever leaving your home. Each retailer will have their own purchase process, so make sure to research and review their terms thoroughly before you proceed.

What's a good credit score to buy a car?

Your more likely to be approved for a conventional car loan with a credit score of 660 or higher. There is no official minimum score to qualify for a loan, but there’s a greater chance you’ll be denied if your score is below 600.

When is the best time to buy a car?

December is the best time to buy a car. This is when the monthly, quarterly, and yearly sales goals all intersect, creating more incentives for potential buyers.

Chantel Wakefield
Chantel Wakefield
Chantel Wakefield is an Advice Contributor, specializing in finance, electric vehicle, and state regulation content. She joined the editorial team in June 2022 and offers over a decade of experience writing instructional content and managing social media strategies. She was previously a DIY contributor at The Home Depot and freelance writer for various publications. Chantel also has experience as... Read More about Chantel Wakefield

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