With an abundance of online tools and websites available to used car buyers in the digital age, long gone are the days of walking into a dealership intimidated and uninformed—crossing your fingers in hopes of not grossly overpaying for a vehicle or driving off the lot in one riddled with mechanical problems (the dreaded lemon).
“Consumers today have ready access to much more information than they’ve ever had before,” says Patrick Min, senior industry analyst at TrueCar. “This includes things such as pricing data—average transaction prices in the area of purchase, trade-in values and available incentives—and information such as vehicle features and inventory available at both the local and national levels.”
In addition, detailed records of a particular vehicle’s service, accident and ownership history are now at consumers’ fingertips, thanks to popular websites like Carfax and AutoCheck.
Car buyers seem to echo Min’s opinion. A recent study showed that 86% of car buyers shop online first to save time at the dealership, and average time spent at dealerships was only two hours for those who had researched their purchase online ahead of their visit.
We are in what feels like the Golden Age of used car buying—able to access more resources, tools and information than any generation ever before. Knowing that, you can breathe a sigh of relief. But don’t rely exclusively on the Web.
“Shopping for a vehicle online can be overwhelming,” Min says. “The number of choices is almost endless.”
While having comprehensive access to what the market has to offer isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can also create a unique challenge: how to find the time to process and organize all of the information?
Another downside? “If a person conducts the bulk of their research and shopping online, they should be aware that there are key parts of the process that cannot be replicated virtually,” Min says. “You can’t test-drive or smell the leather from your computer.” While the Internet may be a convenient and valuable tool, it should not necessarily be considered an alternative to visiting a dealership.
With an understanding of the pros and cons of shopping for an automobile in the digital age, here are three steps that Min says can help ensure that you have a positive online used car-buying experience.
- Inquire about the warranty. Cars may or may not have coverage remaining from the new car factory warranty. Certified preowned vehicles can also bring added warranty coverage and may qualify for reduced interest-rate financing.
- Understand the market for your desired vehicle. This helps you identify a fair price.
- Conduct vehicle history searches using sites like Carfax or AutoCheck, but don’t assume everything you find is 100 percent accurate. “These reports are only as good as the databases that feed into them,” Min says. “It may be worthwhile to invest in a pre-purchase inspection by an independent mechanic or a dealership.”
Understanding the resources available should help ease any buyer anxiety and set you on the road toward owning a vehicle that is right for you. Happy shopping!
Next: Before you buy, check out the 3 surprising things to look for when test-driving a car.
By Charlie Duerr