The Internet is almost entirely to thank for creating a generation of more informed and empowered consumers. Indeed today, it’s never been easier to research and compare products and make well-educated purchase decisions…even for big-ticket items like cars, trucks, and SUVs!
For comparison, many will remember the ’old days’ of car buying when it was necessary to go in person from dealer to dealer, contending with one sneaky salesperson after another in hopes of not only locating the desired vehicle and options, but then enduring a complex and often exhausting negotiation process where the dealer, armed with superior knowledge and information, seemed to have the upper hand.
Fortunately for today’s consumers, the Internet has forever changed the overall car-buying experience, tipping the scales more in favor of buyers. We can now find endless vehicle and pricing information, not to mention a nationwide vehicle inventory as well as customer reviews for both the dealership and vehicle make/model, with just a few well-placed clicks.
So the next time you’re in the market for a new or used vehicle, here’s how to harness the power of the Internet to avoid unnecessary trips to the dealer, locate the right vehicle for you, and even lead the purchase negotiations so you can secure a good value and put shiny, new rubber to the road in less time.
How to Shop for a Car Online
Research Vehicle (and Dealer) Reviews and History Reports
Today, it’s little surprise that most every major purchase decision begins with the consumer going online to research product specifications, as well as to read reviews from fellow consumers. To save time and energy, as well as empower the car-buying process, it’s a good idea to narrow down your list of potential vehicle choices by considering the wealth of information that’s easily accessible on the internet.
That may include:
- Manufacturer websites – Browse all available models, options and trim packages to decide which (if any) fit your needs and wants. For example, you can verify in advance that a given vehicle’s engine and tow package is powerful enough to handle your boat or camper, that its safety features are to your liking and that its cargo compartment is ample enough to fit those baby strollers, golf clubs and grocery bags. A single internet session can easily turn up enough facts and vehicle information to save car buyers from those extraneous and unnecessary trips to dealers that leave them disappointed at the realization that a particular vehicle, for some reason(s), won’t meet their needs or expectations.
- Third-party reviews – With the help of ever-popular rating and review sites, car buyers can discover a wealth of pertinent information about the vehicle(s) in question direct from those who already own or have considered them. But besides consumer ratings, be sure to take advantage of unbiased, third-party reviews on mainstream automotive sites like Motor Trend, Car & Driver, Edmunds, Consumer Reports and others.
- Dealer ratings and feedback – The power and scope of the Internet means that not just the vehicles themselves are under scrutiny. Indeed, a simple Google search for a given dealer makes it possible to read all about its showroom and service department, as well as the knowledge, skill and quality of care provided by sales, service and/or finance personnel. Armed with this data, consumers can perhaps eliminate from contention any dealers that are frequently subject to harsh criticism in favor of competing dealers where the car-buying experience is said to be more transparent and buyer friendly.
- Vehicle history reports – Once you’ve decided on a make and model, you want to be sure to access Carfax and/or AutoCheck vehicle history reports (if available) to ensure you’re getting a vehicle with no hidden history of accidents, recalls title or maintenance issues. These reports are typically offered for free on many reputable dealer sites, adding clarity and transparency when making those all-important buying decisions.
Discover Fair Value & Create Competition Between Dealers
Another important way that the Internet has forever altered the car-buying landscape is by forcing dealers’ hands in terms of pricing. You see, they know that consumers are shopping online before ever setting foot inside a dealership, and that makes it crucial to put their best foot forward with regard to pricing, or else risk losing sales to other, lower-priced dealerships.
Here are two important takeaways from this industry-wide shift:
- Published vehicle prices now tend to include a wide range of discounts, manufacturer and dealer incentives, and special financing rates, not all of which will apply to every buyer; and…
- Sale prices—particularly for pre-owned vehicles—may be less flexible than in the past as dealer pricing must start low in hopes of creating interest among prospective buyers.
To better navigate often-confusing pricing policies, try using specialized pricing tools like those found on popular car-buying sites/apps like TrueCar, AutoTrader and Cars.com, which can give a clearer idea of what’s considered a fair price for the given vehicle and equipment you’re considering.
Then, from there, always require any dealer to provide vehicle pricing that includes all taxes, title, tag and applicable fees. This is important and can help you avoid late-stage sticker shock, instead ensuring that you’re getting the value you want and deserve.
Also, try expanding your search radius by 50, 100 or even 200 miles or more to access a larger and more diverse pool of potential vehicles. Use the internet and manufacturer websites to discover dozens of authorized dealers in your geographic region and browse available inventory. More choices means more competition between dealers, which is an excellent way to pit multiple sellers up against one another, in the process driving down your initial and monthly payment costs.
Most of all though, don’t be misled by those dealer specials you often see or hear advertised. Sure, it sounds like a screaming deal, but you’ll inevitably discover a hook that drives price in the wrong direction. (For example, that zero-money-down deal probably excludes the tax, tag, title and dealer fee we just mentioned, which means that $0 down becomes $1500, $1700 or even $2000 or more in a flash. And that $199 lease deal that sounds so good? Well, often hidden in the fine print is the fact that the ultra-low, advertised price requires an exorbitant down payment, pertains only to the base model with limited equipment and comes with an equally low mileage allowance. Some advertised incentives even require an 850 credit score to qualify!
Being well informed will help you cut through the vagaries of price, decide what’s really fair, and ensure that you get a reasonable deal on an adequately equipped vehicle of your choosing. More now than ever before, though, the fact remains that any diligent vehicle search and purchasing process simply must incorporate the internet and its various tools in order to get the best and most relevant information in less time.