Key takeaways

  • In general, stick to a traditional dealership if you want to negotiate. Buy online if you want the convenience of home shopping and to avoid high-pressure tactics.
  • Shopping online means viewing more vehicle options than you could by just visiting dealerships.
  • While buying a car online usually grants you a return period, getting a car at a dealership allows you to drive the car before you make any major decisions.

In the past, car buying meant heading to your local dealership and choosing your next set of wheels from what was available on the lot. But the environment has shifted. Now, drivers can order vehicles from the comfort of home — and sometimes even get them delivered.

Both buying options come with benefits and drawbacks. Online buying comes with convenience, while dealerships allow for negotiation. Consider which is best for your needs before beginning your shopping process.

Buying cars online vs. dealership

Online Traditional dealership
Advantages
  • More vehicle options
  • Easier to compare vehicles
  • Attentive customer service
  • More flexible prices
  • Manufacturer incentives
  • Expert advice
Disadvantages
  • No test drive
  • No negotiation
  • Potential extra fees
  • Larger time commitment
  • Harder to walk away
  • Fewer vehicle options
Good for… A driver who prefers the convenience of shopping from home and wants to avoid any pressure from sales associates. A driver who enjoys negotiating.
What to look out for Buying sight unseen can carry added risk, do outside research on models to ensure you’re getting a good vehicle. Add-ons and marked-up financing can undo all of your hard negotiation. Additional pressure can also push you into a vehicle that doesn’t fit.

Buying a car online

During the pandemic, many local dealers began to offer online shopping options. This allowed consumers to check out available vehicles in their area before setting out to the lot. While this remains a great option to shop online, it still requires a dealership visit.

Or you can shop through fully online dealerships. Online sellers like Carvana and CarMax — to name a few — enable drivers to shop, finance a car and arrange for delivery or pickup all from home.

Advantages of buying a car online

Perks include ease of purchase and direct online support.

More vehicle options

Sticking with local dealerships means shopping only from what’s available in your area. Buying from an online seller offers a much greater number of cars to shop from. You can also filter for specific models, makes and prices — all without the pressure of a salesperson over your shoulder.

Easier to compare vehicles

With more vehicles available, comparison is the key to choosing the right car. No matter how many notes you take, it is hard to truly compare two vehicles on a dealer lot side by side. Online, you can compare the features and accompanying costs for all the vehicles you have your eye on.

Attentive customer service

While shopping from home removes face-to-face assistance, some online retailers still offer excellent customer support. Many online sellers, like Carvana, offer a chat function where drivers can ask specific questions throughout the process.

Disadvantages of buying a car online

While buying a car online comes with the benefit and comfort of shopping from home, there are some notable negatives to consider.

No test drive

When shopping online, you typically can’t see the vehicle in person until after you purchase. And without any chance to test drive, you could purchase a car that doesn’t feel perfect. So when online car shopping, look for sellers that offer a return — like Carvana’s seven-day return period — so you won’t be stuck with a car you don’t want. CarMax is a notable exception: It allows shoppers to test-drive a car for 24 hours before buying.

No negotiation

Most online vehicle platforms offer no-haggle prices. If you dread car price negotiation, this can be a plus. But it also means you won’t be afforded any wiggle room on the price. When shopping at a traditional dealer, you can likely cut the price through negotiation. When shopping online, the price advertised is the price you pay.

Potential extra fees

While fees are unavoidable when it comes to car buying, shopping online tends to carry a few additional costs. Delivery could cost upward of $1,000, and you may pay other handling fees that can be mostly avoided when working with a dealer.

Buying a car at a dealership

Heading to your local car dealer is the most obvious choice when it comes time to buy a new or used vehicle. Dealerships cater to specific vehicle brands, prices and vehicle types. But these establishments can carry a negative reputation, so get familiar with common dealer tactics before arriving.

Used car prices are stabilizing alongside the supply chain, according to Car and Driver in December of 2023. But the average new car price was about $48,700 in late 2023, up from about $39,000 in 2019. Prepare to spend more money than pre-pandemic years if you are buying a brand-new car straight from a dealer.

Advantages of buying a car at a dealership

Taking the traditional route offers drivers the excitement of getting the best deal and the expert guidance of a salesperson.

More flexible prices

While the out-the-door price differs from what you see advertised on the vehicle window, savvy negotiation can help slash the cost. This is not a benefit afforded to those shopping from the comfort of home.

Manufacturer incentives

Dealerships sometimes offer buyers promotional finance options or additional rebates provided by manufacturers to sweeten the deal of buying from them. While not every available incentive is equal, many can be used to up your down payment or afford you 0 percent financing.

Expert advice

Nothing compares to the personalized guidance that a sales associate familiar with the industry can provide. This especially rings true if you are exploring new options like electric vehicles. With all the bells and whistles that vehicles now come equipped with, it can be beneficial to have someone to walk you through the process.

Disadvantages of buying a car at a dealership

The time it takes to buy a car can be a large time commitment and cause headaches for cautious buyers, so weigh the downsides of buying from a dealership.

Larger time commitment

When buying online, you can close your laptop and have your new vehicle arrive as soon as the next day. Buying at a dealer isn’t usually as seamless. You will have to carve out time to travel to the dealer lot, walk around to explore vehicle options and then sit down with a salesperson. This process can be exhausting and stressful.

Harder to walk away

While salespeople are there to assist you in your car-buying journey, their presence can make walking away from a deal especially hard. Pushy salespeople may also try to offer add-ons you don’t need. If you aren’t good at saying no in person, you might prefer the ease of exiting a browser tab.

Fewer vehicle options

Comparatively, dealerships offer much fewer vehicles than online sellers. Commonly, dealerships sell one specific vehicle brand. So if, for example, you have your sights set on a Nissan but only have a Ford dealer nearby, shopping online is the perfect way to explore more options.

How to get the best deal no matter where you buy

Regardless of where you intend to purchase your next car there are a few cardinal rules to keep in mind when it comes to driving off with the best deal possible.

  • Stick to your budget. Cost should be your top priority when shopping, so use a car loan calculator to understand your expected monthly cost. Also consider the total cost of ownership — maintenance and insurance included.
  • Apply for loan preapproval. Look out for lenders that offer preapproval. This is a great way to lock in expected monthly payments and ensure you can afford your car.
  • Shop the total amount, not the monthly payment. The longer the loan term, the lower your monthly payment may be, but this is not always the best option, as you may pay more interest in the long run.
  • Understand your credit score. Lenders see your credit score as an indicator of your ability to handle a loan. Compare the rates you’re offered to the average rates for your credit score.
  • Shop around. Compare auto loan rates with at least three lenders before signing off.
  • Use car buying apps. Using car buying apps, on and off the dealer lot, can enable you to compare vehicles and get real-time price estimates.

Bankrate tip

If you want the best of both worlds, consider emailing your local dealership ahead of time. Mention what you’re interested in and your purchase timeline and ask about available incentives.

FAQs

  • Buying a car online has a number of perks, like less high-pressure sales and alternative customer service through chat functions. Online you can also search a wider range of inventory easier and compare cars.

  • That depends on factors like which manufacturer incentives are available through the dealer, how much the seller can offer for a trade-in and available financing options, which can be limited online.  Compare pricing carefully between dealers and online sellers.

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