car buying checklist online edition

There are very few things that can’t be bought online anymore, cars included. But what kind of things do you have to look out for when buying a car online? And where can you go to find the best selection and pricing?

Here’s a few helpful tips about buying a car online, and where you can go to do it.

12 Tips for Buying a Car Online

No matter where you buy a car, it’s imperative to check the car, the seller, and even reviews on the car rigorously to help ensure you’re not going to end up in a lemon. This is important for both used and new cars — nothing’s worse than driving a car home and then straight to the shop days or weeks later.

But buying a car online versus buying a car at a dealership each present their own unique challenges. Here are some tips you may need to follow if you’re buying a car online.

  1. If a car is used and being sold “as is” understand that you could end up with numerous expensive repairs. This might lead to a better deal, but only take it if you’ve also saved up a healthy car repair budget.
  2. Avoid buying a car that’s out of state or too far to drive to unless (a) you know a mechanic or a trusted friend in that location who can test drive it for you, or (b) the website provides a solid return policy on the car.
  3. Again for used cars, always obtain a vehicle history report to see what the car has been through in the past. Many of the websites listed below offer this option, some even for free.
  4. Once you find a few makes and models you like, read consumer reviews on them. Look for information about safety, repairs, and recalls — and make note of the reasons reviewers loved or hated the car and see how those reasons relate to your lifestyle.
  5. Whether you’re going new or used, at some point you really should see the car in person to check it out and give it a test drive (preferably on multiple types of terrains, such as back roads and highways). Again, don’t skip this step unless the website you’re buying from has a money back return guarantee. Consumer Reports has a detailed list of the kinds of things you should be looking for when you examine the car.
  6. Bonus points if you can test drive the car over to your trusted mechanic.
  7. Live in an area that experiences a lot of hurricanes or flooding? Buying a car from such an area? Review this article by the National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA) to look for signs of flood damage you wouldn’t otherwise easily spot.
  8. You might find the car you want online only to realize it’s being offered by a car dealership and not a private seller. If that’s the case, review this list of hidden fees of buying a car to make sure the dealer isn’t tacking too many of them onto your price.
  9. Since some of the online listings you might find could include an option to lease, read here about buying versus leasing a car before jumping into a lease just for the lower monthly price. It’s not necessarily a bad option, but you should still make sure it’s the right one for you.
  10. While you’re researching a few different makes and models, see which of the cars come with the best resale value. That way, if you plan on selling or trading in several years down the road, you can make a choice now that could lead you to more negotiating power then.
  11. Look for inconsistencies in the car listing. Think grammatical errors, pricing that’s out of whack for the value of the car (in a good or bad way), and anything that might seem off about the photo of the car and its surroundings. If anything seems wrong, you might want to move on to a new listing
  12. When you decide to buy, make sure the title is in the seller’s name if you’re buying from a private seller. And if you meet them in person, don’t hand cash to them. Instead, meet them at the bank and exchange cash or cashier’s check for a title along with a bill of sale.

There’s no doubt about the fact that you can find just as good deals online as you can at a car dealership — sometimes you might even find a better deal. But don’t jump on one so fast that you end up living your very own car buying horror story. Follow the steps above to help protect yourself and your money.

Now, let’s see where you can search for these deals online!

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Where You Can Go to Find a Car Online

1. Autobytel

Although you can’t buy a car directly via Autobytel, this site enables you to search for the exact make and model of a new or used car that you might be looking for. Once you find it, you can read information about the car such as price, mileage, and a slew of other important details you should know before buying a car. Importantly, Autobytel also shows you the VIN (vehicle identification number) so you can get a vehicle history report on the car before even talking to a dealer.

Autobytel also has a “MyGarage” feature that keeps track of cars you’ve been viewing for an easier compare and contrast experience. Once you find the car you want, all you have to do is contact the dealer listed to schedule a viewing. You can also see if the dealer on that listing has similar cars just in case you want to compare locally.

2. Autolist

Comparing itself to Kayak, Autolist aggregates data on cars for sale from various sources so you can shop across multiple websites in one place. Just select your price range, make and model, and/or any other details you want to filter by and review the results. You can even create search alerts so you can get notified if something you’re looking for becomes available later.

What’s more, the VIN for the car and seller contact details are listed right on the results page, as well as an estimated monthly price for the car.

3. AutoTempest

Like Autolist, AutoTempest pulls car listings from various websites so you can search easily in one place. The site will also keep track of your recent searches and allow you to save searches, just like Autobytel’s “MyGarage” feature.

If you want to learn the history of any cars you’re interested in, you can click on a link that will direct you to a place to buy the vehicle history report. And if you want to buy, you can send a message to the dealer straight from the car’s listing page. You can also schedule a test drive first to make sure the car you like will work for you.

4. AutoTrader

A well-known name in the car industry, AutoTrader allows you to engage in a new or used car search among dealerships and private sellers either local to you or throughout the country.

Once you start looking at listings, you’ll see that the site shows Kelley Blue Book values to help you find out if the price is right. There’s also a link on the listing pages to help you purchase a vehicle history report, and you can apply for financing and estimate payments (or you can go ahead and contact the dealer from the listing if you prefer that).

5. Bring a Trailer

If classic cars are more your speed, then you might want to check out Bring a Trailer. This online car auction site features vintage cars only. Although you may not be able to find the exact make and model you’re looking for the first time, you can keep an eye on the site until you find your heart’s desire. The downside is that you’ll have to place a bid if you find a car you want, rather than being able to give it a test-drive first.

6. CarGurus

CarGurus is a car search website that ranks listings by the market value of the car and the reputation of the dealer, rather than by ads dealers can pay for to rank more highly.

Like many other of the sites mentioned, you can save your search, search by dealer or private seller, and check the VIN if the seller has provided it. What makes this site different from many others, however, is that it’ll let you know if the price being asked for is over, at, or below the market value of the car — so you can understand instantly if the car is a good or bad deal.

7. Carjojo

Carjojo enables you to shop for a car online and its team will also help you negotiate a deal. The site even has an algorithm to predict how low you can go and still get a dealer to accept your offer.

And if you can’t get the lowest price the site says you should be able to pay, Carjojo says they will cover the difference. Currently, you can only search for new vehicles on the site, not used.

8. Carmax

Carmax doesn’t just help you shop for a car online — the site can also help you secure financing for the car you want. What’s more, if you buy a car that you realize isn’t going to work out for you, Carmax will give you five days to bring it back for a full refund.

Besides detailed information about a car’s features and history, you can also read customer reviews and ratings on the car of your choice. And you can even place a hold on a car and transfer a car to a closer location.


Another long-established name in the industry, enables you to search for new and used cars by make or body style. You can also review a price comparison and download the app for price change notifications, to see a saved search, and even scan the VIN on a car you’re interested in.

On the listing itself, you can read reviews, see payment estimates, and contact the seller.

10. CarsDirect

CarsDirect shows you new and used cars and it allows you to build the model you’re looking for so you can find the exact version of your dream car. The site also helps you compare the options you’re reviewing to similar options to see what might be better for you. On the listing itself, you can review incentives different dealers are offering for the sale or lease of that car.

Once you find the car you want to buy, CarsDirect connects you to the dealership selling it and gives you a “target price” to negotiate with. Finally, you can save your searches if you want to review multiple options before you decide to buy.

11. Carvana

Part of the problem of many online shopping experiences is the difficulty in getting to the car you want for a test drive. With Carvana, though, you can get the car you buy delivered to your door — and you have seven days to drive it around and try it out. If you don’t like it and return within those seven days, you’ll get a money-back guarantee.

Like Carmax, Carvana also helps you secure financing for your purchase. You can also click right from the listing to Carfax to review the car’s vehicle history report, and there’s an option on the listing to see what your current car could provide as trade-in value.

12. Craigslist

There’s a good chance you already know how Craigslist works, and it’s not much different for cars. Just start with your location, look for cars under the “for sale” section, and select the option of “all cars & trucks,” “by-owner only,” or “by-dealer only.”

Then just keep looking until you find the car you want and contact the seller if you want to arrange a viewing. You won’t get any help with financing, and you might have to ask the owner directly for the VIN. But what you will get is a direct line between you and the seller of the car. Just be sure to follow these steps before buying a car on Craigslist.

13. eBay

When searching for a car on eBay, you can search by category or start with the make and model you’re looking for. If you search for a certain make and model, you can choose between searching on eBay or separately in a partnership with TrueCar. From there, you can build a profile of the car you’re looking for or review the prices on local inventory.

If you choose to search only within eBay, however, you would bid on whatever car you’re interested in. Before you do, you can review information such as the VIN and even the full history report is provided, as well as what features the vehicle comes with.

14. Edmunds

Known as a place to go to read reviews and ratings on different vehicles, Edmunds can also help you find that new or used car you’ve been looking for. Listings will show you features of the car as well as the VIN, and Edmunds will even rate whether the price is a good or bad deal. You can also use the site’s calculator to see how much you might pay for car loans from three to seven years.

And if you find a car you’d like to buy, you can connect with the dealer via the listing to get the ball rolling and see if you’re eligible for extra perks from Edmunds.

15. Hemmings

Another site for classic car lovers, Hemmings focuses entirely on used cars for the serious car collector. Just peruse the site or search directly for the car on your mind. And if you find one you like, you can contact the seller via the listing on Hemmings.

16. Kelley Blue Book

Kelley Blue Book isn’t just a place you go to see how much a car is worth — you can also search for a car on the site as well. And since Kelley Blue Book is the name for researching a car’s value, the listings also show you consumer and expert ratings and reviews along with other details to help you evaluate the car, such as the VIN and the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) safety rating.

If you find a car you like, you can contact the dealer via the listing, but you can also review the dealer’s ratings on the same page before you do.

17. National Appraisal Guides, Inc. (NADAGuides)

Another well-known source for searching a car’s value, NADAGuides helps you search for new and used cars, some listings with the help of Autotrader.

On NADAGuides’ listings you can see details on the car as well as what others paid for similar models, and you can see incentives being offered by various dealers and estimated monthly payments. The site also helps you get an insurance quote from Geico and lending rates from LendingTree.

18. NowCar

According to NowCar, you can “search, build, and buy” your next car on its site — and get free delivery of the vehicle when you’re finished. The site enables you to start a search in one of two ways: You can either start searching by the features you want your next car to have, or you can search by make and model and customize from there.

If you search by feature, you can even set the search by the monthly payment you want to stay within or by the total cost of the car. Either way, when you find a car, you’ll see options for leasing, financing, or cash, including any rebates available. Vehicles available for delivery to your location can come in as little as three to five days.

19. TrueCar

With TrueCar, you can search for new and used vehicles while also getting a trade-in offer for your car by simply entering your state and license plate number or VIN. Once you look at listings, you can see pricing from dealers as well as what others have paid for the same type of car.

And if you’re searching new, the listing will come with a free Carfax vehicle history report. The site also enables you to estimate monthly payments. If you’re ready to buy, you must then get your TruePrice offer by registering for the site and then following the steps from there. On new cars, you’ll also have to register your email to see pricing on inventory local to you.

20. Vroom

Vroom sells its cars direct, which entails the ability to buy from them (or trade-in), secure financing, and get the car delivered to your door. And if your choice is a used car, Vroom shows you the vehicle history report for free.

For those who need a little time, there is an option to put a car on hold with a refundable deposit. The site also helps you estimate payments and either buy in cash or finance with Vroom or your bank.

21. Your Local Dealership

You no longer have to go to a special website to buy a car unless you want to. That’s because many large car dealerships have made it possible to search their inventory online. What’s more, many also include reviews of the dealership’s sales and service departments, helping you to know what you’re getting into more easily if you choose to deal with them.

Driving Away With a Good Deal

There may be no better time to buy a car than now, given the plethora of car buying websites and the ease with which you can find ratings and reviews on your favorite makes and models. Just remember that the car you’re buying should last for several years, so take your time and wait for the deal that’ll please your pocketbook and your daily commute.

Think you might want to try other options instead? Click here to read the Ultimate Car Buying Checklist: Dealership Edition and here to read the Ultimate Car Buying Checklist: Craigslist Edition.

Ready to make a purchase? Read up on these facts about buying with credit and make sure your credit is in good shape with Upturn Credit’s free tool!