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By: Danni White & Chris Davies | Updated Mar 18, 2021

Whether you’re looking to buy a car in person or on the internet, your search should probably start online. It’s important to be able to ask the right questions and know what to look for. Car buying can be complex, but visiting the right sites can take away some of the guesswork.

Read our online car buying sites methodology to see how we rated each company.

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Top online car buying sites

Carvana

Carvana

5/5.0

Pros

  • Choose delivery or pickup
  • Seven-day return policy with up to three swaps
  • 100-day limited warranty

Cons

  • Must purchase extended warranty before delivery or pickup
  • Financing terms are nonnegotiable

Carvana is an online vehicle retailer with more than 25,000 used cars for sale at the time of publishing. Each car goes through a 150-point inspection and comes with a free CARFAX report. In-house financing is available, but you can also pay cash or finance with a third party, such as your bank or credit union. Carvana also accepts trade-ins, and it can pick up your trade-in at a location of your choice if you opt for delivery.

Carvana offers a seven-day test drive and return policy, and its cars come with a 100-day, 4,189-mile limited warranty. Available options include an extended warranty plan and gap coverage.

Edmunds

Edmunds

4.9/5.0

Pros

  • Pricing insights help ensure you’re getting a good deal
  • Supports AutoCheck vehicle history reports

Cons

  • Doesn’t sell cars directly

Edmunds doesn’t sell cars directly, but it hosts listings for new and used cars from local dealers. You can shop based on a number of factors, including Edmunds’ own pricing insights, to help you identify a good deal.

Edmunds also offers a variety of car buying resources, including rankings, reviews, a price checker and an online car appraisal service. Its appraisal service is particularly useful if you’re trying to sell your existing car or wondering what you can get for it as a trade-in.

CarMax

CarMax

4.8/5.0

Pros

  • Finances people with most credit profiles
  • 30-day return policy

Cons

  • No cars more than four years old

CarMax sells used cars online, letting you shop by budget, car type or monthly payment. Curbside pickup and delivery options are available. CarMax also offers 24-hour test drives and 30-day, money-back returns (if you’ve driven less than 1,500 miles). All major systems are covered for 90 days or 4,000 miles.

CarMax provides financing through several lenders, including Ally, Capital One, Chase and Exeter Finance. However, you can handle your own financing through your bank or credit union if you prefer. If you find better financing after you complete your purchase, CarMax has a three-day pay-off program that lets you take advantage of a better deal.

Autotrader

Autotrader

4.7/5.0

Pros

  • Broad search coverage
  • Trade-in option available for online purchases

Cons

  • Doesn’t sell directly
  • Possible delivery fees for online purchases

Autotrader lists used and new cars for sale online from local dealers and private sellers. In some cases, the dealer will bring you the car for a test drive and deliver the paperwork and car to your home when you’re ready to buy. Autotrader also provides instant cash offers for your current vehicle.

Autotrader has an accelerated online process that lets you expedite the sale, secure financing, value your trade-in, apply for financing and schedule a test drive before visiting a dealership.

Vroom

Vroom

4.6/5.0

Pros

  • Can file DMV paperwork for you
  • Seven-day test-drive

Cons

  • Some purchases require paper documents
  • Delivery could take 10 to 14 days

Vroom offers a completely online car buying and delivery experience, specializing in low-mileage used cars. It also lets you test-drive vehicles for seven days. Cars on Vroom must pass multiple inspections, and every car comes with a free CARFAX report. Vroom provides a limited warranty with most purchases, covering the car for 90 days or up to 6,000 miles.

You can supply your own financing, but Vroom also provides its own lending options by partnering with banks and lending institutions, including Chase, Santander Bank and Ally. Vroom accepts trade-ins too.

AutoTempest

AutoTempest

4.5/5.0

Pros

  • Search millions of car listings on one site
  • Helps you sell or trade in your current vehicle

Cons

  • Doesn’t sell directly

AutoTempest brings together listings from other used car sites, including eBay, Cars.com, TrueCar, Carvana and CarsDirect. You can find millions of used car listings and shop by budget, make, model, year, mileage and other factors. AutoTempest also offers three advanced keyword search options to help narrow your search by negative keywords, optional words or phrases.

If you’re looking for a new car, AutoTempest can help you compare quotes from multiple dealers. Other buying tools include insurance and shipping quotes. Financing is available through Carvana.

You can also sell your car on AutoTempest. You get a real offer in two minutes, and Auto Tempest picks up your car when you decide to sell. Payment is available upfront or as part of a trade-in agreement.

CarsDirect

CarsDirect

4.4/5.0

Pros

  • Search thousands of local listings
  • Find updated pricing insights

Cons

  • Doesn’t sell directly

CarsDirect helps buyers find deals on new and used cars for sale from local dealers. You can compare cars side by side and check deals in your area. You can also browse by price, style, make, model, region and monthly payment. CarsDirect also has a section for top deals on new cars and leases.

CarsDirect helps find financing options for buyers with bad credit, no credit and bankruptcy. Most cars come with a free CARFAX report.

To find companies for this guide, we looked at 15 brands and pared them down to these seven top online car buying sites. We considered available vehicle options, financing offerings and return policies. We also looked at reviews from online sources, including ConsumerAffairs and Google, and we only included companies with a rating of 3 stars or higher.

Compare online car buying websites

Provider Offers financing Availability Return policy
Carvana Yes Free delivery to 31 states; paid delivery elsewhere 7 days
Edmunds No Exclusively online Varies by seller
CarMax Yes 41 states 30 days
Autotrader No Exclusively online Varies by seller
Vroom Yes Delivers to 48 states 7 days or 250 miles
AutoTempest No Exclusively online Varies by seller
CarsDirect Yes Exclusively online Varies by seller

Online car buying vs. traditional car buying

The main difference between buying a car online and in person is that you may not be able to see the car with your own eyes or take a test drive before making the purchase. To make up for this, many online car purchases come with a return policy, typically five to seven days (with limited mileage).

Like cars from a dealership, new cars purchased online should come with a mechanical inspection and warranty. However, dealerships might offer certified pre-owned vehicles with a manufacturer’s warranty — these cars might not be available from online car buying sites or private sellers. Some online car sellers also accept trade-ins, and many offer common dealer features, including financing options and add-ons like extended warranties and gap insurance.

How to buy a car online

Buying a car online is a new experience for a lot of people, but the process usually isn’t too different from buying at a dealership. Here’s a step-by-step guide to buying a car online:

  1. Find out your credit score: If you plan to finance the vehicle, look up your credit score so you won’t be surprised when the lender performs a credit check. This also helps you know what kind of interest rate to expect.
  2. Determine your budget: Setting a budget helps narrow your search by identifying which cars you can afford and giving you an estimate of what your monthly payment should be.
  3. Find the right vehicle: Figure out which model years fit your budget and your needs. Compare your options, then search a variety of online car buying sites to find a vehicle matching your criteria.
  4. Look for deals or incentives: Check for deals from the seller or search the internet for financing incentives or manufacturer promotions, such as 0% financing or trade-in deals.
  5. Get preapproved: Once you have a car in mind, you can get preapproved for financing through a lender or, in some cases, the car buying site itself. Some online sellers will put a hold on a car while you work out the details of your financing. While getting financing through the seller or dealership is an option, preapproval has multiple benefits, like letting you shop around for a better rate.
  6. Talk with a sales manager: Having a conversation with a sales manager helps you answer any questions you might have. It should also give you an explanation of the online buying process from that company. Let the sales manager tell you about any deals or incentives available, but don’t commit if you’re not sure yet.
  7. Take the car for a test drive: If a test drive option is available, schedule one. It might be at a dealership, or the seller may bring the car to you. With a new car, you shouldn’t have to carefully check for damage or malfunctions, but it’s still important to get a feel for the car and see how you like it. If the test drive goes well and you have your finances together, it’s time to buy.
  8. Read and sign the paperwork: When you’re ready to make a purchase, be sure to read all the paperwork before signing. Make sure you’re only paying for what you want and getting everything that you’re paying for. If you don’t understand anything in your contract, ask about it. Some online sellers accommodate e-signatures, while others will overnight paper documents for your signature.
  9. Head to the dealer or get your car delivered: Once you sign the contract, the dealer should deliver the car or arrange for you to pick it up locally. If you’re buying from a private party, you may have to arrange your own auto transport.

Tips for buying a new car

If you are planning to purchase a new vehicle, here are some tips worth considering:

  • Get insurance quotes: Think about the cost of insurance as well as your monthly payment. Insuring a new car is typically more expensive than insuring a used car. Shop around for rates on the make and model you’re considering to find out what you should expect to spend.
  • Plan for fuel costs: If you’re looking at a new car online, the gas mileage should be listed with the specs on the vehicle. If not, check the manufacturer’s website. Calculate your weekly gas costs to make sure the vehicle is right for you.
  • Check the warranty: Online car sellers should offer the same warranties as physical dealerships. Find out what the manufacturer’s warranty covers. Powertrain or drivetrain coverage is standard, but most new car warranties should also have bumper-to-bumper protection. Roadside assistance is sometimes included too.
  • Plan ahead: Some car dealers offer maintenance packages with the purchase of a new car, such as free basic service up to a certain number of years or miles. Dealerships may also try to sell you an extended warranty that covers your vehicle against malfunctions and breakdowns. These can be worth the cost, but you should also consider working with third-party warranty providers.

Tips for buying a used car

While buying a used car has much in common with buying a new car, there are several notable differences to keep in mind. Here are a few tips if you’re purchasing a used car online.

  • Get a vehicle history report: Many online car sellers offer free vehicle history reports. If not, these reports are readily available for a low cost from such sites as CARFAX or AutoCheck. Enter the VIN to find out about any accidents, recalls or maintenance gaps that may affect the car’s value. Some reports will also show how many previous owners a car has.
  • Make sure the car is in good shape: Online sellers should be able to verify that a vehicle’s maintenance is up to date, whether it’s through a vehicle history report or physical records from a previous owner. Many sellers also have a certification process that includes maintenance and a multipoint inspection. If the seller is willing, you can also get a pre-purchase inspection from a third-party mechanic.
  • Take a test drive: If a test drive is available, don’t pass it up. Look for any dings, paint damage, glass cracks and imperfections that might not have been in the listing photos. Inspect the engine bay, check the tire tread and try all the power features to make sure they work. Check for strange smells, leaks or sounds as well.
  • Consider the gas mileage: Information about the gas mileage of used cars is more difficult to find. As a rule of thumb, gas mileage gets worse as a car ages, so expect to spend more on fuel than you would for a new version of the same vehicle. You can get an estimate of a car’s actual gas mileage from the U.S. Department of Energy. Think about how much gas will cost for the vehicle now and in the future as its efficiency decreases.
  • Verify the title is clear: A clean title is good, but a salvage title means the car was declared a total loss by an insurance company and repaired. Though the car was repaired and it’s possibly in drivable condition, it could still have problems. Its value should also be significantly lower if it doesn’t have a clear title. This information is usually available via a vehicle history report.
  • Talk to the seller: When purchasing a car online from a dealership, it helps to talk with the sales manager or customer service. Ask questions about the inspection process, test drive, financing and return policy.

Bottom line

Online car buying is convenient and lets you search thousands of listings, compare prices and arrange financing without leaving home. If you decide to purchase a used car online, do the research and make sure the car’s title is clear. If a test drive is not available before you buy, make sure you have some recourse, like a return policy. Finally, understand all the fees and costs associated with the vehicle before signing on the dotted line, just as you would for any car purchase.

Frequently asked questions about online car buying sites

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It depends on your situation and preferences. There are many websites that can help you buy a car, and some offer more functionalities than others. To get started, look for a site with a lot of listings that lets you filter by the features that are most important to you.
Yes, it is possible to buy a car completely online. With online car buying sites, you can go from finding the right vehicle to purchasing entirely online. However, it’s still a good idea to see the car in person and ensure everything is correct if you can.
Yes, it is generally safe to purchase a vehicle online. However, you want to ensure you’re on a legitimate website. Be sure to read terms and conditions, privacy policies and other “fine print” materials before handing over your information online. Also, be careful with wiring funds or handing over your credit card details to someone you do not know online.