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Buying a Car During Coronavirus: Tips on Purchasing Online & In Person

(updated May 27th, 2020)

With coronavirus affecting thousands of people, troubling worldwide financial markets and sowing doubts about job security, buying a car in today's climate is likely the last thing on people's minds. Things are rapidly changing, and no one can predict the extent of the effect this pandemic will have on the economy or on our lives. Some shoppers are stable enough to take on a purchase, and  automakers are loosening loan and payment terms to encourage them to buy, but we recommend considering your situation carefully before committing.

If you've decided that now is the right time for you, the question is how do you buy a car — a traditionally time-intensive exercise requiring extensive personal interaction — in the age of COVID-19 and social distancing? Luckily, there are a number of online shopping resources that make it easier than ever to research, view inventory, and even initiate a sale from the safety of your own home.

Edmunds' car reviews and best-of lists can help you decide which model to buy, while our robust search and inventory tools can pinpoint where the car you like is located. We'll even help you get in contact with that dealer's internet sales representative, so you can agree on a price without the back-and-forth negotiation that often accompanies an in-person visit. Our appraisal tools help save time during the trade-in process too. While some car-buying steps still require personal interaction, we'll give you some tips to minimize your exposure to others.

Online Car Shopping During Social Distancing.

Online Car Shopping During Social Distancing.

A Quick Guide to Online Car Buying

For a more in-depth look at purchasing a vehicle online, read our article explaining the differences between internet and traditional car buying. But here are the basic steps you'll take to buy a car online:

Select the right car for you: Research vehicles online to find the make, model, and trim level that best suits your needs. You can confirm that you've made the right choice in the test-drive step below.

Find your car in dealer inventory: You can search directly on your local dealer's website or on a site that can show you inventory from multiple dealers, such as Edmunds.

Contact the dealer: Once you've found the exact car you want to purchase, you'll need to contact the dealer to make sure that car is in stock and to begin the purchase process.

Ask about contactless test drives: Some dealers are willing to bring vehicles to local shoppers' homes for test drives. They'll almost certainly have a sanitization protocol in place that includes wearing masks and wiping down the vehicle before your drive, but you should double-check this if the dealer doesn't make it clear. We strongly recommend driving the vehicle before you buy it if at all possible — you'll want to make sure it feels right before you make a big financial commitment.

Fill out the paperwork: Work with the dealer to complete the necessary paperwork. You might have to come into the dealership to finish the process, but many dealers will be able to handle the loan application online.

Take delivery of your car: Some dealers will deliver your new vehicle to your door, so be sure to ask.

How Can Edmunds Help?

The first step in the buying process is deciding what kind of vehicle you want. An easy way to narrow down the choices is to visit Edmunds' Best Cars page, which contains useful articles about our top picks for vehicles across a variety of body styles. From there, you can select from our top-rated vehicles and take a deeper dive into why we think they're the best of the bunch.

Once you decide on a car and trim, you can use Edmunds' inventory tools for new or used to quickly search for a vehicle that matches the one you want from dealers in your area. We'll show you our suggested price, based on market conditions and what others in your area have paid.

On top of helping you decide on a fair price, Edmunds has tools to let you calculate your monthly payment, including taxes and fees, so you can feel more confident about your purchase.

You can also search for vehicles listed in dealer inventory that are eligible for the Edmunds Deal. Starting with what we recommend as a fair price (including currently available incentives), shoppers can build their ideal loan or lease and send this information to a dealer. If the terms are approved, a salesperson will contact you to move forward with the transaction.

These steps can take hours at a dealership, and our tools are designed to save time and add some peace of mind as you seek to limit in-person interaction.

Some Steps May Still Require Some In-Person Interaction

While many aspects of car buying don't require face-to-face interaction, there are a few that require personal contact with another party. Vehicle trade-ins often require a physical inspection and evaluation before an offer is made, though some dealers are adapting to buyer preferences toward online transacting. The "blind trade," as it is informally called, is when the dealership sends a customer an appraisal offer after receiving photos of the interior, exterior, VIN and odometer of the car being traded in. It's worth asking if your local dealership offers this type of trade-in.

The test drive is another story. Unless you already have experience with the vehicle you're shopping for, it's always a good idea to try before you buy. Right now, Tesla is the only automaker that allows buyers to return a new vehicle if they are not satisfied since its car orders are initiated and processed entirely online. So it's imperative that shoppers work with their salesperson to devise a workable solution for test-driving a car safely.

As mentioned above, some dealerships may be willing to bring the vehicle to your home for the test drive, reducing the number of people you interact with. We advise verifying with the dealership that common touch points will be disinfected before the test drive to help reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus. Be sure to pair this approach with standard best practices such as regularly washing your hands for 20 seconds and avoiding touching your face, eyes and mouth.

If you're shopping for a used car, we do recommend an inspection, though opting for a certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicle will allow you to sidestep that. CPO cars cost more on average, but they offer manufacturer warranties and greater peace of mind, and they can cut down your used-car shopping time dramatically since they don't need a separate inspection. Just make sure your vehicle is an authentic CPO vehicle since the term "certified" is often used loosely.

The final step in the buying process is signing the paperwork and taking delivery of the vehicle. Some dealers allow both to be conducted from your home. Submitting paperwork ahead of time reduces the amount of time the salesperson needs to be at your house for final signatures, and an at-home vehicle delivery helps limit time spent at the dealership. Make sure you call and ask what dealer extras, such as an extended warranty, you will be offered at the time of signing, so you can already have a decision, one way or the other, and speed through the sales pitches.

See Edmunds pricing data

Has Your Car's Value Changed?

Used car values are constantly changing. Edmunds lets you track your vehicle's value over time so you can decide when to sell or trade in.

Price history graph example

Final Tips

Just because you want to minimize contact at the dealership doesn't mean that you should rush and make a hasty decision. Be cautious and make sure your vehicle choice is the right one in these times of uncertainty. Even though many manufacturers are offering attractive financing deals or payment deferment in case you lose your job, buying a car at this point can be a little risky.

If you're feeling pressured by an expiring lease, see if it can be extended on a month-to-month basis until things settle down. If your circumstances allow for it, waiting even a little while may give you a better sense of where things are headed down the road.

Other Consumer Resources

How to reduce the risk of coronavirus in your vehicle: These steps can help reduce the spread of the coronavirus in your personal car, a ride-hailing vehicle or public transportation.

Coronavirus car buying advice, resources and incentives: More resources and advice, along with a list of current manufacturer incentives.

Car payment relief during coronavirus: What you need to know if you or someone you know needs relief from car payments due to the crisis.

How to buy a car: Here are all the steps in the buying process, from beginning to end, you can expect when buying a car.

How to negotiate car prices: A few simple tips to potentially save you thousands on a new car purchase.

How long should your car loan be? Even with tempting incentives and deferred payments, is a 72- or 84-month car loan a bad idea?

How to have your new car delivered to your home: It's a low-stress, no-wait way to get your new car and minimize your exposure.