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Click a Button, Buy a Car

How shopping online is changing the way you purchase new wheels

Some sites only provide information, while others allow you to actually click a button to purchase the car, and either have it shipped to a nearby dealership or delivered directly to your door (shipping costs are additional). Much of the content and information comes directly from the automakers, providing a transparency that hasn’t been available at dealer showrooms.

“The dealer will give you facts and details on the car, but is unlikely to detail a vehicle’s shortcomings,” points out Jon Linkov, managing editor, autos, at Consumer Reports.

That doesn’t mean information found online is accurate and trustworthy. Linkov advises taking user forums and blogs with a grain of salt, and using multiple sites to compare your findings.

Armchair shopping

Car buying sites can include listings from franchise dealers, independent dealers and private sellers, typically for both new and used vehicles. Some sites allow you to design a vehicle from the chassis up, with only the features you want. Typically, you input the make and model of car you want and then the site offers several options and trim packages, sometimes with different prices at different dealers. Once you make your selection, you can print out the quote and be assured the dealer will honor it. Some sites, like E-carone, offer financing or the ability to trade in your existing vehicle simply by posting photographs of it.

Shopping from your living room means you don’t have to traipse around town, going lot to lot, explaining yourself over and over. That can be physically and mentally exhausting. Online, you can find out who has what you want, and call them all in an hour or so. “It’s a lot easier to get out of their clutches and make the deal remotely,” says Philip Reed of Edmunds.com.

Still, the push-button approach isn’t for everyone, and not all websites are created equal. You need to be comfortable with navigating sites and following through on each step.

Perhaps what gives some people pause more than the technical hurdle, though, is pressing a “pay now” button for such a pricey purchase. That can feel like too big a risk to some when they haven’t seen, felt and driven their future set of wheels. And the older the buyer, the more important it is to have a test drive, according to Scott Painter, CEO of Zag.com, which runs the online buying programs for member organizations like AAA and sells 10,000 cars a month. (Some auto buying sites will allow you to arrange a test drive at a local dealer with no pressure to buy.)

A car is a big commodity to order over the Internet. Some shoppers still have qualms about conducting a transaction this way, preferring to simply buy from a dealer they’ve come to know. The Internet, after all, is only a tool.

“It doesn’t replace the personal relationships involved in buying an automobile,” says Beau Boeckmann, a 39-year-old dealer who followed his father, Bert, into the business.

Their Los Angeles dealership, Galpin Franchises, has sold to several families over multiple generations. One is the family of Ted Fukuda, a 72-year-old resident of Northridge, Calif., whose parents purchased his first car, a used 1954 Ford Crestline, from Galpin. He traded with Bert for a 1950 Ford Coupe, and then again for a 1962 Falcon Station Wagon, before moving to a variety of pickup trucks. Fukuda’s mother, father, children and siblings have all purchased vehicles from Galpin, and his granddaughter, who just got her license, will likely get her first car there too. “I know I’m getting an honest deal and he treats us like family,” says Fukuda.

More and more, that feels like a quaint sentiment. Even among those old enough who remember what a Ford Crestline looks like.

Julie Halpert, who has covered the car indusry for two decades, lives in Michigan.

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