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What to Expect When Buying a Car Solely Online During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Auto dealers emphasize social distancing — and cleanliness — throughout the process

3d rendering of luxury car key with remote control on the computer keyboard

DenisKot/Getty Images

En español | What looked like an intriguing and growing facet of car buying a couple of months ago has become explosively important to both buyers and sellers: remote, online, “contactless” car buying.

You shop from home — that's not new — but then complete the entire transaction without having to go to a dealership for a test-drive, to sign papers or to get financing. All of the details are done online.

The car is delivered to your driveway or curbside. Sign the sanitized papers left inside if you haven't already done it online, snag the sanitized keys left in the car, and you've got a new or new-to-you vehicle.

"A month ago, we — the industry — might have felt we had the luxury of bringing these changes into being slowly. But over the past 30 days, it's become the difference between being able to do business and not do business,” says Alain Nana-Sinkam, vice president of strategic initiatives at the TrueCar car-shopping service.

Quick debut of total at-home purchases

TrueCar recently rolled out a buy-from-home feature that lets you complete an entire auto transaction without having in-person contact with the dealership. That's largely a response to fears of catching COVID-19 but also because some people don't like car dealers.

"If you spend three hours at the dealership, it can feel like you spent a week there,” Nana-Sinkam says. “If you spend two of it online and an hour taking delivery, that's completely different.”


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More than 4,500 of the 16,741 new car dealerships in the U.S. have signed up so far for his company's buy-from-home program and can mention it in their ads, he says. TrueCar has sanitization requirements that a dealership must honor and rules that make purchasing from your easy chair possible. AARP partners with TrueCar for the AARP Auto Buying Program.

What about test-drives? They're still important but perhaps less so in the future, says Jon Gray, owner and president of the Orange Coast Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram Fiat dealership in Costa Mesa, California.

“I don't know that it's as critical as it once was,” he says.

Do your car-buying homework

Ratings from third-party evaluators, such as Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates, can help steer a shopper to brands and models of vehicles that perform like a shopper wants. You can investigate braking, crash-test scores, trouble spots and resale value.

Instead of the traditional wheel time, Gray says, a lot of buyers “want to see what new gadgets are inside to make your driving cooler.” Rather than wanting to know how a car rides and handles, a buyer “may be wondering, ‘Does it have Apple CarPlay?’ or ‘How big is the [infotainment] screen?’ You want to know about the cool stuff inside.”


Use the AARP Auto Buying Program to purchase your next car from the safety of home


"That's becoming more true,” says Chris Sutton, vice president of automotive retail and study at the research firm J.D. Power. Last year, 83 percent of buyers took a test-drive, still an overwhelming percentage. But that was down from 87 percent in 2014.

Gray's dealership was first to sign up with Digital Motors, an automotive retail and financial technology platform, to make online buying simple. And now Gray is an investor in the company. His employees will bring a car to you, along with a product specialist to brief you about features.

If you prefer a hands-on test-drive, you can hang on to the car for perhaps several hours to show the family, make sure everyone likes it, and put in some highway and around-town miles. That way, you can be sure it feels right to you in your customary drives.


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Carvana.com, which sells only used cars, will bring the car to you, too. The company also gives you seven days to decide whether to keep the vehicle or send it back.

If you're outside one of Carvana's 161 market areas, you must pay for delivery and return. If you're inside an area, both services are free. In either case, the whole deal can be handled without getting near another person, Carvana officials say.

Not every dealer will have “touchless” procedures, but more and more are adopting them. AutoNation and Sonic Automotive, among the biggest dealer chains in the U.S., offer home deliveries.

"Online sales and remote deliveries have taken on a vital new importance for many dealers,” the National Automobile Dealers Association recently noted, pointing out that “22 states [are] enforcing restrictions on in-person sales."

How to purchase without seeing a salesperson

In-home deliveries and test-drives could outlive COVID-19. Here's how you, as a buyer, can make it work.

• Decide what you want. Car, truck, van, SUV? That's probably easy to figure out. But how do you want it equipped? That's trickier. Use the automakers’ “build and price” websites. For instance, do a search for “Ford build and price” or for “Honda build and price,” and you should get a web page that lets you dive in.

You're not committing to anything at this point. You're window-shopping. You might be daunted because of the choices and packages of equipment available. That's why it's better to do this online rather than in person. Online you can mull an array of combinations. In person, you're limited to what a dealer has on hand.

• Check expert and verified vehicle owner opinions. How does Consumer Reports rank the vehicle you want? Or J.D. Power?

How about crash safety? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, provides the government's ratings and rankings. The insurance industry delivers its ratings through its trade group, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

To preview how a vehicle drives, look up its info on Cars.com, as well as the websites of Car and Driver, Consumer Reports and Road & Track magazines. You can check the websites of Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book for pricing.

• Preview the price. In addition to Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book, TrueCar can be a source for regional prices — what people in your area actually pay for a vehicle such as the one you want. TrueCar is a shopping site, not a dealership network, but it has more than 4,500 dealers who have agreed to TrueCar's standards for its buy-from-home online buying protocol.

An eight story Carvana vending machine

MARK RALSTON/Getty Images

If you're shopping for a used car, some of Carvana's 161 market areas have the big 32-car vending machines you may have see in ads. Carvana's price is the price — no negotiating.

Carvana has home delivery and pays careful attention to hygiene in order to kill the coronavirus, spokeswoman Amy O'Hara says.

"We wipe down the keys, the paperwork, everything you touch. You can take it for a spin, and we'll even stay on the phone with you. When you're done, leave the paperwork on the seat or in the mailbox — whatever feels safe for you,” she says.

• Shop for a loan. Many car companies are offering zero percent loans through their dealerships. But maybe the vehicle you want isn't in the zero-percent program or you don't have a good enough credit rating.

Or maybe you dislike other conditions of the loan in the fine print. Bankrate.com can give you an idea of other auto loan rates. Dealers often offer to arrange a loan for you, and they usually make a profit on such loans, meaning they're not the best available rates.

Consumer Reports magazine suggests also checking online: “Clearlane [operated by Ally Bank], E-Loan and LendingTree farm out requests to numerous lenders and usually provide you with several competing offers.”

• Contact dealers. Some car-shopping sites have a form to get dealers to contact you. Or you can use the telephone. (Imagine that!)

Be sure to tell them that you don't want personal interaction.

1. You want to fill out all the paperwork online or to have it dropped off in a safe spot, and you'll return it there for dealer pickup.

2. You won't be coming to the dealership or meeting in person with anyone.

3. You want the car delivered. And you want a chance to look it over to be sure it has no damage, has only a few miles on the odometer and has been thoroughly cleaned before you touch it.

Tell the dealer you also will want to test-drive the car before giving a final OK to the deal in writing. If you're especially tall or short, you'll want to make sure the car fits you. If your back is cranky, you'll need to check the seat adjustments to be sure the fit is comfortable.

Expect the dealer to promote an extended warranty or, for a big fee, a maintenance contract that covers the price of the recurring service appointments at the manufacturer's specified intervals. Those sorts of extras are where the dealerships’ main profit is, because selling new cars is very competitive on price.

Your earlier research probably suggested whether you wanted such things or not.

• Feel smug — or at least accomplished. You now are a veteran of what very well could become the new normal of car buying.

TrueCar's Alain Nina-Sinkam says traditional showroom shopping will last beyond the coronavirus epidemic — but that touchless, at-home transactions will grow in appeal.

"Things we had to do in the heat of the moment, we found were good ideas and made sense,” he says.

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