While we are increasingly comfortable buying consumer goods directly from online businesses, buying a car might seem like a stretch. If you are looking for a new, or new-to-you car, there may be a lot to consider, but taking the process in smaller pieces can set you up to get what you want.

Good General Car Buying Advice

No matter how you approach car buying, the same basic principles apply. Your first step is a rational needs assessment. Who doesn’t love the sportier model? But toddler car seats are notoriously hard to install in them. Armed with an idea of how many people or things you usually transport, you can look for the vehicle that might best meet your needs. Manufacturer’s websites can be a good place to investigate vehicle specs and to see what is standard or optional. Opening browser windows side by side can make comparisons even easier.

While you are still online, consider looking at the Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds sites to see what cars tend to retain good value. Once you see the suggested prices from the manufacturers and the suggested values from the used car pricing manuals, you are in a better position to decide what you would be willing to pay for a new car. As always, your budget will make a lot more sense if you avoid the classic sales pitch of, “What do you want your monthly payment to be?”

Your monthly car payment is only part of your overall budget consideration. Using your InTouch Auto Loan calculators, you can take into account the overall loan amount, options for term, the interest rates, and even whether incentives such as cash back are actually a good deal.

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This overview provides just the basics of each program. InTouch has mortgage loan officers that can help you find the program that best meets your needs.

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Be Prepared with a Preapproved Auto Loan

Whether you choose a new or used car, having a pre-approved loan in hand before you shop makes the process easier, and your bargaining position stronger. With a pre-approved loan, and the calculations you have already done to assess loan term, interest rates, etc., you will be able to consider vehicle prices more objectively.

Check out InTouch Credit Union’s Auto Loans page to get your application started. And remember that you are entitled to a free annual report of your credit score from the three major credit reporting agencies. Double-check that their information is accurate, because the better your score, the more likely you are to get the best rate available.

If you are switching from a current car to a new one, you have a few options for your old car. A traditional dealership may offer you a trade-in value for your car, but that doesn’t have to be your only option. In addition to the Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds sites, going to a national used car dealership, like CarMax, will get you an estimate of your car’s resale value.

At that point, you will have some good information about whether you would like to try to trade in or sell it yourself. These days, many brick and mortar dealerships have online sales departments. Those online departments may be willing to work with you to take a trade-in when you buy through them. Each one has its own policy, though, so be sure to double-check--even if the dealership has a regular sales location, they may not include trade-ins with online sales.

Online Auto Buying: Things to Consider

If you decide that you really want to try the online auto buying experience, there are a handful of things to be aware of. If you are buying a new car, a dealership must be involved, even if it is an online purchase. That’s just the American way. If, however, you are buying a used car, there are no specific restrictions on dealership involvement. One quirk of online car buying is that the prices are often fixed. You will want to be fairly careful about knowing the price you want to pay for your chosen car, in the condition you want.

There are a handful of options for choosing a car, as well. You could use new online options such as Carvana, Vroom, and Shift or work through a car concierge service that takes a specified fee for searching out the car of your choice from a broad base of sources. You could also work with the car buying arm of a club-based organization, such as Costco.

However, there are a couple wrinkles to be aware of with online car buying sites. First, not all of the online auto sales companies offer test drives. If the company you are thinking of working with does not, you might consider renting the car from a rental agency for a day or two to see how you like it.

Second, with online car buying sites you may be limited to in-house lender financing or a limited number of outside lenders. Lastly, whether you pick up your vehicle or have it delivered, be sure that you know the process for inspecting it thoroughly and carefully—and take the time to do so—before you sign off on the final delivery.

It is hard to find an entire day to spend at a car dealership getting through all of the hurdles of buying a car, even if one enjoys haggling over prices and options. But if you don’t have the time or desire to go through the lengthy dealer visits and in-person negotiations, an online auto purchase may be an option worth investigating. If you do your auto-buying homework, you could find the deal on the wheels you were waiting for with less stress and time on the road.