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How to Buy a Used Car: From Online to the Lot


Rose Reid
Rose Reid | Senior Contributor
September 21, 2023
Man inspecting used cars on a car lot with mountains in the distance

The modern way to shop.

Buying a used car has never been easier or more convenient. Thanks to online shopping platforms and dealerships stepping up their in-person offerings, there is now more freedom to choose when, where, and how you buy a new-to-you car.

For first-time buyers, or those making their first solo purchase, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start. In this article, we’ll cover how to start your car shopping journey online first and then transition seamlessly to complete everything at a dealership.

What's the best way to buy a used car?

At CarMax, we're seeing a steady increase in the modern approach to car buying. Our figures from the first quarter in fiscal year 2024 (ending on May 31, 2023) show that online sales accounted for 14% of our retail unit sales, compared with 11% in the first quarter of 2022.

But what about the best of both worlds? More and more shoppers are taking a hybrid approach, using online research to begin, which naturally leads them to the right vehicle and retailer. By approaching car shopping with a hybrid mindset, these people also have access to hands-on and in-person ways to buy and test drive.

Start Online

Researching

The saying that knowledge is power has never been more accurate. The benefits of doing some online research and preparation before buying are clear.

Sure, it's easy to have your head turned by a good-looking coupe, but is it what you need? Ask yourself what you'll be using the car for. It's wise to think ahead and consider any potential lifestyle changes that might happen in the next few years, too.

"Identify your must-have features and whether they are present, rather than a specified trim or model. You may find the features you want in a lower trim for less money." 
Roosevelt Taylor Sales Manager, CarMax

Unless you plan to buy your vehicle outright and have a no-limits spend to play with, it's best to decide early on how to finance a car, and what your overall budget should be. Lots of factors are at play here, including any down payment you're able to make at the time of purchase, as well as your current monthly outgoings.

At this stage let your curiosity take the lead and note down anything that could be useful. The latest tax credit incentives for used electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) might ignite your interest in a used EV, or an article on pet-friendly vehicles might open your eyes to the right car for you and your pup.

Searching online inventory

Once you have an idea of what's right for you, start checking what's out there via online inventory listings. Utilizing filters is key here, as there are thousands of vehicles to view online. It makes sense to start with your non-negotiables. Roosevelt Taylor, a CarMax sales manager with 23 years of experience, says that having these in mind is the secret to easier shopping.

"Identify your must-have features and whether they are present, rather than a specified trim or model," says Taylor. "You may find the features you want in a lower trim for less money."

White Dodge Challenger with Search Suggestion call outs; Price, location, body type, fuel type and mileage.

Some search suggestions include:

  • Location - locally vs. nationally/shipping

  • Body type or year/make/model

  • Fuel type – electric vehicle, gas, hybrid

  • Price

  • Mileage

Use the keyword option to identify vehicles that have the features you've set your heart on. That could be something practical like parking sensors or a luxury, like seat massagers. Look across different model years for better pricing or more standard features. Save your favorites for side-by-side comparisons later on as you begin to whittle down your shortlist.

What to look for in car images and descriptions

There's a lot to consider once you're deep into those inventory listings, so what exactly should you be taking note of?

  • In the descriptions, make note of the vehicle's trim level.

  • Use photos to confirm the small details that can impact your day-to-day enjoyment, such as where the cupholders are or the upholstery color scheme.

  • If you're set on a specific vehicle and the listing offers a 360-degree view, look for any features or details you may have questions about.

  • Check the images against the description and look for unique factory addition features or styling accents.

Once you're happy everything's adding up and you like what you see, it's time to get clinical with the details.

Assess the listing

Dig into the details of a vehicle to narrow down your options and start to make some real decisions. Open a spreadsheet or make notes on your phone, collating the practical facts and figures for each car that's caught your eye. This is where you'll compare the stats on essentials like age, mileage, price, and the contents of its vehicle history report or car title.

"Compare the year and the mileage. The average driver drives around 12-15K miles per year. See if the car that you are looking at fits within that range," says Taylor. Another thing to note is while mileage is important, higher mileage doesn't always equal a bad car. Other factors like vehicle history matter, too.

Once you've identified the one, two, or few you'd seriously consider buying, you can schedule an appointment to see it in person.

Okay, but what if I want to buy completely online?

If you want to limit your time in a dealership, check out different retailers’ pick-up and delivery options. Don’t forget to check out any shipping fees, and factor these into your budget. See if they offer virtual inspections or walkarounds where an associate can confirm details of the car with you.

Take time to understand the return policy (if there is one) and after sale service program, too. And don't be afraid to ask for clarification on any aspect of the vehicle or sale process. You should still expect great customer service when buying online.

At the dealership

Talking to sales consultants

We get it—you want to see it before you buy it. But entering a dealership can cause anxiety for a first-time buyer or solo shopper, and having a conversation with a sales consultant can be even more nerve-wracking—especially if you've never done it before.

According to Taylor, sales consultants want to help more than you think they do. “A sales consultant is here to help you find the right car. So, use them! Have your questions ready. They are eager to help and trained to understand your situation and will ask questions to ensure that they find you the perfect car. Just be open and honest with your situation, needs, and wants." At CarMax, sales associates earn a fixed commission, so their investment in the deal isn't to see you pay a high price on a certain vehicle, it's in your satisfaction with the right car.

Helpful Tips 
Call or make an appointment online 
Bring your notes or reminders
Consider bringing a trusted friend or family member

The best way to beat the nerves? Being extra prepared. Here are some things to keep in mind when heading into the dealership or store:

  • Call ahead or make an appointment online for the dealership. This means you'll get their full attention at your scheduled appointment time.

  • Bring your notes and any reminders you've prepared for yourself, too. Research pricing figures, the online listing, and other features that you want to check out.

  • Consider taking a trusted friend or family member with you for support or to lean on their car buying experience.

Most importantly, don't continue any conversations you're not comfortable or happy with—it's fine to decide to shop elsewhere, or return when another associate can take care of you.

Test drives & viewing in-person

You found a car you like, but now you have to make sure it's right for you. Are there any obvious red flags or warning signs people should be aware of when inspecting a used car in person?

"Lack of transparency is a major red flag," says Taylor. "Any questions that you might have, big or small, should be met in an open, transparent manner."

Two friend kneeling at the fron of a black sedan inspecting the vehicle before taking it on a test drive

Taking your potential dream car for a test drive is one of the highlights of buying at a dealership. Feeding your senses with a vehicle's sights, sounds, and sensory interior finishing will often tell you a lot of what you need to know. But don’t forget to tick off other essentials.

How does it feel when it accelerates? How easy is it to flip the second-row seating? Is the cargo space big enough for your dog's crate? This is truly a test of whether the vehicle will fit your lifestyle.

Negotiating the price

A lot of dealerships expect to negotiate the final sales price with their customer, and in fact, a lot of customers enjoy that part immensely. However, for a lot of people, the back and forth of the negotiation process makes them nervous.

CarMax has a no-haggle policy meaning what you see on the sticker is what you'll pay.

Choose what’s best for you

The used car shopping process has changed dramatically over the past several years. Between buying a car from your couch to 30-day return policies, you have a lot of options. Whichever route you decide to pursue, make sure that it fits your lifestyle, budget, and time commitment.

Rose Reid
Rose Reid | Senior Contributor

Rose Reid writes about the latest transport trends with a keen focus on trucks, SUVs, and the finer details that influence car buying decisions. An experienced travel writer with a fascination for cars, boats, and planes, she believes every journey matters.

* Price excludes taxes, title, registration, and fees. Applicable transfer fees are due in advance of vehicle delivery and are separate from sales transactions.

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