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9 Things You Must Consider Before You Buy or Lease a Car Online

The option to buy or lease a car online has arrived, but consider these points before you sign on the virtual dotted line.

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Online auto shopping is gaining traction

The traditional car buying process deflates even the most enthusiastic buyer. Spending hours walking around a dealers' lot, negotiating with the salesperson, and then reviewing all the facts and figures with the Finance and Insurance (F&I) manager generally takes hours of time and stressful conversation. No wonder that a report by Accenture found that 53 percent of car buyers would consider buying a car online. There are secrets to all auto transactions, of course. But online auto buying rules are still developing. Consider these other pros and cons about online car shopping to determine if you're ready to take the online leap.

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Do your homework

Online car-buying offers some solid advantages over traditional methods such as finding the car you want at a lower price than you might get from a local dealer, said Matt Smith, editor, cargurus.com. The site published a report on the most affordable and expensive cities to purchase a car. So expanding your car search beyond local dealers often makes solid financial sense. But conduct due diligence before you begin to work with a dealership. Consider how long the dealership has been in business. Read online comments and reviews. Search the online archives of the newspapers in their areas for any positive or negative news stories. You should be able to quickly determine if the car dealer is reputable and trustworthy. Find out if it's better to buy your car online or in person.

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Know exactly what you're buying

Zoriy Birenboym, founder of e-AutoLease, says one of the most common mistakes made by online car shoppers is to quickly accept a low price. Yes, everyone wants a bargain, but buyers are sometimes surprised to learn what the dollar didn't buy them, especially when leasing. "Sometimes you pay a bit more but you get much more," he said. "We offer 24/7 concierge service to our customers. Yes, they pay a few dollars more but they receive much more customer service" than they would from other dealerships." These are important red flags to look for in a vehicle history report. 

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Research Blue Book value

Kelley Blue Book, guides by National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), and True Market Value tools by Edmunds are all designed to help you unearth the manufacturer suggested retail price for the car you want. The prices you receive may vary, but that will help you understand high-end and low-end values, say car experts. As noted earlier, it's imperative car buyers understand what service, warranties, and other extras are included in the price of the car. And you should always make sure you understand the total price including taxes and fees such as destination charges. It's easy to overspend if you make decisions based on monthly payments. Here's what happens to cars that don't get sold.

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Check out different financing options

A major mistake many car buyers make is not researching financing options and rates, said Ryan Keeton, co-founder and chief brand officer for the online auto marketplace Carvana. He cited findings by a national survey commissioned by Caravan that found 71 percent of consumers who have ever taken out an auto loan are not aware of the total dollar amount of interest spent on their last loan, and 69 percent do not understand what a one percentage point reduction in their rate would save them. "Similar to the research you do finding the car, invest the same amount of time on finding the right financing, this will save you thousands in the long run," he says.

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Do not make a deal without a written agreement

Birenboym says car buyers and leasers often forget to have details put into writing. Not only will it save you costly misunderstandings, but it can put you in a better position to bargain with other dealerships. "Remember: Your word and the word of another dealership is nothing but a phonetic disturbance to the ears of a competing seller. A disclosure makes an offer official," he says. "When you send a disclosure from one dealership to a competitor, they have the means to understand where that price came from. Even if the numbers you are getting is already at their cost, they can use an official disclosure to get more money from corporate to get you as a customer." Find out the trick to getting a better deal on your trade-in.

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Know your must-have car features

Cars are tools, and you have specific reasons for selecting certain models. If you are buying or leasing a car to transport children to various events you will likely want different features than if you are buying a car for a college student. Write down the must-have features of your new car, such as sliding rear doors or high fuel economy. Then stick to that list when you shop, says Scott Chesrown, chief revenue officer for car marketplace Vroom.

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Dispel the notion that online car buying or leasing is just for the rich

Yes, those that make high six figures and above often buy and lease cars online but so do college students, retirees, and buyers from every other socio-economic group. "Our service is for everybody," said Birenboym. "It's for people who have families and people who are just starting their careers. We have a giant customer base of college students who we helped get approved for auto loans. Our service [and similar services] are for everyone."

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Ask if you can return the car

Auto engineering has become so sophisticated that most drivers find engines are almost uniformly excellent. But some car experts note that tiny differences in individual cars—from engines to seat padding to carpeting—can mar a driving experience for some. Ask for a return policy in writing including what fees may be associated with such a return. Then make sure you avoid these red flags you're about to fall for a bad deal.