Buying a Used Car Online

By Emily McDowell

Using the Internet to buy a used car is the latest trend to hit e-commerce. Now, with the click of a mouse you can get quotes on thousands of cars, safety, and performance information, as well as a wide range of financing plans. And instead of wasting your weekend schlepping from one used car lot to the next, you can search at your leisure, from home or the office. But can you really trust these services? And how do they actually work?

Most online used car buying services, such as,,, and serve as the “middleman” between you and car dealerships or private sellers. In other words, these sites don’t sell cars from a single dealership; rather, they have access to countless cars available for sale around the country. When you use one of these sites to search for a car, you can limit your search to within a certain number of miles of your home, or for greater selection, you can expand the geographic search area.

When you buy a car from, it will arrange for free delivery, even if you live in California and the dealership selling you the car is in Missouri. So you get the double benefit of convenience plus the potential savings from a nationwide search. But be warned: a cross-country delivery can take up to 2 months, and you can’t test-drive a car that’s 3,000 miles away.

With most sites, you can search for cars by category (SUV, convertible, etc.), make, and model. Once you’ve decided on a make and model, your next move is to fill out a form listing which year and options you’d like (including accessories and mileage), how large an area to search, and how much you’re willing to spend. Hit a button, submit the inquiry, and you are instantly provided with a list of cars that match your criteria. You can then check out the specifics of each car: price, options, mileage, and where (and by whom) it’s being sold.

Once you’ve been armed with information, the services offered by these e-services vary greatly. Certain sites, such as (owned by Microsoft), forward you the contact information necessary to reach the dealer or individual selling the car you’ve asked about. follows a similar practice but delivers more extensive service. If you go so far as to buy a car using AutoWeb, they will test, certify, and re-warranty the vehicle before shipping it to you; moreover, all of AutoWeb’s cars comes with a 7-day money-back guarantee.

You’ve read all the online information and evaluated the available services, but how can you be assured that you’re not getting a lemon? You can’t. Every site promises that their cars have been thoroughly checked by mechanics, and almost all offer warranties as well. But even if you can trust that the shabbiest cars have been filtered out, you should take the extra steps of test-driving any car you’re considering purchasing and having it checked out by an independent mechanic.

When it comes to buying a used car online, revel in the ease and convenience, but make sure to follow the basic rules that apply to purchasing any used car:

  • Test-drive the car.
  • Interrogate the car’s current owner.
  • Get a warranty.
  • Have the car examined by an independent mechanic.

Follow the rules, and you’ll enjoy the best of both worlds: the ease of clicking through thousands of cars without leaving home, and the assurance of knowing you’ve done the legwork to complete a great deal.