How to buy a car without having to leave your house during the coronavirus pandemic

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If you're in the market for a new car, it could be a good time to buy. Some automakers are offering 0% financing for up to seven years and deferred payments to spur sales amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Many of the deals right now are "unprecedented," says Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "We've seen 0% financing on car loans in the past, but it's been a while. And 0% for five, six or seven years — that's a lot." Depending on the price of the car, 0% financing could save you thousands of dollars over the course of your loan.

With a growing number of states issuing stay-at-home orders, now is not the time to leave your house and go car shopping. Your local dealership may even be closed due to government guidelines. But, as with most purchases, buying online is an option.

More and more automakers are making the car-buying process, from start to finish, possible without having to set foot in a dealership. If you're looking to buy online, here's the smartest way to do so.

Set a budget and figure out what you want to buy

Whether you're buying online or not, "you want to be realistic about what your needs are for your next vehicle and what your budget is," Brauer tells CNBC Make It. "The more honest you can be with yourself, the better."

Think about your priorities: Will you be carpooling? Do you have a long commute? Is fuel economy important? What are your must-have features? Is trunk space necessary?

When determining how much you can afford to spend, keep in mind that, almost always, a car will end up costing you more than the sticker price. You want to factor in all of the expenses that come with actually owning a vehicle, including gas, insurance, maintenance and repairs.

After settling on the basic features you need and your budget, start researching cars online. Sites like Kelley Blue Book allow you to search by size, price, fuel efficiency, safety scores and more. "Once you're online researching within the price and needs that you know you have, it should start to be pretty obvious which cars make the most sense for you," says Brauer.

Price compare and look out for deals

Once you're narrowed down your search to a few models, shop for deals, says Brauer. "Especially right now, there are some pretty heavy incentives by car manufacturers," he says. 

General Motors is offering 0% financing for seven years — two years more than recent programs — and deferred payments for four months for those with excellent credit. Ford announced a program that will give customers who buy new cars the option to delay their first payment for 90 days.

Especially right now, there are some pretty heavy incentives by car manufacturers.
Karl Brauer
executive publisher for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book

"You shouldn't switch the kind of car you're interested in simply because of a deal. If you need a minivan, don't buy a sports car because you find a good deal," Brauer emphasizes. But if one automaker is offering better incentives on the same car, or one that's similar to what you're looking for, go with that one.

Once you know exactly what make and model you want, you can start reaching out to dealerships near you via email or over the phone to get a quote. "If your car is available at more than one location, it's never a bad idea to have more than one option," says Brauer. "See what you can get at one dealer and then go to another and compare those prices."

Set up a test drive 

Many dealerships offer virtual tours of their cars online, which allow you to get to know them better than you would by just looking at pictures. Ideally, though, you'll also test drive the car you want. "There are still subtleties, like the seat comfort and the seat design, that you won't be able to tell from just looking at the car online," says Brauer. 

Since most people can't or don't want to leave their homes right now, "a lot of dealers will, for no cost, bring the car to your house and let you test drive it," he says. "They won't get within six feet of you and they will clean the car really well before they leave it, so you can get in the car knowing that they've done their best to reduce the chance of any kind of bacteria or virus being in the car."

You and the dealer will establish ahead of time how long you're going to test it out for. You'll drive it around for the allotted time, say 10 to 30 minutes, and then leave the car outside of your home when you're done.  

"This way, you can actually test drive the car without going to the dealership or even going near any other people," Brauer says. "Now you have that much more confidence in whether or not the car is the right one for you."  

Negotiate the price

When you're ready to buy, you'll want to know what other shoppers in your area are paying for the same model in order to get the best price. You can use tools such as Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds' True Market Value pricing to get a fair idea of where the market is.

Once you have the market value range in mind, reach out to dealerships that have the car you're interested in and offer the price you want. "As long as you are clear about the price you want to pay, it doesn't really matter how you communicate: You could email them, you could text them, you could call them," says Brauer. Your conversation can be as simple as: "I know the market value on this car is $28,700. I'm talking to a few dealers. I'm willing to pay $27,000," he explains. 

Make sure you fully understand the financing terms. While many dealerships are offering incentives right now in terms of interest rates, "you should compare the dealers' financing options to your own credit union or bank," Brauer says. "That way, you can make sure you're getting as good of a deal as you can get between the two options."

When it comes to actually buying the car, much of the transaction, if not all of it, can be done online. You can apply for financing online and even go through the trade-in process online, if you're trading in your old car. 

You still might have to physically sign some paperwork depending on the state laws, but the car can be delivered straight to your home. If there's paperwork to be addressed, you can complete it at home when the dealer drops off your car.

You may not owe any money upfront, says Brauer: "A lot of these deals are 0% financing and no payments for anywhere from 30 to 120 days, so you could end up owing no money on the day that you buy the car or for months afterwards." If you're putting any money down, you can also do that online with a credit card.

Shifting to online auto sales post-coronavirus pandemic

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, "there have been increasing capabilities to do digital online car purchasing for years," says Brauer. "But like so many crisis situations, this is accelerating a trend that was already in movement. We've gone from having a small number of dealers that were adapting and embracing this capability to a much wider range of dealers who know it's their only option right now, so they're happily jumping on board with this trend."

He thinks the trend will stick: "What the dealers were realizing initially, even before this happened, is that, especially when you get to certain age groups, they buy everything online: They bought their computers through Apple online, their shoes through Zappos online and all their food through Amazon Fresh. This idea that you have to leave your house and go physically to a location to buy something is not seen as normal at all. It's seen as this inconvenient process to certain demographics."

Now, with going to a dealership not even being an option for most people, "it's really bringing home the reality of the advantages of being able to do everything through a digital process." 

Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

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