BBB Tip: Buying a Car Online

Milwaukee, Wis. – What comes to mind when you think about purchasing a car? For many, it’s driving from dealer to dealer in search the right car. Then, when you find the car you want, you must spend hours in an office haggling for the best price, while trying to understand the financing and payment terms. Given the stress often involved in buying a car, many dealers are figuring out ways to simplify the process by moving it online.

Why Buy a Car Online?

One main perk of purchasing a car online is that there is less emotion involved.  It’s easier to stay detached when chatting with someone remotely. This helps you make a clear-headed purchase. Also, any discussion you have about pricing or financing generally comes through email. This means you have everything in writing, and you can thoroughly review the terms without a salesperson nearby. You can make a decision on your own time – even if that means after normal business hours.

How to Buy a Car Online

If you are considering buying a car online, BBB recommends the following tips to help you avoid getting scammed and get the best deal possible:

Set a budget. Before you set out to find the perfect car, it is important to establish a budget. You will also want to factor in monthly expenses that come with owning a car, including insurance payments, fuel, parking, and routine maintenance and repairs. A clearly defined budget will make choosing a vehicle, negotiating with a dealer, and getting a loan much easier.

Do thorough research. Assess your personal needs first. Do you need a large vehicle for a big family? Do you spend a lot of time on the road and want good fuel economy? The answers to these questions will help you narrow down the makes and models as you search for a vehicle that fits your needs. Once you have narrowed your search, compare models you are interested in keeping a close eye on safety ratings, owner reviews, and warranties. Visit manufacturer websites to see detailed images of each car and research MPG statistics, interior options, cargo space, towing capacity, and more. The more time you spend on these initial steps, the more comfortable you will feel when it is time to make a purchase.

Shop for a deal. While you are still doing research, don’t forget to look for deals! These may include cash-back deals, rebates, low-interest financing options, or incentives for recent graduates, military veterans, Uber and Lyft drivers, or first responders. In addition, many dealers are willing to make price cuts on previous year models or any model that did not sell as well as expected. Purchasing one of these surplus vehicles can mean extra incentives from the dealer. 

Prequalify for a loan. Prequalifying for a loan gives you a few advantages when approaching a dealer to make a purchase. First, you can set a reasonable price range that fits your budget. Second, when approaching a dealer with a pre-approved loan, you give them a price limit that they will have to meet to make a sale, which can save you money. Of course, most car dealers offer their own in-house financing for consumers, but you can often get lower interest rates on loans from your bank or credit union.

Search dealers for inventory. Now that you have a specific make and model in mind and a pre-approved loan in hand, you’re ready to start shopping. You can do a search for the specific car, or you can browse a dealer’s inventory online to see what they have on hand. You can include out-of-town dealers, but they will likely charge higher fees for delivery. It is a good idea to start with a local search and expand it if you don’t find what you are looking for.

Take advantage of online showrooms to get a close look at the vehicle. Many online dealers feature dozens of photos from a variety of angles, so you can give each car a close inspection from the comfort of your own home. Compare the offerings of multiple dealers and check each dealer’s business ratings on before you reach out to them.

Speak with internet sales managers. When you find an upstanding dealer with car in which you are interested, it is time to get in touch with an internet sales manager. During your initial conversations, focus on what car you want, whether they have it or can get it, and how much they will sell it for. Give the sales manager the general price range that fits your budget. If things go smoothly and you feel good about purchasing with this dealer, you can arrange a test drive with the sales manager or move forward towards making the purchase. If you are considering purchasing a certified pre-owned vehicle, now is the time to ask for a copy of the vehicle history report.

Test drive the vehicle. You should always take a test drive before you sign the final paperwork. There is no substitute for seeing a car in person, looking under the hood, sitting in the driver’s seat, and making sure the engine runs smoothly. To do so, you may need to travel to the dealer’s place of business. Some dealers offer the ability to test drive upon delivery and if anything isn’t as expected you may cancel the sale. Take the route that works best for you, but never skip the test drive.

Complete the sale at the dealer or upon delivery. If everything checks out, decide how you will complete the sale. It is still usually necessary to sign the final paperwork in person. If you would rather avoid visiting the dealership, ask about delivery. Some dealers will drop off the car at your home or place of business and allow you to sign upon delivery.

Avoid Online Car Sales Scams

There are plenty of pros to buying a car online, but caution is needed as well. Anytime you shop online, and especially when making an expensive purchase like a car, you should keep the following tips in mind:

  • Watch out for too good to be true deals. They are most likely a scam. Scammers often steal consumers’ personal information and money by offering them high-value goods at extremely discounted prices.
  • Never wire funds or complete bank-to-bank transactions. Scammers love this kind of transaction because there is no way for you to get your money back once it is completed. Instead, make legitimate purchases by check or credit-card.
  • Contact the seller by phone. At some point during your negotiations, speak with the sales manager on the phone. If they are unusually vague about certain details of the sale or cannot confirm their location or the vehicle location, it’s most likely a scam.
  • See the car first. Never buy a car without making an in-person inspection and taking test drive first.
  • Don’t give in to pressure. Scammers often try to pressure you into giving up your personal information or making a down payment before you have time to think about the purchase. Take your time and think a deal over before agreeing to anything. If you get a bad feeling, listen to your gut.
  • Don’t trust a seller or buyer who says that the transaction is guaranteed by eBay, PayPal, Craigslist, or another online marketplace. These sites explicitly explain they cannot guarantee that people using their services are legitimate. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

For More Information

To learn more, see the BBB tips on buying a new car and buying a used car. You can also look up car dealerships at to check their business rating and read customer reviews.

Find new car dealers near you and used car dealers near you

Read BBB’s Standards for Trust.For more information or further inquiries, contact the Wisconsin BBB at, 414-847-6000 or 1-800-273-1002. Consumers also can find more information about how to protect themselves from scams by following the Wisconsin BBB on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.  ABOUT BBB: For more than 100 years, the Better Business Bureau has been helping people find businesses, brands and charities they can trust. In 2019, people turned to BBB more than 183 million times for BBB Business Profiles on more than 5.8 million businesses and Charity Reports on 11,000 charities, all available for free at There are local, independent BBBs across the United States, Canada and Mexico, including BBB Serving Wisconsin which was founded in 1939 and serves the state of Wisconsin.