Safe ways to car shop during the pandemic

How to use online resources to purchase a vehicle while sheltering in place.

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With the country effectively shut down and the economy upended by the coronavirus pandemic, buying a car is likely a low priority. But people still need transportation. And for those shoppers stable enough to take on a purchase, automakers have loosened loan and payment terms to encourage them to buy.

If you’ve decided that now is the right time for you, the question is how do you buy a car — a traditionally time-intensive exercise requiring extensive personal interaction — while maximizing your safety and obeying governmental business restrictions? Luckily, a number of online shopping resources make it easier than ever to research, view inventory, and even initiate a sale from the safety of your own home.

Keep in mind that these suggestions may not be applicable to you depending on where you’re shopping since some dealership sales departments are closed due to state or local shelter-in-place commands.

Research and browse inventory at home

The first step to buying a vehicle online is finding which car is right for you. Research vehicles and read reviews to help narrow down the make, model and trim level that best suits your needs. Once you’ve selected your ideal car, hop online to search the local inventory. You can go directly to your local dealer’s website or to a site that can show you the inventory from multiple dealers.

Next, contact the dealership on the phone or through the internet to make sure the exact vehicle you’re considering is still in stock. From there, you’ll need to decide if you want to do a test drive of the vehicle, negotiate a sales price, and make arrangements for the paperwork and delivery.

NerdWallet450px.jpg is a personal finance website and app.

And while only franchised dealerships sell certified pre-owned cars backed by the manufacturer, virtual dealers’ vehicles are similar in that they’ve had a full mechanical inspection and come with a warranty. Online sellers also offer additional benefits such as a return policy and, in some cases, a test drive at your home.

What about your trade-in?

While many aspects of car buying don’t require face-to-face interaction, there are a few that require personal contact with another party. Vehicle trade-ins often require a physical inspection and evaluation before an offer is made, though some dealers are adapting to buyer preferences toward online transacting.

A “blind trade,” as it is informally called, is when the dealership sends a customer an appraisal offer after receiving photos of the interior, exterior, vehicle identification number and odometer of the car being traded in. It’s worth asking if your local dealership offers this type of trade-in.

Taking a test drive

The test drive is another story. Unless you already have experience with the vehicle you’re shopping for, it’s always a good idea to try before you buy. Right now, Tesla is the only automaker that allows buyers to return a new vehicle if they are not satisfied since its car orders are initiated and processed entirely online.

It is therefore imperative that shoppers work with their salesperson to devise a workable solution for test-driving a car safely. Some dealerships may be willing to bring the vehicle to your home for the test drive, reducing the number of people you interact with. We further encourage shoppers to request that common touch points are disinfected before a test drive.

Used cars and inspections

In this tough economic time, many buyers might want a used car instead. We normally recommend an inspection from an independent mechanic, but if you’re looking to minimize contact with others, we have a workaround. Opting for a certified pre-owned vehicle (CPO) will allow you to skip that step since these vehicles have already undergone a multi-point inspection.

CPO cars usually cost more, but buying one gets you an extended manufacturer warranty, greater peace of mind and the potential for saved time in the shopping process. Just make sure your vehicle is an authentic certified pre-owned vehicle sold from the same brand since the term “certified” is often used loosely.

Completing the deal

The final step in the buying process is signing the paperwork and taking delivery of the vehicle. Some dealers allow both to be conducted from your home. If not, ask if the dealer can arrange overnight delivery of the paperwork to you. Submitting paperwork ahead reduces the amount of time the salesperson needs to be at your house for final signatures, and an at-home vehicle delivery helps limit time spent at the dealership.

Also ask your salesperson which dealer extras, such as an extended warranty, you will be offered at the time of signing. This way you can have a decision in mind about any extras and speed through the sales pitches.

Be cautious and make sure your vehicle choice is the right one in these times of uncertainty. If you’re feeling pressured by an expiring lease, see if it can be extended on a month-to-month basis until things settle down. If your circumstances allow for it, waiting even a little while may give you a better sense of where things are headed down the road.

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